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College Drinking and Cascades

In the United States, college students mostly depend on their peers for support because they no longer live under their parents’ roof. Since students are interacting with other students more, they begin to copy the behavior of their peers. This is clearly evident with alcohol use. Over a two week time period, 80% of college students have at least one alcoholic drink. Of the 80% of drinking students, 40% have four or more drinks on occasion. Peer pressure is one of the main factors of mass alcohol consumption on college campuses. For non-drinking students, peers who drink act as an influential model by introducing and providing alcohol or by pressuring other peers to drink. Consequently, many students view alcohol consumption as a positive and socially acceptable experience. Unfortunately, many students fail to remember the negative consequences of alcohol consumption, especially within a group context. For instance, the leading cause of death for adolescents is drunk driving accidents. Furthermore, approximately 400,000 college students engage in unprotected sex while intoxicated, and a quarter of those students report that they were too intoxicated to remember whether they consented to sex.

College students, like any other students, want to fit into the mainstream group to feel socially accepted. Most of the popular groups on college campuses partake in alcoholic activities; thus, students begin to conform and engage in alcoholic drinking as well. Additionally, vulnerable college groups, such as freshmen and non-drinkers, will often give into peer pressure to join the mainstream group. What influences students to drink? One huge factor is active offers. In large party settings, students are often offered a drink for free or have their drinks refilled without prompt. Moreover, when associating with drinking friends, a little teasing will often influence non-drinking peers to drink. Consequently, explicit offers are given mostly to students who attend parties and do not drink. As they are the minority group at the party, they are an easy target for drink offers and teasing since they will likely agree to drink to fit in with the crowd. This creates a cascade model. Party goers can choose to drink alcohol or abstain from drinking alcohol. If many people begin to drink, the others will soon follow their behavior.

We learned in class that copying the choices of the majority leads to conforming behavior. This applies to the drinking world of college students. Students who are already drinking will often imitate their drinking peers’ behavior. For instance, college students will often copy the level of drinking of the peer who is drinking the heaviest. According to researchers Borsari and Carey, college students who were exposed to heavy-drinking models consumed more alcohol than those exposed to light-drinking models or no models. Furthermore, when a majority of students at a party are drinking, drinking norms begin to develop. When a student observes that his or her peers are drinking more, the student will drink more to follow the norm. Additionally, when a student sees his or her peers give approval to students who are drinking more, the student will drink more to gain the same approval. As a result, a cascade of heavy drinking ensues. Although there are numerous intervention programs currently trying to combat the high use of alcohol on college campuses, it is difficult to fight when everyone ends up conforming due to peer pressure and perceived norms.

Source: https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/appsych/opus/issues/2011/fall/peer

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