Student Factors: Understanding Individual Variation in College Drinking
JOHN S. BAER, Ph.D.†
Department of Psychology, University of Washington, and Veterans Affairs Puget
Sound Health Care System, Seattle, Washington
ABSTRACT. Objective: Research on individual differences in drinking
rates and associated problems among college students is reviewed. Method:
Studies are included if completed within U.S. college and university samples
and found in published scientific literature as identified by several searches
of national databases. Results: The resulting review suggests first that
the extant literature is large and varied in quality, as most studies use questionnaire
responses from samples of convenience in cross-sectional designs. Evidence from
studies of college samples does consistently suggest that alcohol is consumed
for several different purposes for different psychological effects in different
contexts. A pattern of impulsivity/sensation seeking is strongly related to
increased drinking among students. This pattern is supported by research into
personality, drinking motives, alcohol expectancies and drinking contexts. A
second pattern of drinking associated with negative emotional states is also
documented. Some long-term consequences of this second pattern have been described.
Social processes appear especially important for drinking in many college venues
and may contribute to individual differences in drinking more than enduring
personality differences. Conclusions: Future research efforts should
test interactive and mediating models of multiple risk factors and address developmental
processes. (J. Stud. Alcohol, Supplement No. 14: 40-53, 2002)
THIS REVIEW addresses individual variation in drinking among college students.
The review is based on the observation that alcohol consumption is not uniformly
extreme in the population. For example, in an analysis by Wechsler et al. (1999),
the statistical average for consumption of alcohol in a week by a college student
is about five standard drinks. Variability, however, is high. In the Wechsler
et al. (1999) report, the top 17% of the sample (those students who drink heavily
and frequently) consumed 68% of all alcohol drunk by college students. The 56%
of students who do not drink heavily consumed only 9% of the total alcohol consumed.
Which college students drink most and have the most problems as a result, and
why do they do it? How do they differ from their moderate drinking or sober
peers? The focus of this review is both to identify and understand this variability.
Variables that might account for this variability cover a
wide range of biological, psychological and social factors,
and this review will cover only a subset. In particular, other
reviews in this series will address: the relationship between
basic demographic variables and alcohol consumption, including
age, gender and ethnicity (O'Malley and Johnston,
this supplement); broad or distal aspects of the college environment,
such as alcohol availability and pricing, advertising,
legal and university rules and regulations and enforcement
(Toomey and Wagenaar, this supplement); and
models of risk based on understanding of human development
(Schulenberg and Maggs, this supplement). Reviewed
herein are studies of stable individual characteristics in relation
to drinking, including family history, genetics and
human personality as well as psychological processes concerning
the perceived effects of alcohol, motivation to drink,
interpersonal (social and peer) relations and social norms.
Studies concerning the impact of immediate or proximal
college-specific social contexts and activities that students
select (e.g., athletics or fraternities) are also addressed. It is
noteworthy that social contexts and activities represent factors
that influence drinking at both individual and social
Studies are included if completed within U.S. college and university samples
and found in published scientific literature as identified by several searches
of national databases by searching both title and abstract for reference to
college or university. No age requirements were imposed within
the search; the vast majority of studies assess undergraduate students between
the ages of 18 and 21. Studies published before 1985 generally are summarized
based on a comprehensive review published in 1986 (Brennan et al., 1986a,b).
Key or exemplary studies will be highlighted, rather than all studies catalogued.
Following a commentary on methodological issues, the research literature with
respect to college student drinking will be reviewed moving from micro to macro
levels of effects and developmental course. Specifically, differences based
on genetic and family history factors will be reviewed first, followed by research
on aspects of personality. More psychological and potentially variable constructs
of drinking motivation and alcohol expectancies are reviewed next, followed
by research on social factors. In a concluding section, the results from this
review will be considered relative to broader developmental models of alcohol-related
problems etiology and future research agendas.
Many studies of individual variation in college drinking follow a similar format.
