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College without booze: harder than it sounds

“Still Sociable at Stanford” wrote to Dear Abby last week asking for advice about a problem that usually isn’t mentioned in discussions of college drinking: How does a non-drinker handle social pressure to imbibe?  The members of the Stanford community have a widely shared commitment to diversity, and we are almost self-consciously laid back and accepting of people whose beliefs, behaviors and background are different than our own. If you are a left-handed Lithuanian lesbian who uses a wheelchair, supports nuclear power and dabbles in paganism, we are totally cool with that, but if you don’t drink alcohol, some of us just can’t let that pass without comment. Why?

Social-norms research reveals that people judge how much drinking is too much by looking at the people around them, and they don’t like feeling that they are above the norm. I've studied this phenomenon in a research program directed by John Cunningham, PhD, of the University of Toronto. When we show heavy drinkers objective data on where they stand relative to other people of their age and sex (e.g., “You drink more than 85 percent of the population") they feel uncomfortable, which often leads them to cut back on their alcohol consumption.

Similar psychological processes may come into play when non-drinking and heavy-drinking college students interact on campus. Heavy drinkers among a group of other heavy drinkers (e.g., at a party) will feel more comfortable about their level of alcohol consumption than they would if there were non-drinkers hanging around to provide a different comparison point, much as Bashful and Grumpy probably had no anxieties about their height until Snow White met them and the other dwarves.

As Dr. Cunningham’s studies show, heavy drinkers sometimes react to their discomfort at seeing that they drink relatively more than other people by taking a hard look at their own drinking.  But in a research study, such feedback comes from a standardized computer printout, whereas at a party it comes from the behavior of another human being, which opens up a different way for a heavy drinker to respond: Pressure the abstainer who makes you uncomfortable into having some drinks.

On a typical U.S. campus, between a quarter to a third of students never or almost never drink alcohol, so there is no rational basis for such students to be viewed as bizarre outliers. With more than 1,800 college students dying in alcohol-fueled incidents a year, and many times that number being involved in alcohol-related injuries and assaults, it would be more sensible for us to collectively apply social pressure to people who drink too much rather than those who don’t drink at all.

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

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