Animal House and College Drinking
The film Animal House premiered 25 years ago in 1978. During the
quarter century since then, its portrayal of rampant alcohol abuse
has strongly influenced popular perceptions of college life.
What, exactly, is the current state if drinking on American campuses
today and how does it compare to 25 years ago?
A survey of college freshman across the US conducted annually since
1966 reports that an all-time low of 46.5 percent of students report
drinking beer even occasionally during the past year. The study,
conducted by UCLA in association with the American Council on Education
(ACE), is based on 282,549 students at 437 baccalaureate colleges
and universities across the US last year. Over time, the survey
has studied tens of millions of students.
What about “partying”? The number of hours per week
spent on partying is down significantly. There’s also been
a steady increase in the proportion of freshmen who spend little
or no time partying. Well over one-third report that they don’t
party at all in a typical week, according to the UCLA/ACE study.
Studies at individual colleges around the country confirm the decline
in drinking. For example, at Kent State University, Dr. Dennis Thombs
and his colleagues tested the late-night blood alcohol concentration
(BAC) of dorm residents over an entire 15-week semester. The average
BAC of the students was in the low to moderate range, well below
intoxication. Most college students generally don’t drink
as much or as heavily as people think and the term “binge
drinker” is inappropriately applied to them, according to
the Kent State University researchers. 2
College students simply don't drink as much as everyone seems to
think they do, according to researchers using Breathalyzers at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even on the traditional
party nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 66% of the students
returned home with absolutely no blood alcohol content; two of every
three had not a trace of alcohol in their systems even on party
High school students are drinking less as well. For example, so-called
binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks per occasion) among
high school seniors has dropped dramatically between 1976 and 2002,
the most recent year for which data are available. Over the past
ten years, significant drops have occurred among high school seniors
who have ever consumed any alcohol, who have consumed any within
the past year, or have consumed any within the past 30 days These
are the findings of federally-sponsored research. 4
While the abuse of alcohol by college students has dropped dramatically
over the past quarter century, there are still too many who use
alcohol inappropriately. Therefore, it’s important to continue
the fight against alcohol abuse.
One of the most effective ways yet developed to reduce alcohol
abuse is known as social norms marketing. It’s based on the
proven fact that student tend to have grossly exaggerated perceptions
about the extent of alcohol consumption among other students. In
other words “everyone” falsely believes that “everyone
else” drinks much more often and in much greater quantities
than they really do. Therefore, most typical student drink more
than they otherwise would in order to “fit in.”
The social norms approach involves conducting credible surveys
on a campus to determine the actual levels of consumption. This
information is then widely distributed or “marketed”
to the student body. As soon as students realize that their peers
aren’t drinking at the high levels they thought, they no longer
experience the imagined social pressure and their own drinking drops.
Study after study has demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach.
By using the social norms approach, we can further reduce the extent
of alcohol abuse.
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American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2002. Los Angeles,
CA: Higher Education Research Institute, University of California
at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education & Information Studies,
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Field assessment of BAC data to study late-night college drinking.
Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 2003, 64(3), 322-330.
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of University Students Returning Home at Night. Paper presented
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Washington, DC, 1-13-99; Foss, R.D. et al. BAC’s
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Barlange, Sweden: Swedish National Road Administration, 2000, available
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Monitoring the Future: National Results on Adolescent Drug Use:
Overview of Key Findings, 2002. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute of
Social Research, University of Michigan, 2003.
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consequences of alcohol use among college students. Journal
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A detailed examination of the first four years of the University
of Arizona's social norm campaign, which achieved a 29% reduction
in heavy drinking.
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San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
Reports the results of a statewide survey of 18 to 24 year old
residents in Montana that examines actual and perceived norms for
frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption and prevalence of
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