Questionnaires measuring something about individual differences (e.g., aspects
of personality) and self-report questionnaires about some aspects of drinking
habits (e.g., frequency of drinking) are administered to a group of college
students. Students are often taken from college classes (typically psychology
courses) as convenient volunteers. Self-report questionnaire responses are then
related to some aspect of drinking behavior. Although such studies do provide
a starting point for future research, they can be quite limited with respect
to interpretability and generalizability. A brief review of these methodological
considerations is necessary before presentation of research findings.
First, student factors as indices for risk for drinking can
be evaluated only with respect to some agreed-on standard
for measuring drinking behavior. Unfortunately, the research
literature is not consistent in how drinking is defined or
measured among college students (Heck and Williams,
1995). To complicate matters further, the literature on adolescent
drinking seems to suggest that different models of
risk (relationships between individual differences and drinking
behavior) may be found depending on how drinking is
defined and measured (Baer et al., 1998). For this review,
two classes of drinking measures are generally considered:
drinking rates or levels (quantity and frequency of alcohol
consumption) and drinking-related problems (negative consequences
of drinking, including dependence and misuse
Second, design features often limit interpretations of observed
relationships. Much of the research on college student
populations uses measures that have not been developed
carefully (or information on the quality of questionnaires
simply is unavailable for the reader). Alternative explanations
of results (e.g., the presence of third variables that
account for relationships) are not often tested. Multiple measures
of the same theoretical underlying constructs are rarely
used to control for artifacts of measurement method. In
addition, there are very few observational studies of college
student drinking in relation to individual differences.
Longitudinal designs are also quite exceptional. Without
methodology to rule out many alternative explanations for
statistical relationships between the individual differences
and drinking, causal interpretations generally cannot be
made with confidence.
Third, the students who are actually involved in socialpsychological research
on college campuses pose an additional and key threat to the meaning and generalizability
of much research on college drinking. As noted above, the typical study uses
volunteers, often for extra credit in a psychology course. These "samples"
of college students are used to study the "population" of college
students. Yet volunteers from psychology classes may or may not be representative
of all students. Thus the relationships observed in the study may not be true
for other students. This is particularly important when the full range of an
individual difference may not be present in the study sample (i.e., mild social
anxiety, moderate anxiety in public speaking, severe anxiety resulting in clinical
diagnosis). Very few studies of individual variation in college drinking attempt
or succeed in generating samples of students that are documented to be representative
of broader college populations.
Finally, statistical variation beyond that expected by chance (e.g., the accepted
standards for "significant" findings) does not necessarily provide
measures of the magnitude of differences observed. Many differences are described
in social-psychological research that are simply too small to be used by policy-makers
and prevention specialists to target programs and policies.
Despite this generally poor methodological quality in
most studies, several consistent relationships have been observed.
A few particularly well designed studies have been
published in the past several years, and these will be described
in more detail.
Family History and Parents' Behavior
There has been great interest in the role of genetics and family history in
the etiology of alcohol-related problems. However, relatively little research
on the genetics of alcoholism has focused specifically on college students as
a clinical population. Perhaps this is due to the fact that college students,
on average, do not show signs of severe alcohol dependence even though a subset
of students sometimes drink great quantities of alcohol. Further, research is
at best mixed in documenting that college students with parents who have alcohol-related
problems drink more or have more alcohol-related problems than their peers from
nonalcoholic families. For example, Engs (1990) reported that rates of drinking
were indistinguishable comparing college students who do and do not report a
history of parental drinking problems. Alterman et al. (1989) and Havey and
Dodd (1993) reported similar results (for a study of a female sample, see Bogart
et al., 1995). Kushner and Sher (1993), in contrast, reported considerably higher
rates of alcohol use disorders among Children of Alcoholics (COAs) (35%) compared with non-COAs (16%)
in a large sample of college students first assessed during their freshman year.
