College Drinking Culture In Spain, Argentina, And The USA: An Examination Of Impulsivity, College Alcohol Beliefs, And Alcohol Outcomes

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Across many countries and cultures, college students drink heavily. Students who drink heavily are at risk for a wide range of problems ranging from a hangover to unsafe and unplanned sex, and from poor academic performance to developing an alcohol-use disorder. Decades of research has found college student drinking culture to be a barrier towards effective prevention efforts.

John Belushi illustrates, all too well, bottle madness in 1978 gross-out movie “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” (EVERETT COLLECTION)

Recent research has also shown that the internalization of college student drinking culture, or beliefs about how important alcohol use is to the college experience, may explain why personality traits like impulsivity and sensation-seeking put students at risk of having alcohol problems. Unfortunately, previous studies were cross-sectional and conducted only in the United States, so we cannot assume cause-and-effect and we do not know if these beliefs about alcohol use in college are specific to the United States or more universal.

Using longitudinal data collected in the United States, Spain, and Argentina, we wanted to see if these college-related alcohol beliefs could help explain (i.e., mediate) why impulsivity-related personality traits are related to having alcohol problems. Also, we wanted to know if these beliefs were more or less important in these different cultures.

How was this study conducted?

The present study was part of a larger project examining young adult drinking habits and outcomes among college students in the U.S., Spain, and Argentina. Participants completed an online survey about personality traits, college alcohol beliefs, and alcohol use behaviors. A sample of 1429 past month drinkers completed the baseline survey, and 242 of them completed the follow-up survey about three months later. We tested a cross-sectional and a longitudinal model to answer a few different questions. First, do impulsive people drink more and have more problems with alcohol because they believe alcohol is an important part of the college experience? Second, is this true in different countries that have very different attitudes and beliefs about alcohol?

What did this study find?

First, consistent with previous research, we found internalization of college student drinking culture predicted more alcohol use and problems among college students. Second, we found these beliefs to be a plausible mediator of the effects of multiple impulsivity-related traits on alcohol use and problems. Third, we found that these relationships were consistent across gender and the different cultures (i.e., United States, Spain, and Argentina).

Why is this study important?

Perceptions about alcohol’s role in the college experience have been spread through various media including television and movies. This study adds to the growing literature showing college alcohol beliefs are linked to harmful alcohol outcomes.

Our findings suggest that more impulsive people may benefit from early intervention to prevent these beliefs from developing even before the student begins college. The fact that our findings were remarkably similar across countries suggest that the problems of a college drinking culture are not unique to the United States. As such, preventive interventions are warranted even in countries with “wet” cultures, where drinking is more widely accepted and integrated into other aspects of daily life.

Next steps for intervention

Our findings suggest that tackling these college alcohol beliefs may be a valuable and effective intervention to reduce alcohol problems among college students. For example, a discussion of these beliefs could be incorporated into an individual-based intervention such that some of the perceived benefits and problems with a view on college life that over-values heavy drinking could be discussed in the context of a student’s goals, desires, and current concerns.

In summary, efforts to address widely held beliefs about the role of alcohol in college life may help to prevent alcohol-related harms in the U.S. and around the world. Such efforts may also help to shift broader perceptions about the college experience away from drinking, and instead toward the many other rewarding and meaningful activities that students can experience during their college years.

These findings are described in the article entitled Impulsivity-related traits, college alcohol beliefs, and alcohol outcomes: Examination of a prospective multiple mediation model among college students in Spain, Argentina, and USA, recently published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. This work was conducted by Adrian J. Bravo and Matthew R. Pearson from the University of New Mexico, Angelina Pilatti from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Jennifer P. Read from the University at Buffalo, and Laura Mezquita, Manuel I. Ibáñez, and Generós Ortet from the Universitat Jaume I.

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