Why College Binge Drinkers Are Happier, Have High Status

A new study explores the rarely examined benefits of college binge drinking, which must be understood for effective prevention

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College binge drinkers say they’re happier with their social lives than those who don’t indulge — but it’s probably the boost in social status, not the booze itself that lifts their mood, according to new research presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

“Binge drinking is a symbolic proxy for high status in college,” said study co-author Carolyn Hsu, an associate professor of sociology at Colgate University in a statement, noting that it’s what the wealthy, powerful and happy students on campus do.

The study found that rich white frat boys reported having the greatest social satisfaction at school and were considered the big men on campus by others. They were not only happier than students in low-status groups — women, minorities and people who were less financially well-off — but also more likely to binge drink. “Binge drinking then becomes associated with high status and the ‘cool’ students on campus,” said Hsu.

Low-status students in turn reported being happier if they binged than if they didn’t. Indeed, alcohol seemed to be the great social equalizer, bringing members of low-status groups to happiness levels similar to those of greater social power if they binged. “Students in all groups consistently liked college more when they participated in the campus’ binge drinking culture,” Hsu said. Since the study has not yet been subjected to peer review, its findings should be considered preliminary.

(MORE: Study: College Men Who Post About Alcohol Have More Facebook Friends)

The research was conducted at a selective Northeastern liberal arts college in 2009, involving survey responses from 1,595 students, nearly 60% of the school’s student body.  “Drinking culture is campus specific,” Hsu noted. “But our results suggest that binge drinking and social satisfaction may also be very much associated at similar predominantly white colleges with high binge drinking rates, a large Greek presence and a residential campus.”

Surprisingly, the most stressed and highly anxious students were the least likely to binge, suggesting that the negative emotions that often drive alcoholism are not influencing many of these bingers — that is, they’re not drinking to self-medicate. Rather, they’re drinking to fit in.

Many students commented that they personally didn’t enjoy drinking as excessively as they did, but felt it was the only socially acceptable thing to do for leisure — and that it was necessary to achieve high social status. “Low status students in particular seem to be using binge drinking as a vehicle for social mobility and as a way to contend with an otherwise hostile social environment,” Hsu said.

The research could help explain why the college binge drinking problem is so resistant to change, and particularly, why “social norm” approaches to risk reduction have limited effectiveness. Social norm prevention programs aim to change students’ behavior by teaching them that “everyone isn’t doing it” — that heavy drinkers are actually a minority, for example. In fact, that’s true for most colleges: on average, 40% of students report binge drinking, though rates at individual colleges can range from 1% to 76%.

(MORE: Q&A: How I Moderated My Drinking)

Social norm programs typically do help reduce binging; however, if the binging minority consists of the people with the highest social status, it only goes so far to point out that “everyone” isn’t doing it.  If “everyone who matters” does it, binging will still be alluring.

The authors note that the social advantages of binge drinking do not mitigate its negative consequences on health and academic performance, concluding:

It is our hope that by drawing attention to the important social motivations underlying binge drinking institutional administrators and public health professionals will be able to design and implement programs for students that take into account the full range of reasons that students binge drink.

Surprisingly little research is conducted on the positive effects sought by drug users and what they actually achieve via their drug consumption; the assumption is that alcohol and other drugs are always bad and their users are irrational. But until more studies like this are conducted, prevention programs are unlikely to improve. We can’t prevent what we don’t understand.

MORE: Heavy Drinking Costs the U.S. $223.5 Billion Each Year: CDC
Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

47 comments
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DP530
DP530

Much of this is true, at least from my experience. My college town (Chico, CA) is predominantly white, and has a strong Greek presence as well. Drinking is an omnipresent issue here; it just made the cover of a local paper. At least one young student perishes each semester doing a drinking stunt, usually an initiation rite. And it's also true that alcohol isn't the culprit. It's all for social status. One of the fatal overdoses a few years ago was a frat guy who drank himself to death on water! 
http://empiricalmag.blogspot.com/

18235
18235

high status for being a drunken IDIOT?

well yeah, bullies also have higher status than nerd victims, drug dealers have higher status than drug users, and the men who have group "fun' with a woman have higher status than the lone woman involved.