Perkins and Berkowitz (1991) and Pullen (1994) also reported increased rates
of alcohol-related problems for COAs compared with non-COAs. Rodney and Rodney
(1996) found that black male COAs reported greater drinking than black non-COAs.
It is difficult to reconcile these disparate research findings.
It is possible that larger samples are needed to detect
relatively small COA effects (e.g., Alterman et al., 1989,
studied less than 100 students); however, Engs' (1990) study
was completed on a quite large sample of almost 1,000
students. Studies also vary in the way that family history is
measured and defined. Studies that define family history
quite conservatively (i.e., based on alcoholism treatment of
parents) and rule out adoptive parents and stepparents to
study genetic influence result in lower rates of COA membership
and may be more likely to find different rates of
drinking problems based on COA status (e.g., Kushner and
Sher, 1993). Studies using broad assessments of family environment
(Engs, 1990; Havey and Dodd, 1993) were
among those failing to find COA effects. It is also possible
that COAs do not necessarily drink at greater rates than
other students (see Engs, 1990) but do report greater alcohol-
related problems as a result (Kushner and Sher, 1993).
Yet the self-report nature of studies of alcohol-related problems
may limit confidence in results. Relative to non-COAs,
COAs may be more willing to acknowledge or label behaviors
as problems based on experiences growing up
(George et al., 1999). For example, Pullen's (1994) study
is based on Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test scores
for students, which could be biased by Alcoholics Anonymous
attendance for other family members. Given the somewhat
select nature of populations of college students (i.e.,
college students must show promise in prior educational
activities), it is also quite possible that those individuals
with greatest risk for alcohol-related problems never enroll
in the colleges where the research is conducted. Studies of
COAs among college populations thus may include only
the relatively successful COAs. This effect should be greatest
within more elite institutions with highly competitive
entrance requirements. In summary, although it appears
likely that COAs within college populations may be at some
increased risk for alcohol-related problems, the inconsistency
of the research evidence suggests that it may be a
smaller or more variable risk factor than when studied in
Independent of genetic risk, the behavior of parents, both
generally and with respect to drinking, has been studied as
a predictor of college drinking. Brennan et al. (1986b) reviewed
10 studies examining parental reports of drinking
practices and students' reports of drinking practices. Eight
of these studies showed positive but small effects, suggesting
that drinking among college students was associated
with increased drinking by their parents. Studies were inconsistent
with respect to gender differences, with some
suggesting the effect was stronger among men and some
studies suggesting the effect was stronger among women.
All studies were based on student perceptions of parental
behavior, which could easily be confounded by the students'
own drinking practices and perceived norms for
It is possible that problems with generalized parenting
skills, not restricted to parental alcohol use, are associated
with college students' adjustment, which then indirectly affects
alcohol use; this indirect relationship has been described
in research on adolescent alcohol use (see Baumrind,
1991; Colder and Chassin, 1992). Among college students,
MacDonald et al. (1991) reported that a family history of
depression was predictive of alcohol misuse, but not a family
history of drinking problems. Weiss and Schwartz (1996)
tested Baumrind's framework for effective parenting with
college students and documented that more poorly adjusted
college students, including those using substances, more
commonly had unengaged and authoritarian-directive parents.
There is some suggestion that the relationship between
parent and college student drinking exists only when the
parent-child relationship is experienced as close (Jung, 1995)
or the students perceive themselves as similar to the parent
(Fromme and Ruela, 1994).
Studies of student personality are among the most common with respect to alcohol
use. Personality typically refers to characteristic ways of thinking, feeling
and acting that show some consistency when measured across situations and over
time. Research on personality and alcohol use and misuse here is organized based
on three, broadbased personality constructs: impulsivity/disinhibition, extraversion/
sociability and neuroticism/emotionality (Sher and Trull, 1994; Sher et al.,
One of the most consistent findings in Brennan et al.'s (1986a) review, demonstrated
in 20 studies, was that a general personality dimension described as "impulse
expression/ sensation seeking" was associated with drinking more frequently,
in greater quantities and with more negative consequences among college students.
