A Different Strategy to Stop College Drinking

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Movies and television shows often suggest that drinking is a normal part of college life. Unfortunately, this leads many students to feel like they have to drink to have a true college experience. Rutgers University recently did a study that was published in Scientific America about how universities can take on a new approach to stop college drinking.

Personalized Normative Feedback

University administrations have tried to address the unhealthy trend of college drinking through Personalized Normative Feedback (PNF). PNF is when students are exposed to the true rate of alcohol consumption at their school in hopes that they will change their drinking behaviors. Students are asked to estimate the percentage of alcohol they think that they consume regularly. After the students answer, they are given a true percentage based on nationally representative surveys. They are also shown the results through a graph to visually illustrate the difference between their guess and the actual answer. Often, it turns out that the respondent’s guess is much higher than the actual answer. 

Problems with Personalized Normative Feedback

More needs to be done to address excessive college drinking, however, as PNF only led to small and moderate reductions in alcohol intake. The main issue with this approach is that heavy student drinkers are usually the ones who refuse to change their drinking habits. They end up increasing their alcohol doses after partaking in this study. When someone like an authority figure tells you not to do something, that will make you want to rebel so that you do not feel like you are in someone else’s control.

Psychological Resistance

Coined by Psychologist Jack Brehm, the term ‘psychological resistance’ refers to the rebellion observed when someone is told what to do. Think back to your mom telling you to clean your room when you were a little kid. Chances are you didn’t do it or at least fought doing it, simply because your mom ordered you to. Often, we don’t listen because, subconsciously, we want to be our own bosses. It is an emotional response to believing that our rights to free-thinking are being threatened. This feeling often causes us to go out of our way to break the rules as a way of reclaiming our freedom. A similar response is observed when college administrators or professors tell you that drinking is not allowed on campus. Orders like these often result in students becoming more set in their ways, disregarding what is right or wrong. Consequently, PNF does not work for everyone.

Rutgers University Hypothesis

Rutgers University decided to use simple gaming mechanics and a virtual slot machine to expose heavy drinking college students to PNF without eliciting a negative response. Their hypothesis was to make the delivery of PNF seem more random which, in turn, would decrease feelings of psychological resistance, helping students accept advice more openly. Rutgers University believed that if students believed drinking statistics were presented to them by chance, they might see the message as helpful information instead of as manipulation by authority figures.

Loyola Marymount University Study Hypothesis

At Loyola Marymount University, Rutgers conducted an experiment that involved 138 college students. The students were asked to make guesses about their classmates’ alcohol consumption. They were given feedback afterward, regarding the accuracy of their estimates. The only difference in the study this time was that it was disguised as an online game that featured a blue slot machine. When the students logged onto the study’s website, they learned they would be playing a game that involved guessing their classmates’ habits and behaviors on a variety of topics. The slot machine would select topics like “social media,” “drugs,” “grades,” “sex/relationships,” “television,” and “alcohol.” Unbeknownst to them, each student would eventually get the topic “alcohol.” Students would then answer the questions and review their feedback. 

The second group of students had no slot machine or mention of other topics. When these students logged into the study, they were told they would play a game that involves guessing and receiving feedback on a topic chosen by the researchers which was “alcohol.” These students answered the same questions regarding “alcohol” as did their peers in the slot machine group, and received the same feedback. 

Loyola Marymount University Study Results

Rutgers University proved their hypothesis. It showed that students using the slot machine had lower levels of psychological resistance. In a follow up a few weeks later, their alcohol consumption was reduced significantly more than the control group. This shows that the randomness brought by the slot machine helped to break down the students’ mental barriers, allowing them to be more open-minded about PNF. When advice seems random instead of intentional, it is more likely to be accepted and have a positive impact. 

The Implications of the Loyola Marymount University Study 

Making advice about the negative habits of others seem more random increases the chances that it will be received well. This can lead to an increased likelihood of seeking the appropriate help, in the case that an individual is struggling with substance dependence. An approach like this can be used for parents whose children are struggling with alcoholism or even in the workplace when managers notice problematic behaviors in their employees. Employing these methods allows conversations about treatment for alcoholism to seem more natural instead of so forced. By making the suggestion to seek help for alcoholism seem random, there is a better chance that it will be accepted. 

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