Concerned4Sanity
Concerned4Sanity

I think this is accurate only to a degree. I never really drank much before college, but I go out pretty much every weekend when I'm at school. I would consider myself popular and well known, I guess "cool," but I am certaintly not a frat boy. At my school there aren't too many of these types to begin with, and they are usually the kind of guys who are drunken idiots and trying to start problems rather than those who are having fun. But why do I drink? It isn't to "fit in." Growing up most of my friends rarely drank, so there wasn't any strong pressure to drink, but with age comes change. I drink because it is fun to go out, and honestly the whole scene is what makes it fun. The music, the girls, etc. Even if drinking wasn't popular, if there were still girls who went out drinking downtown, I would too. I get excited to go out to see friends and forget about stress. It isn't a chore like this makes it seem to be.

Then again, where I am may be an anomaly. I am from Wisconsin, and here binge drinking is much more normalized than the rest of the nation. We have around 30+ bars in a small area of downtown and lots of people go out. In addition, I rarely go to house parties but rather go downtown. I also don't really see the "white guy" vs. "minority guy" thing being true. I would say that minority groups are often at equal or higher status, depending on who they are. A lot of the people I am friends with that I see out a lot are in the "minority" and they usually are out for the same reason as me.

Overall, I think it is about having a good time, not trying to fit in. People go to places where similar people hang out. I won't go to a country bar too often because not only is it not my crowd or scene, but I am alien to them. On the other hand they wouldn't go to my places. Essentially, where you go to is where you already fit in, so who would you fool? You also hang out with your crowd only usually, so you are already fitting in. I think this study assumes too much in some cases. For instance, there is a correlation between drinking and happiness. Does this equal causation? Does drinking make you happier? Or perhaps those who are unhappy are unhappy because they have strong work loads, and thus don't drink as much due to being very serious about their work. Does drinking indirectly relate to me being happy? Sure, it is the vehicle. But it isn't to be accepted, it is to assert myself perhaps.

Trajan Saldana
Trajan Saldana

so actually it's the money behind the boys who binge drink and neither the drinking nor the person that leads to the high social status

Yeshuratnam
Yeshuratnam

Rich frat binge drinkers will mourn one day when they find their liver and brain have been damaged beyond repair. 

John Kroposky-Shelley
John Kroposky-Shelley

This has to be the worst thing I ever read.  Looks like Time needs to hires some new reporters. The words "binge drinking"all on it's own is unhealthy and moronic.  Also if I want to see a rich white boy I'd visit the Bush's or the Romney's and spit at them....

Ivan
Ivan

* Based on a study commisioned by Fosters...

kzoframe39
kzoframe39 like.author.displayName 1 Like

'Society', i.e. government programs, charitable groups, certain less-scientific areas of medicine, spend a lot of time trying to demonize alcohol and everything about it.  It's part of the temperance fabric of American society, one of the most negative and detrimental facets of our national character. 

This social force has marginalized alcohol and attempted to make any reference to alcohol which does not include a disclaimer about how bad it is into the statements of an insane person.  In fact, study after study confirms that drinking has many benefits.  This article opened with such a disclaimer, so as to not upset the teetotalling fanatics which have been created by the temperance machine.

No one sane advocates drinking until you black out or pass out, irresponsible alcohol use, drunk driving, or anything else negative about alcohol.  Alcohol use has probably been as controlled as it will ever get.  Prohibition did not work, so the temperance movement switched to social control.  They've acheived the most they will ever acheive in this area and are now causing damage.  You cannot even publish a study or report on it without some type of large-scale negative feedback from the temperance ninnies.

Remember, Churchill drank at least a quart of whiskey a day, self-reported.  Roosevelt was a known 9 martini man, beginning at 10am.  Hitler was a teetotalling, radically non-smoking, vegetarian Nazi.  Sometimes the ridiculous comparisons are valid. 

Ben Brown Jr.
Ben Brown Jr.

This story brought to you by the makers of Jim Beam...

Jota S
Jota S

I propose that cannabis is safer than alcohol. I've never read or heard of a single instance of binge smoking or cannabis poisoning on a college campus or anywhere else for that matter. The only thing that's different is the IMAGE. Rich, white guys are the poster boys for alcohol, whereas the media depicts "stoners" as the poster people for cannabis. Once again, the media does the world and our children a huge disservice.