In these early studies, heavier drinkers were described as pleasure seeking,
extraverted, impulsive, rebellious and nonconforming. This relationship appeared
true for both men and women and for studies of observed behavior as well as
self-report. Several studies in the Brennan et al. (1986a) review also documented
that heavier drinkers consistently endorsed attitudes that were permissive of
Since 1985, this relationship between a personality style
of sensation seeking, disinhibition and nonconformity has
been replicated consistently. College students described as
impulsive (Camatta and Nagoshi, 1995) and disinhibited
(Clapper et al., 1994); scoring higher on Minnesota Multiphasic
Personality Inventory (MMPI) scales of Psychopathic
Deviate and Hypomania (Valliant and Scanlan, 1996); with
a history of deviant behavior (MacDonald et al., 1991),
sensation seeking (Arnett, 1996; Johnson, 1989) and nonconforming
(Havey and Dodd, 1993) drink more heavily
and more frequently than other students. Students with a
history of deviant conduct not only drink more before entering
college, but increase their drinking rates to a greater
degree on college entry (Baer et al., 1995). One study documented
a relationship between anger and drinking problems
as well (Leibsohn et al., 1994).
Nonconformity and deviance can also be implied by use
of multiple substances and early life initiation of alcohol
consumption. College students who report using marijuana
and cigarettes are more likely to drink heavily (Wechsler et
al., 1995). That heavy drinking does not always begin in
college has now become firmly established. Gonzalez (1989)
reported that only 7% of university students in Florida began
drinking in college. This estimate is consistent with
national studies of alcohol initiation, which typically begins
in teenage years, before college (Johnston et al., 1995).
In Gonzalez' (1989) study, students who began drinking
earlier in life, particularly beginning in elementary or middle
school, reported higher levels of drinking and greater
alcohol-related problems than those who began in high
school or college. This pattern has been noted in a study of
a historically black college (Lo and Globetti, 1993). Clapper
et al. (1994) further demonstrated that early onset of
drinking was associated with rates of drinking among
first-year college students even when personality and peer
use variables were controlled. Wechsler et al. (1995), in
their study of 140 campuses, found that the frequency of
heavy episodic drinking in high school was predictive of
the frequency of heavy episodic drinking in college when
controlling for a variety of other individual difference
The construct of sensation seeking and impulse expression
and nonconformity encompasses a variety of trait adjectives
and behavioral tendencies as noted above. Research
to date has not demonstrated that particular or specific aspects
of this general concept are more risky or important in
the prediction of heavy drinking and problems than other
aspects. Specific aspects of this general construct could represent
noise or error in assessment of the general construct.
At least one study (Earleywine et al., 1990) found that the
relationship between measures of personality risk for drinking
(California Psychological Inventory Socialization scale
and MMPI MacAndrew scale) and self-reported drinking
practices among college students was greatly increased when
the personality measures were treated as indicators of a
single underlying construct. Based on this analysis, fluctuating
relationships between measures of personality traits
relevant to impulse control and measures of drinking could
be due to unreliable assessment. On the other hand, it is
noteworthy that the Disinhibition subscale of Zuckerman's
Sensation Seeking Scale, which has been used frequently
in this research, does contain items that specifically ask
about alcohol use. A careful analysis of this scale, using
college students as subjects, suggests that relationships between
drinking and disinhibition could be exaggerated
(Darkes et al., 1998).
Religiosity/conventionality. Consistent with research indicating that
students who are more rebellious and less conforming to traditional values drink
more, several studies show that students who are more religious and more committed
to traditional values drink less. For example, the reasons students give for
limiting their drinking have been characterized as reflecting their upbringing,
performance, self-control and self-reform (Greenfield et al., 1989). In Wechsler
et al.'s (1995) report on surveys of 140 colleges, the belief that "religion
is important" was significantly and independently related to reduced frequency
of heavy drinking. Engs et al. (1996) similarly noted that students who endorsed
a questionnaire response that "religion was not important" drank more
heavily and reported a greater incidence of drinking problems compared with
others. In a survey of 264 college students, Patock-Peckham et al. (1998) showed
that students with no religious affiliation drank more frequently and at a higher
quantity but did not have greater problems than those with religious affiliations.
