How to Fight Binge Drinking
Why the Plan Suggested by the 'Harvard Study' Falls Short
The findings of the 1993 so-called "Harvard study" on national campus drinking trends quantified what college and university officials had suspected for some time: 44 percent of their students binge drink, or consume five drinks (four for women) in a single occasion at least once every two weeks.
At the time of its publication, the study shifted the national media's focus to drinking and garnered attention for the study's coordinator, School of Public Health Lecturer Henry Wechsler. What concerns Wechsler--as well as many college officials--is that heavy drinking has been associated with health problems, car crashes, unsafe sex and aggressive behavior among college students. It was alcohol-induced "aggressive behavior" on our campus, for example, that influenced a senior linebacker on the football team to pummel a visiting high school recruit last year.
The recruit, who suffered a blowout fracture to his left eye, withdrew his application to Harvard. (Harvard was not included in Wechsler's study.) The D.U., where the fight took place, closed down this fall partly in response to the incident.
Understandably, Wechsler is concerned about incidents like the one at the D.U., where students' behavior is adversely affected by drinking.
"Binge drinking is arguably the No. 1 public health hazard and the primary source of preventable morbidity and mortality for the more than 6 million full-time college students in America," writes Wechsler in a July 1995 article in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). The difficulty for college officials, who must be careful not to give the appearance of condoning violations of the law, is to enact realistic policies. For many schools, it means encouraging abstinence for students under 21, many of whom drink regardless of legal restrictions.
Recogniz the difficulties involved in enforcing abstinence among the 44 percent of the student population that binge drink and the many more college-aged drinkers who consume alcohol but are not technically "binge drinkers," Wechsler has tried to draw attention to the behavior of heavy drinkers.
Drawing parallels with the successful anti-smoking campaign, Wechsler advocates framing the consequences of drinking in terms of what he calls "secondhand binge effects." It is Wechsler's hope that students adversely affected by their friends' drinking will realize the harmful effects of alcohol and change their own behavior, if not their friends' as well.
Wechsler's behavioral approach has certain key advantages for administrators seeking to enact policy because it undercuts the difficulties faced by colleges trying to reach underage students involved in drinking who may not respond to a message stressing only abstinence. In his December 1994 AJPH article, Wechsler concludes that colleges who hope to reduce binge drinking on their campus "should focus on frequent binge drinkers, refer them to treatment or educational programs and emphasize the harm they cause for students who are not binge drinkers."
While Wechsler offers an innovative solution to a long-standing problem that college administrators would be wise to consider, it has two important flaws for implementation on college campuses. First, the battle against "second-hand binge effects" presumably encourages students to realize the effects that their roommates, friends' or lab partners' drinking have on their own college career. By identifying the hazards caused by drinking on peer groups, Wechsler hopes to mobilize students to drink more moderately or not to drink at all.
Moderation, however, is not easily defined. It cannot be defined in terms of action or behavior on the part of the drinker, as Wechsler advocates, because the students who are adversely affected by drunkards perceive the extent of the harm in different ways. For example, a student who has never encountered drinking before may be more appalled at having to clean up after his roommate than a student who looked after her siblings when they drank during high school. Since students come from different backgrounds, it is logical that there exists a gap in student's perceptions of the degree to which thinking creates problems, even when they are personally involved.
The second problem with Wechsler's theory involves is the difficulty students have associating their own behavior with the hazards of heavy drinking. Even when those hazards are publicized through a college's punishment of a drunkard, as Wechsler suggests, students will not be quick to change their own drinking habits. Although danger and harmful effects like the fight at the D.U. are easier to define universally, students--particularly drinkers--will not be easily convinced by Wechsler's approach unless the tragedy personally involves them.
According to cognitive psychology's attribution theory, individuals tend to attribute negative actions to the environment rather than to the people who have been harmed or to the use of alcohol. In other words, students are less likely to be affected by Wechsler's approach because of their tendency to remove themselves from the effects of heavy drinking by placing the responsibility on the environment--on the way "things are." In that way, students remove the harmful event from their personal understanding.
As a result, Wechsler's "secondhand binge effects" theory may not be as universally successful as it first appears. Wechsler's approach only emphasizes teaching students about the harmful effects of heavy drinking: it does not actually focus on affecting whether students feel the moral burden of those lessons.