Jesse Krupocin
Jesse Krupocin

 I agree with you, and I'm a Dr. who has smoked pot, but didn't like it.  I think it is much safer though.  I have seen a fair share of people binge smoke though (smoke excessively brought on by the group atmosphere) and it lead them to do thinks equally as dumb as alcohol. 

Jonathen Johsnon
Jonathen Johsnon

Dont let this fool you people are not truly more happy than people without its all an act inside they realize that money cant solve all problems or bring true happyness.

RH
RH

What an irresponsible survey!  Do they think that all binge drinkers self-report?

ImJustABill
ImJustABill like.author.displayName 1 Like

So maybe, just maybe as long as you never drink and drive, there's really nothing all that bad about binge drinking for a few years in college.  Pretty much the common sense observation of anyone who's attended college and done some partying along the way.

But of course allowing partying and revelry, that wouldn't make the finger-waggers happy.

Angel98765
Angel98765

"People in low-status groups: women and minorities . . ." Really, Time? It's 2012. Do you want to maybe at least re-word this?

Jesse Krupocin
Jesse Krupocin

 That's a bad way to word it, but it is true that white men are running things in the Western (not at all in Eastern) World, and will probably continue to.  As hard as this is to say, there is a reason they are at the top, nobody put them there but themselves.  There is a reason white amp; asian counties make up all of the top 50 places to live based on human development index and QOL studies.  I'm not saying they are superior beings, but they're undeniably doing something right.

Phucka PhaceBuuk
Phucka PhaceBuuk

According to the statistics, this is the case, even in 2012. Theres no reason to sugar coat it.

Steven Libby
Steven Libby

Happier.  Stupider.

Paul Ronco
Paul Ronco like.author.displayName 1 Like

 Seems to me like a smart and unhappy kid recently went on a shooting spree in Colorado. I don't see your point.

Philip Rossman-Reich
Philip Rossman-Reich

I am entering my third year of law school and am still a non-drinker with no plans or desire to start. 

I have to say that I agree with this article completely. I went to a private school that was not known as a party school and even joined a fraternity. I thought this would help me fit in socially as I am kind of shy. But I still found myself on the perimeter socially and struggling to fit in. 

I was never comfortable around alcohol and I could not understand why my peers were so obsessed with drinking. I knew plenty of people who claimed they only started drinking in college because that is "what you are supposed to do." I have had friends urge me to drink to "get binge drinking/experimenting out of my system" and I have even had my parents urge me to drink.It was very frustrating for me, and it still is as every social outing seems to involve alcohol.

Unfortunately, I believe the message culture and pop culture sends to kids is that it is socially acceptable and required to be a binge drinker in college and to center everything around alcohol. This is really where things need to change.

liberty619
liberty619

rich white frat boys who spend the whole time drinking grow up to be like president bush and destroy countries. they are quite happy while they do it though.

I hate Obama too, relax!

Phucka PhaceBuuk
Phucka PhaceBuuk

Obama just does the same thing while high on weed. At least in the old days.

Richard Hockey
Richard Hockey

The definition of binge drinking used in this study was more than 4 drinks for women and 5 for men per session. Not what most people would call binge drinking DYT?

sk8sonh2o
sk8sonh2o

Binge drinking causes much greater lifetime alcohol expenditures, sometimes exceeding the price of college.  And Budweiser knows that.

sk8sonh2o
sk8sonh2o

I'd like to see a study of the lifetime cost of increased alcohol consumption during  college. Binge drinkers drink more for the rest of their lives;  that adds up, and the beer companies know it. That's why alcohol ads on campus are berserk. Binge drinking is a financial disaster for young people, often more costly than college or divorce. 

Ximena Lama Rondón
Ximena Lama Rondón

 Specially because the ones who aren't exactly "rich white boys" may be using their college loans to pay for their "upwardly mobile" party habits. I think there's another article about that somewhere in Time.

Anyway, the binge drinking college culture and its most scary consequences seem to be a purely American thing. There seems to be too much division -even just reading the comments, I can see it- among the "hedonistic" irresponsible students who give themselves a coma and the straight A ones who never touch a drop. In other parts of the world, you can just drink. Of course, some (or even most) kids will need to get wasted once or twice to learn their limits, but after that, ever weekend stops being a Jersey Shore episode.