Lack of religious affiliation was also associated with higher perceived drinking
norms in this study. Lo and Globetti (1993) documented this relationship among
students of a historically black college, and Poulson et al. (1998) documented
a similar relationship, but only among southern women college students. Perkins
(1994) also suggested that religiosity may protect against heavy drinking under
contexts of greater ambiguity about drinking (less constraint). In this data
set, the relationship between religiosity and drinking was greatest among men
at periods of more permissive norms and when men perceived norms as more permissive.
The personality dimension of extraversion/sociability has
also been investigated as an individual difference predictive
of drinking in college students. Students rated as extraverted
(Martsh and Miller, 1997) and those who rate parties
as important (Wechsler et al., 1995) have been shown to
drink more than other students. This relationship may be
particularly relevant within college populations compared
with both younger and older samples. Research examining
this relationship in noncollege populations is mixed (Wood
et al., 2001). As reviewed by Wiggins and Wiggins (1992),
some studies find relationships between sociability and
drinking that are positive but weak, and many do not find
the relationship at all. Nezlek et al. (1994), however, argued
that even among college samples the relationship between
drinking and sociability is likely quite complex. By
analyzing daily logs of drinking and social activities of college
students, Nezlek et al. suggested that the greatest intimacy
was experienced by students who drank heavily
occasionally. Those who did not drink reported less intimacy
and less self-disclosure, and men who drank heavily
frequently rated their interactions as less intimate than any
other group of men or women. Nezlek et al. suggested that
students who have some heavy drinking experiences (but
not a great deal) appear most integrated into the college
community. Thus extraversion/sociability may be related
to drinking rates among college students, but less related to
drinking problems. More research is needed to better specify
the nature of this relationship.
The Brennan et al. (1986a) review also revealed mixed support for a relationship
between drinking patterns of college students and anxiety, depression and other
indices of emotional distress. Two studies were noted to find positive, but
weak relationships between high neuroticism scores and frequency of drinking,
but not quantity. Two different studies found relationships between extremely
high scores on trait anxiety and negative consequences of drinking. These relationships
were typically greater among female college students than among male college
students. However, at least two studies reported the inverse relationship—that
individuals who drank more frequently experienced less anxiety than those who
drink less frequently. Brennan et al. (1986a) documented four studies showing
a relationship between variables such as loneliness, frustration, depression
and boredom and drinking frequency, quantity and consequences among female college
students but not male college students.
More recently, Camatta and Nagoshi (1995) reported a
positive correlation between stress, depression, "irrational"
beliefs (thought to be a hallmark of depression) and
alcohol-related problems. Regression analyses further suggested
that the depression mediated the relationship between
stress and alcohol-related problems. Although this study
was limited by the convenience nature of the sample, and
the fact that the sample was not balanced across gender,
the mulitvariate analyses included measures of impulsiveness
and venturesomeness, thus testing a model with both
primary dimensions of personality present. Pullen (1994)
also reported depression and state anxiety as predictors of
drinking problems. Comorbidity between alcohol misuse
and depressive disorder was noted by Deykin et al. (1987)
in a study of 424 college students. Based on retrospective
self-report, the onset of depression was reported to precede
the onset of alcohol misuse.
