What Role Does Habit Play in College Drinking?

What Role Does Habit Play in College Drinking?

New research from a team of American and Dutch researchers indicates that sheer habit is a significant contributor to college students’ dangerous drinking behaviors. College students in the U.S. and some other countries consume alcohol relatively frequently and have a high level of involvement in dangerous drinking patterns capable of causing serious personal and social harm.

In a study scheduled for publication in June 2015 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from three American universities and one Dutch university assessed the role that a reflexive habit of alcohol consumption plays in college drinking behaviors. These researchers concluded that both habit and certain unconsciously held alcohol-related beliefs independently expose college students to alcohol-related harm.

College Attendance and Drinking

A federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) follows year-to-year nationwide trends in alcohol consumption among American college students. SAMHSA figures from 2013 indicate that young adults between the ages of 18 and 22 who attend college full-time consume alcohol more often than students who only attend college part-time or other adults in the same age bracket who don’t attend college at all. Compared to their age peers not enrolled in college or only enrolled part-time, fully enrolled students also binge drink more often and have higher chances of qualifying as heavy drinkers.

Binge drinking gets its name because participants go on short drinking bouts (i.e., binges) that end in legally defined intoxication. Heavy drinkers consume enough alcohol on a daily or weekly basis to sharply boost the odds that they will one day meet the American Psychiatric Association’s official criteria for diagnosing alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism). Every year, involvement in binge drinking exposes millions of U.S. college students to serious harms such as alcohol poisoning, accidental injury, intentional injury at the hands of another, drunk driving and sexual assault. In addition, the rate of alcohol use disorder on college campuses (19 percent) far exceeds the rate found in the general public.

Habit, Unconscious Beliefs and Alcohol

Habit is the generally accepted term for routine behavior that occurs repeatedly over time. While many people can pinpoint at least some of their habits, certain daily routines commonly go unnoticed by conscious thought processes. Unconscious beliefs are beliefs or points of view that don’t typically come up for conscious consideration but instead set an unspoken context for actions and consciously held beliefs.

Current research indicates that unconscious beliefs about alcohol (known more formally as implicit alcohol associations) play a major role in determining any given person’s typical drinking behaviors. Examples of unconscious alcohol-related beliefs include a pre-existing self-identification as a “drinker” or a “non-drinker” and a pre-existing positive or negative outlook on the personal and social benefits of drinking.

Habit and College Drinking Practices

In the study scheduled for publication in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Houston, the University of Virginia and the Netherlands’ University of Amsterdam used information collected from 506 undergraduates to help determine the roles that habit and unconscious alcohol-related beliefs play in establishing college students’ typical drinking patterns. In addition to answering questions designed to uncover the role of habit and pre-existing beliefs in their drinking behaviors, each participant answered questions regarding his or her usual pattern of alcohol intake, level of exposure to harmful drinking outcomes and likelihood of eventually qualifying for an alcohol use disorder diagnosis.

The researchers expected to find that unconscious alcohol-related beliefs are critical to college students’ typical drinking behaviors. They primarily wanted to know if sheer habit also plays a crucial role, either by itself or in combination with unexamined beliefs about alcohol. After analyzing the submitted information, the researchers confirmed the role of unconscious alcohol-related beliefs, especially beliefs that promote a self-identification as a “drinker.” They also concluded that the simple establishment of a drinking habit is a key predictor of the average college student’s alcohol-related risk.

Importantly, the researchers found that habit and unconscious alcohol-related beliefs are independent risk factors for potentially dangerous college drinking. Essentially, this means that one factor does not contribute significantly to the risk associated with the other factor.

The study’s authors believe that school administrators and public health officials may be able to reduce the odds for risky drinking on college campuses by creating campaigns that target both habitual drinking and unconsciously held beliefs about the benefits of drinking.

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