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.