Applied Psychology OPUS

Peer Pressure and Alcohol Use amongst College Students

by Josephine M. Palmeri

         In the United States, over 80% of college students have at least one alcoholic drink over a two week time period (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2009). Of these college students, 40% are binge drinking (i.e., having four or more drinks) on occasion, which greatly surpasses the rate of their non-college peers. Research suggests that this discrepancy between college students and their non-college peers is largely due to the college environment (Johnston et al., 2009). More specifically, college students must transition from depending on their parents at home to depending on their peers on campus (Borsari & Carey, 2001; Teese & Bradley, 2008). Peer interactions may be essential for college students in that peers provide the guidance and support needed to circumvent this transitional period (Teese & Bradley, 2008). In addition, the freshman population is particularly reliant on peer groups because they are new to the college environment and are attempting to adapt to the college lifestyle. Although peers may be an essential coping mechanism during this transitional period, the increase of peer involvement in a student’s everyday life may influence the increase of peer pressure as well.

        Peer pressure, or the direct or indirect encouragement from one’s own age group to engage in activities that they may or may not want to engage in (Santor, Messervey, & Kusumakar, 2000), is a major factor in the development of risk-taking behaviors (e.g., alcohol use, drug use, and tobacco use; Lewis & Lewis, 1984). Peers act as an influential model by introducing, providing, or pressuring risky activities (i.e., alcohol use) to other peers (Kinard & Webster, 2010). By modeling these behaviors to their peers, college students are viewing alcohol use as a positive and socially acceptable experience (Kinard & Webster, 2011). However, what college students fail to take into consideration are the negative consequences that are related to alcohol use, especially within a peer group context. For example, the leading cause of death for adolescents 17 to 20 years old is alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2011). In addition, about 400,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 have unprotected sex due to drinking. More than one forth of those students report being too intoxicated to know if they even consented to have sex (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2011). Therefore, it is imperative to understand peer pressure, as well as which groups of college students are more susceptible to it, in order to decrease these negative consequences from occurring.

        The social identity theory may help to explain why college students are influenced by peer pressure (Regan & Morrison, 2011). The social identity theory suggests that a significant portion of an individual’s self-concept is formed through their peer groups, with the in-groups being viewed more positively than the out-groups. In a college environment, it is essential for students to be associated with the in-group in order to be socially accepted. Out-groups, such as freshmen college students and non-drinkers, may lack the social support needed during this transitional period because they are not fitting in with the majority of their peers. More specifically, non-drinkers would be considered an out-group because they are not participating in the normative behavior of alcohol use. Subsequently, students who enter college determined to remain non-drinkers often give into peer pressure in order to become a part of the in-group (Borsari & Carey, 2001). This experience of feeling like an out-group is prevalent in freshmen college students as well. Freshmen are highly at risk for alcohol consumption because they are adapting to the college lifestyle and attempting to develop new friendships (Bosari & Carey, 2001). Furthermore, vulnerable college groups (e.g., freshmen and non-drinkers) will give in to peer pressure in hopes to be socially accepted and have a successful transition to college.

        Research disentangles peer pressure into three dimensions: active offers of alcohol, modeling of others’ drinking, and perceived drinking norms (Borsari & Carey, 2001; Crawford & Novak, 2007). Active offers of alcohol may be the most obvious and direct form of peer pressure. These offers range from a simple gesture to highly encouraging a peer to drink (Borsari & Carey, 2001). Some examples include being offered a drink, being bought a drink, or having your drink refilled without asking (Wood, Read, Mitchell, & Brand, 2004). Explicit offers are more prominent for those students who attend parties and decide not to drink. This is because these students are seen as abnormal (i.e., the out-group) from the rest of the college community (i.e., the in-group); thus, non-drinkers are an easy target for drink offers and teasing from their peers (Borsari & Carey, 2001).

        The second and third dimensions of peer pressure are less obvious because students are influenced indirectly. The second dimension, modeling of others’ drinking, is defined as a temporary imitation of peer’s behaviors (Borsari & Carey, 2001). College students will often imitate the level of drinking of the peer within their immediate environment that is drinking the heaviest and is the most sociable. Borsari and Carey (2001) reviewed the literature on this topic and found that college students who were exposed to heavy-drinking models consumed more than college students exposed to light-drinking models or no models at all. In addition, freshmen college students are more likely to binge drink than any other year in school (Borsari & Carey, 2001). The likelihood of binge drinking steadily decreases as a student’s grade level increases. These findings suggest that freshmen students are highly susceptible to modeling and are at the highest risk for the negative consequences of alcohol use.

