Perceptions Of Alcohol Use Affect Drinking Habits Among College Students

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The current study advances our understanding of the impact of one’s personal attitudes (evaluative judgments of various aspects of a person’s life and experience) on drinking behavior in several ways. Importantly, attitudes are a key element of many health behavior models and the current study is the first to show the importance of assessing distinct attitudes concerning alcohol use.

Specifically, the results showed that an individual’s favorable personal attitude of heavy alcohol use (drinking 4+/5+ drinks for women/men in one sitting) was significantly associated with greater amounts of alcohol use, binge drinking, and the experience of alcohol-related problems over a month. Conversely, an individual’s favorable attitude of moderate alcohol use (drinking less than 4/5 drinks for woman/men in one sitting) was significantly associated with lower amounts of alcohol use, binge drinking, and alcohol-related problems experienced over a month.

Furthermore, when compared with one of the most well-known predictors of alcohol use, perceptions of other people’s drinking behavior (i.e., descriptive and injunctive norms), one’s favorable attitude toward heavy drinking emerged as having the strongest association with of drinks per week, binge frequency, and alcohol-related problems.

Why are these findings significant?

These findings are significant as they represent an important step forward in documenting personally-relevant cognitive factors that are associated with college student alcohol use. Briefly, college is a time when late adolescents explore their relationship with alcohol and other drugs, and campuses deal with the effects of this youthful exploration.

Although more than half of students attending college are under the minimum legal drinking age of 21 (American College Health Association, 2012), 81% report lifetime alcohol use  (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, Schulenberg, & Miech, 2016). Furthermore, over 1/3 of college students report heavy episodic drinking (4+/5+ drinks in a single sitting for females/males) at least once in the past 2 weeks, and one out of five male students has consumed 10 or more (Johnson et al., 2016).

This type of high-quantity drinking is accompanied by substantial negative consequences for both drinking and non-drinking students, with annual rates of 646,000 physical assaults, 97,000 sexual assaults, 599,000 unintentional injuries, and even 1,825 deaths (Hingson et al., 2009). Thus, continued documentation of personally-relevant cognitive factors, like personal attitudes, associated with heavy alcohol use allows us to (a) understand why students engage in the behavior, and (b) develop prevention and intervention programs designed to reduce drinking and its associated problems.

How was this study conducted?

This study represents secondary data analyses from a larger longitudinal study aimed to examine the efficacy of a brief alcohol intervention among students who had violated their campus alcohol use policy. Participants included 568 students enrolled in a public university in the northeastern U.S. who were mandated to participate in an alcohol education program following an alcohol-related violation.

Eligible students viewed a brief presentation outlining their options for satisfying the sanction: (a) pay a fee and participate in the standard sanction (a brief individualized alcohol intervention) (b) participate in this study (a brief individualized alcohol intervention with additional data collection 1-month later). Completion of study activities through the 1-month follow-up was considered equivalent to the standard sanction and therefore served to satisfy the sanction requirement.

The results described in this commentary can be found in the article entitled The Relative Strength of Attitudes versus Perceived Drinking Norms as Predictors of Alcohol Use, recently published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. This study was written by lead author Angelo M. DiBello of Brown University and his colleagues Mary Beth Miller from the University of Missouri School of Medicine, Clayton Neighbors from the University of Houston, Allecia Reid from Colby College, and Kate Carey from Brown University.

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