Alcohol may also be used to manage anxiety. Kushner and Sher (1993) documented
increased comorbidity between anxiety and alcohol diagnoses. In this study,
alcohol diagnoses were almost twice as likely among those with anxiety disorder
compared with those without. This finding is particularly strong given that
the research sample was selected as representative of students (not convenience)
and that a diagnostic interview was used to assess anxiety disorders. Kushner
et al. (1999) followed up with a longitudinal analysis after the same sample
had been followed for 7 years. Results suggested reciprocal causal relationships
over time. Having an anxiety disorder at either Year 1 or Year 4 significantly
increased the likelihood of an alcohol disorder in Year 7. Similarly, the presence
of an alcohol disorder in Year 1 or Year 4 significantly increased the likelihood
of anxiety disorder in Year 7. It is noteworthy that this relationship may be
specific to higher levels of anxiety (levels that result in clinical diagnoses).
As noted above, studies are mixed with respect to moderate levels of social
anxiety predicting alcohol use (Brennan et al., 1986a).
In the Brennan et al. (1986a) review, five studies documented a relationship between frequency and
problems of drinking and lower self-esteem, although one study specifically
tested for this relationship and did not find it (Ratliff and Burkhart, 1984). In the Brennan et al. (1986a) review, there was some suggestion that the relationship
between self-esteem and drinking was stronger among females than males. More
recent research by Corbin et al. (1996) replicated the relationship between
increased drinking and lower self-esteem only among females. Walitzer and Sher
(1996) followed this line of research with the same sample of college students
noted above who were assessed annually over 4 years of college. Walitzer and
Sher found that low selfesteem at baseline prospectively predicted alcohol use
disorders at 3- and 4-year follow-up among women only. It is noteworthy that
Walitzer and Sher tested and ruled out the reverse effect, that heavy drinking
or drinking problems creates low self-esteem. The prospective and multivariate
nature of the Walitzer and Sher study lends considerable confidence in the observed
relationships. It is also noteworthy that alcohol-related problem diagnoses
represent a more stringent test of a relationship between self-esteem and drinking
problems than most studies that examine only drinking rates.
Drinking Motives, Alcohol Expectancies and Perceived Norms
A considerable amount of research has investigated cognitive factors in the
prediction of individual differences in drinking rates and associated problems.
Drinking motives refers to the need or psychological function that alcohol consumption
fulfills and are typically assessed by responses of students to questionnaires
about their reasons for drinking. Different motives for drinking are thought
to relate to primary psychological effects that are experienced with the consumption
of alcohol. A related concept is that of alcohol expectancies, defined as specific
beliefs about the behavioral, emotional and cognitive effects of alcohol. Alcohol
expectancies are also typically assessed by questionnaires, which ask respondents
to rate the likelihood and/or value of specific behaviors or feelings thought
to occur with alcohol consumption. Perceived norms refer to ratings students
make about the acceptability and typicality of various drinking behaviors. In
essence, the assessment of perceived norms is an attempt to measure students'
understanding of the social support and acceptance of drinking practices.
Brennan et al. (1986a) identified eight studies examining
different motives for alcohol consumption among college
students. Two general types of drinking motives
typically emerge in studies of college students: drinking
for social purposes and drinking for emotional escape or
relief. In the Brennan et al. (1986a) review, five studies
associated escape motives with increased drinking and related
problems among college students. However, at least
one study documented increased frequency of intoxication
associated with motives to drink for "getting drunk"
(Wechsler and Rohman, 1981).
More recent research suggests that both classes of motives
are likely important, perhaps for different individuals
for different types of outcomes. Haden and Edmundson
(1991) reported that, in contrast to predictions of other drug
use, alcohol use rates were better predicted by social motivation
than by personal motivation (although both motivations
were significant predictors of drinking within a
regression model). Bradley et al. (1992) similarly reported
that positive social motives were related to alcohol-related
negative consequences, in addition to negative personal motives.
A study by Billingham et al. (1993) suggests the presence
of gender differences in the function of drinking
motivations. Billingham et al. found more reasons for drinking
that actually related to drinking categories (moderate
versus heavy) for women than for men. For women, factors
such as "drink to get drunk," "forget disappointments,"
"feel good" and "get along better on dates" all contributed
to a multivariate discriminate analysis. For men, fewer factors
emerged, and one, "drinking to get drunk," accounted
for most of the multivariate prediction.
