College Students Overestimate Peers' Drinking

These misperceptions boost on-campus alcohol abuse, study finds

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 28, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- More than 70 percent of U.S. college students overestimate the amount of alcohol that their peers drink.

And this kind of misperception has a strong effect on personal alcohol consumption and associated problems, according to a study of more than 76,000 students at 130 colleges and universities.

For example, at schools where non-drinking was the norm, only 21 percent of students accurately perceived that the typical student at their school did not drink, while 60 percent believed it was common for their peers to consume three or more drinks at a social event or party.

The study also found that at schools where four-drinks-per-party was the norm, 37 percent of students overestimated that norm by another one or two drinks, and another 34 percent overestimated the norm by three or more drinks.

Even at the school with the highest norm, 61 percent of the students overestimated the norm, the study found.

The study also found that a student's perception of his or her campus drinking norm was the strongest predictor -- stronger than gender or the actual drinking norm -- of the student's personal alcohol consumption. Each one-drink increase in student perception of the campus drinking norm correlated with a half-drink increase in personal alcohol consumption.

In comparison, a one-drink increase in the actual school norm predicted just a one-third increase in a student's personal alcohol consumption, the study said.

The researchers also concluded that the odds of students engaging in risky alcohol consumption or experiencing negative consequences (unprotected sex, fighting, physical injury) were much higher at schools without prevention programs designed to combat student misperceptions about campus drinking norms.

School prevention programs that fight these misperceptions have "been used successfully on numerous campuses to dispel the harmful misperception students have that the majority of their peers drink to excess," co-author Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center, said in a prepared statement.

The findings appear in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more about college drinking.

SOURCE: Journal of Studies on Alcohol, news release, Sept. 14, 2005
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