Also, in other cultures that favour family time that includes light, relaxing drinks (such as a glass of wine in France or Italy) and where the ban on alcohol isn't so severe for those underage (and where underage is not under 21), you get to see the guys in their first year of university with at least some clue on what's acceptable and what's not, causing less cases of severe alcohol poisoning.

JS7
JS7

This is obvious.  People whose self-esteem is constantly stroked and boosted (like young, healthy, rich white males) like to go out and celebrate all the time.  The big ego comes first, not the drinking.  Look at anyone who wins the lottery or has just become famous, etc.  They go out and binge.  People like this just live that way because life in the social and educational system that rewards them is a constant affirmation of their ego.  They have nothing else to do in their off hours than work off energy and celebrate.  What are they going to do, sit at home alone and read Kafka?

BreakingDeadMen
BreakingDeadMen

This thread is dominated by folks who sound like they could use a cold one.

Danyz
Danyz

Yes, but not a cold 100 in 60 minutes...  Cheers.

Sean Taylor
Sean Taylor

It only raises status with other drunks. Look at all the "cool" kids ten years down the road and you'll see that most of them haven't really achieved anything worthwhile. There's exceptions like with anything but in general these are the guys who will be taking your order at mcdonalds.

bcfred
bcfred

That's an absolute crock.  50% of college students binge drink, and of that 50% most are working at McDonalds 10 years later?  How about this instead - most college kids like to party some and are away from home and have access to alcohol for the first time.  Most are also ready to move on by the time they graduate and the responsibilities of holding a job mean the effective end of regular binge drinking.  I knew people in college who I was convinced would be career alcoholics.  Guess what - none are.

Paul Ronco
Paul Ronco

Or destroying your economy on Wall Street, or possibly even protecting your president.

Danyz
Danyz

Used to be that only the crudest, most ignorant types took pride in how much booze they could endure before passing out... maybe this is still true.

GEEDSSUCK
GEEDSSUCK

Sorry that y'all never got bids. GDI pussies.

Scott Horowitz
Scott Horowitz

The moment I read "rich white frat boys"in the first line of the third paragraph I lost all interest in the article and lost all respect for this article's author.

Paul Ronco
Paul Ronco

It's not the article's author that should matter but the study.

COfoEVA
COfoEVA

Total BS.  Everyone on campus laughs at how stupid and worthless rich frat boys are.  The only ones that think they are "the big men on campus" are them.

Jesse Krupocin
Jesse Krupocin

 I did my fair share of college binge drinking (more than I'd like to

admit) and I only drink a few times a year now.  I was part of a large

group of friends, probably about 50-60 of us who made friendships

through our professional fraternity, freshman classes amp; dorms and

basically all of us binge drank.  We are now all successful adults,

about 70% of us have doctorates (myself included), and almost all of the

rest have Masters or are very successful in their fields.  About only

25% of us are white males as well, and we were all at or near the top of

the social food chain in college, a good amount being D1 student

athletes.  Besides a few outliers, we weren't cocky jerks or bad people,

most of us came from middle class (at BEST) backgrounds, and we are now

all in the top tax bracket.  We were very involved in extra-circulars,

community service, and school sports.

I don't think we are outside

the norm, and while this does lead to alcohol problems for some, I think

(as a healthcare professional) most of them would have these problems

regardless.  Addiction is very much a genetic problem, not some kids

having fun.  I don't regret my lifestyle in college, in fact the total

opposite, I miss the fun care-free party lifestyle, but once it's over,

it's time to grow up.  As long as you know when it's turn for fun and

turn for hard work, I don't think it's the problem.  Teaching

responsibility is the key in my opinion; but hey, what do I know, I'm

white, male, and even though I grew up poor, I'm now rich - so

apparently I'm the worst kind of person around.

Phucka PhaceBuuk
Phucka PhaceBuuk

Absolutely false. Not sure how many colleges you have visited. Good try though.

COfoEVA
COfoEVA

Haha that means you are one of the ones getting laughed at!  See how mine has 91 likes and yours has 0...  Thank you for proving my point exactly, the only ones who think the rich frattards are cool are themselves.

My favorite pastime in college was picking off sorority girls away from lame frat boys who didn't know how to handle a woman, it was very easy.

Donnawfh
Donnawfh

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