In designing policy to combat alcohol abuse, Hobart and William Smith sociologist H. Wesley Perkins has found that students' perceptions of their environment plays a critical role in how they choose to approach drinking.
While Perkins agrees with Wechsler that attention must be paid to the social influences affecting students, he has discovered that students grossly misperceive the amount that an average student should drink. That is, students assume that normal drinking levels are higher than what each individual would prefer. So the definition of moderate drinking does not only vary in regard to particular students' relationship with drinking, but individual students hold inaccurate assumptions about moderating their own behavior.
"Research has demonstrated that students' perception of peer drug use norms may be substantially incorrect and that students may be negatively influenced by exaggerated perceptions beyond any influence of the actual peer norms," Perkins writes in his 1991 paper titled "Misperceptions of Peer Drug Use Norms Among College Students: Causes, Consequences and Potential Resolutions."
The approach advocated by Perkins, who has worked with Wechsler, criticizes the Harvard lecturer's model for overlooking part of the difficulty in simply emphasizing the harmful behavior of drunkards. Although Wechsler's behavior-based approach correctly focuses attention on the behavioral aspects of heavy drinking, it does not fully consider the "picture of peer influence through the eyes of the perceiver."
Wechsler seeks to make an example of drunkards who cause problems for their classmates, while Perkins' theory suggests that the high level of visibility given to problem-makers may distort students' misperceptions. Again referring to attribution theory, which Perkins cites as part of his theses, we have a limited perception of events around us. Despite this limited perception, like the two students who based their understanding of drinking on their past experiences, we are forced to make judgments--in this case to form a definition of moderate drinking.
At college parties where there is a heavy amount of drinking, each person will tend to attribute their peers' drinking to the environment, rather to the situation of the individual drinker. In other words, while normally a student drinks two shots of whiskey in an environment where it is perceived that others drink more, the student might drink to a level higher than otherwise intended. For heavy drinkers, the perception of this environment allows them to self-justify their drinking habits and perhaps exacerbate the problems associated with their drinking.
In a 1986 article in the International Journal of the Addiction, Perkins cites a study he conducted with psychologist Alan D. Berkowitz, also from Hobart and William Smith, which found that the gap of perception between "personal attitudes" and the "perceived norm" is substantial. In that study, Perkins and Berkowitz conclude: "Virtually no direct association between drinking behavior and perceived norms was found."
Wechsler assumes that students will be persuaded by the "second hand binge effects," but his approach neglects to set a definition or a norm at which students are bothered by drinkers. Wechsler's approach, therefore, seems to miss the most fundamental aspect of teaching students the affects of drinking: what the students themselves actually perceive about drinking.
Wechsler contends that the battle against smoking and the campaign against drunk driving have both overcome the vague definition of moderation. The success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in curbing deaths has been substantial, but MADD was able to overcome the challenges created by misattribution by focusing their campaign on a particularly harmful action and emphasizing the effects drunk driving has had on mother-child relationships. Wechsler's "second hand binge effects," approach has not displayed that kind of specificity or rigor necessary to combat the difficulties posed by the effects of attribution theory on the perceptions and attitudes of drinkers.
Despite policies of increased enforcement that have occurred this fall at several colleges (most notably the University of Rhode Island), severity on the part of officials in dealing with drinking may temporarily curb the amount of drinking but cannot ensure that students' approach to drinking will change. Colleges persuaded to follow Wechsler's approach may quickly find that their student bodies' diversity is a detriment when trying to encourage both the "Animal House" crowd and the premed study group to speak out against their classmates' drinking habits.
Perkins' is the most viable solution. Making students aware of the "myths and misperceptions" of drinking on their campus enables them to make accurate decisions about how much they actually feel it is right to drink. That does not mean that students will not continue to get drunk, but at least those that continue to drink heavily may begin to realize that they make a conscious choice to do so and that this choice is not as accepted on campuses as they once thought. Wechsler's emphasis on "second hand binge effects" can affect change when students begin to have informed perceptions of their own actions and the actions of their peers. It is only when students are able to connect the drinker's actions with their own feelings that Wechsler's can work.
Instead of simply making an example of drunkards and hoping students will persuade each other to drink responsibly, colleges should aim to make students more aware of their environment, teach proper decision making techniques and cultivate cognitive processes that will play a role in