         Similar to modeling, perceived drinking norms influence a college student’s level of drinking through the observation and comparison of their peers drinking levels. This process is comprised of both descriptive norms and injunctive norms (Borsari & Carey, 2001, 2003). Descriptive norms are the student’s perceptions of the frequency and amount of alcohol consumed by their peers, whereas injunctive norms are the student’s perceptions of their peers’ approval of drinking. Students’ perceptions are often skewed in that they overestimate the amount of alcohol that their peers drink and the amount of approval that they are receiving from their peers. Students believe that they drink less than the majority of their peers, yet they are actually consuming more than them (Borsari & Carey, 2003; Crawford & Novak, 2007; Neighbors, Lee, Lewis, Fossos, & Larimer, 2007). Additionally, this overestimation of their peers level of alcohol consumption is consistent across all reference groups—close friends, best friend, typical student, average student, or fellow fraternity/sorority member (Borsari & Carey, 2003). However, those students involved in the Greek lifestyle (i.e., fraternities and sororities) are more susceptible to peer pressure through perceived drinking norms than any other college group (Borsari & Carey, 2001). Greek parties are often associated with heavy and pervasive drinking. The college students that attend Greek parties observe their peers drinking heavily, which influences heavier drinking in the individual (i.e., modeling). Therefore, students who attend Greek parties view their drinking levels as less than their heavy-drinking Greek peers, yet their levels are actually a lot higher.

         Research has found that perceived drinking norms are one of the most reliable predictors of college students’ alcohol consumption (Neighbors et al., 2007). In addition, the interventions developed for perceived drinking norms are very sufficient and cost effective. The interventions often involve making college students aware of the actual rate at which college students consume alcohol compared to their own level of consumption. For example, the Social Norms Marketing Advertising (SNMA) intervention was designed to inform students through media advertisements (e.g., television advertisements, radio advertisements, newspaper advertisements, posters, flyers, etc; Neighbors et al., 2011). These advertisements often include statistics about the number of drinks a typical student at a specific university consumes per week (Neighbors et al., 2011). The non-confrontational tone of SNMA’s allows this intervention to receive less resistance from college students because there is no effort to control their consumption and behaviors (Wechsler et al., 2003). According to a review by Neighbors et al. (2011) on the SNMA, there have been mixed findings on its effectiveness. Wechsler et al. (2003) conducted a national study on 118 colleges examining the quantity, frequency, and volume of alcohol consumption before and after the implementation of SNMA. The results show that there were no decreases in alcohol consumption after SNMA was implemented. These findings are consistent with various older studies of SNMA; however the majority of recent research is in support of the SNMA intervention and has found it to be productive in reducing alcohol consumption (Perkins, Linkenbach, Lewis, & Neighbors, 2010; Turner, Perkins, & Bauerle, 2008). Turner et al. (2008) found that freshman college students specifically benefit from the implementation of SNMA. The freshman college students who were exposed to SNMA reported a 22 percent reduction in alcohol consumption over a 6 year period, as well as were associated with fewer negative consequences. These findings are important because freshman students are highly susceptible to peer pressure (Bosari & Carey, 2001). Therefore, any interventions that can help buffer this susceptibility is valuable and should be taken into consideration by all colleges.

         Another intervention for perceived drinking norms is the Personalized Normative Feedback (PNF) intervention (Neighbors et al., 2011). The PNF influences individual students personally, whereas the SNMA targets a large amount of students at once. Specifically, the PNF intervention provides individual students with feedback in regards to their own drinking, their perceived drinking of their peers, and the actual rate at which their peers are drinking (Neighbors et al., 2011). The PNF intervention is typically computerized and the feedback is delivered through an online survey. For example, the student will enter their information in the online survey, and they will receive instant feedback on their levels of drinking compared to their peers. A PNF intervention might read as follows: “You said you drink an average of 10 drinks per week and that you think the typical University of X student drinks about 15 drinks per week. Based on a recent survey of 2,500 UX students, the actual average number of drinks per week for UX students is 4.6 drinks” (Neighbors et al., 2011). Overall, the PNF has received a large amount of support from researchers and has been found to be very efficient in alcohol reduction (Neighbors et al., 2011).

           Although the SNMA and PNF interventions have been found to decrease alcohol consumption amongst smaller groups of college students, the rate of alcohol consumption throughout the United States remains constant. Therefore, future interventions should be designed on a national level in hopes to dramatically decrease alcohol consumption as a whole. Although it is important to target all college students with interventions and preventive measures against peer pressure and alcohol use, it may be useful to focus on the freshman population when implementing these interventions into colleges. By doing this, the freshman students will become aware of the pressures that they may face as a new student within the college environment, yet these interventions will hopefully provide them with the tools to resist temptation to conform to these pressures throughout their college years.


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Author's Biography

Josephine M. Palmeria is a senior in the Applied Psychology Honors program. She is currently a member of Dr. Selcuk Sirin's Meta-Analysis of the Paradox (MAP) research team. Her main research interest lies in mental health counseling. After graduating, she plans to continue her studies in a counseling psychology graduate program.