October 16, 2011

Most Cornellians Drink Moderately or Not at All

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Most college students drink moderately or not at all. Tell people that and they are apt to look at you as if you are naïve or simply out of your mind. Yet, there it is on Cornell’s website:Most students, including Cornellians, tend to drink moderately or not at all. Based on 2009 data, 77 percent of students report consuming, on average, four or fewer drinks when socializing in a setting with alcohol.The 2011 Cornell Pulse Survey, likewise, finds that 27 percent of students do not drink and that 50 percent consume one to four beverages when they do drink. It is also helpful to realize that those four or fewer drinks usually are consumed over several hours rather than gulped in a short period of time. Moreover, there are dozens of studies showing that most college students believe in moderation but misperceive their fellow students as supporting heavy drinking. Social scientists even have a name for this phenomenon. They call it “pluralistic ignorance” and recognize that it is very difficult to overcome because, when confronted with evidence to the contrary, people insist that they are correct.There are a variety of reasons why students, college administrators, faculty, parents and legislators misperceive how much college students drink. The image of heavily drinking college students is deeply embedded in American culture. Movies depict students as drinking heavily, and the news media widely broadcast tragic student deaths associated with alcohol. Alumni recount stories of remembered, alcohol-fueled parties, and current students too often talk about last night’s fun as though everyone was drinking heavily rather than moderately or not at all.Taking heavy drinking for granted, however, has serious consequences. Freshmen arrive on campus mistakenly believing that they must drink heavily in order to fit in and make friends. Some older students committed to enacting the myth of heavy drinking do not disappoint and are all too happy to show the freshmen a good time. College administrators, seeking to protect students from harm and comply with state laws about underage drinking, clamp down only to encourage a culture of cover-up amongst students. Fortunately, most students who do drink heavily mature out of the heavy drinking phase; a minority, however, continue to drink heavily, putting themselves at high risk for developing alcoholism.College administrators have implemented a variety of programs such as BASICS and Alcohol.Edu to teach students to drink moderately. All of these programs can be effective mechanisms for teaching students to drink moderately. Nevertheless, they are not effective for overcoming cover-up and reaching students with serious alcohol problems.Overcoming the culture of cover-up and assisting students with serious alcohol problems requires student leadership. College administrators, faculty and clinicians cannot do it alone. That said, it is important to recognize that student leaders in Greek life, athletics, campus government and other student organizations are already doing a great deal to reduce problem drinking but that it too often remains hidden. Many athletic team leaders and members encourage moderation or abstinence in-season and discourage heavy drinking any time of the year. Greek organizations recruit students who are “fun” but do not want students who drink irresponsibly. Moreover, even though Greeks drink more than other students, most drink moderately or not all and many sororities and fraternities have programs that can and do discipline members who drink irresponsibly and create problems. But far more needs to be done to overcome the culture of cover-up, which encourages a minority of students to drink heavily, perpetuates the myth that all students drink irresponsibly and allows some students to harm themselves and others.Student leaders must become pro-active. After all, the culture belongs to students, who must articulate appropriate beliefs, values and norms. Here are a few things students might do. First, students can promote moderate drinking via campus and national social norms campaigns. Second, every year freshmen arrive on campus believing that heavy drinking is the norm. Student leaders can dispel that belief by speaking out at orientation and teaching them that moderation and abstinence are the norm. Third, student organizations (e.g. government, Greek, athletic and clubs) can be more forthright about drinking by informing members that irresponsible drinking is unacceptable and moderation or abstinence are expected, and can do more to enforce those norms. Fourth, while most students drink moderately, a small number of students do develop serious alcohol problems and do not receive treatment due in part to the culture of cover-up. Students can develop effective peer assistance programs to help those who need it. Fifth, Cornellians can join the debate at Choose Responsibility, an organization composed of students, parents and educators to promote responsible drinking and to examine the efficacy of the current minimum drinking age of 21 years. These are only a few examples of how student leaders can confront pluralistic ignorance about drinking on campus, reinforce responsible drinking and deter irresponsible behavior. Given student ingenuity, one can only imagine what other ideas student leaders might implement.

Conor Callahan ’12, Brian Fetterolf ’12, Anna Predleus’12, Alana Reid ’12, Brendan Rogan ’12, and Zachary Seeber grad contributed to this article. William J. Sonnenstuhl is a professor of Organizational Behavior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at wjs7@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: William J. Sonnenstuhl