Cronin (1997) developed a "reasons for drinking" scale
with three primary dimensions: social camaraderie, mood
enhancement and tension reduction. Social camaraderie entered
first in regression models predicting drinking rates,
but mood enhancement entered first in prediction of alcohol-
related problems. In most models, all three motivations
demonstrated unique predictive potential. Finally, Carey and
Correia (1997) sought to use drinking motivations to understand
the relationship between drinking rates and
drinking-related problems among college students. Carey
and Correia found that negative reinforcement motives accounted
for variance in alcohol-related problems beyond
that accounted for by drinking rates. Positive reinforcement
motives did not significantly contribute to the multivariate
analysis. The authors concluded, based on additional analyses,
that both positive and negative reinforcement motives
contribute both indirectly and directly to account for drinking
problems. Gender did not interact with these effects.
It is noteworthy that none of the studies just described
pertaining to drinking motives were longitudinal in design,
and all used samples of convenience. Thus the generality
and the potential causal nature of relationships between
drinking motives and drinking rates and problems remain
to be demonstrated. One recent longitudinal study is an
exception, however. Perkins (1999) reported that stressmotivated
drinking became relatively (to other motivations)
more prevalent after college graduation, and at this later
time is associated with increased drinking rates. Interestingly,
this relationship appears sooner after college graduation
for women than for men.
In the last 10 years there has been considerable interest in how alcohol expectancies
relate to the use and risks associated with drinking. It is thought that the
cognitive representation of the effects of alcohol affects decisions and motivations
to drink and may reveal more problematic or risky patterns of use. Considerable
research has taken place with college students. Brown (1985) showed that alcohol
expectancies yielded better predictive capacity for college drinking than did
demographic variables. Further, social drinkers were shown to expect social
enhancement from alcohol, whereas problem drinkers were more likely to expect
tension reduction from alcohol. Thus alcohol expectancies not only increased
the predictability of college drinking, but were differentially related to problematic
and nonproblematic patterns of college drinking as well. Other studies using
college samples and different methodologies found that heavier drinkers report
more positive effects over all dimensions than lighter drinkers (Leigh, 1987;
see also Bogart et al., 1995). Leigh and Stacy (1993) similarly reported that
positive expectancy was a stronger predictor of rates of drinking than was negative
expectancy. Werner et al. (1995) reported that heavier drinkers expected more
positive effects on sociability and sexuality and expected less effects on cognitive
and behavioral impairment. These results are consistent with studies of expectancies
that use a free recall method as opposed to questionnaires. To control for potential
biases in forced-choice questionnaires, Wood et al. (1996) asked students to
generate their own beliefs about expected alcohol effects. Subjective ratings
of positivity of alcohol effects were related to drinking rates, but not problems.
Importantly, the absolute number of expectancies listed by students was correlated
with alcohol dependence symptoms. This finding is consistent with Stacy et al.'s
(1994) suggestion that frequent experiences with alcohol influence the accessibility
of thoughts about alcohol use and expected outcomes.
To test for possible causal relationships between alcohol
use and beliefs about alcohol effects, there have been several
recent attempts to use measures of expectancies to predict
drinking among college students over time. In a study
of 184 students who completed measures of drinking and
expectancies during the freshman and junior years, Werner
et al. (1995) reported that high-risk drinkers had the greatest
positive expectations for alcohol effects at both time
points. Participants who moved into a problem-drinking category
had higher positive expectancies at both time points
and developed less concern for negative outcomes over time.
Carey (1995a) also used a brief prospective design, assessing
drinking at 1-month intervals, and found that global
positive expectancies prospectively predicted maximum
daily quantity of drinking and that expectancies for sexual
enhancement prospectively predicted frequency of drinking.
Kidorf et al. (1995) studied alcohol expectancies in a
prospective design over a 2-month period. Prospective prediction
of beer consumption was found for expectancies of
increased social assertiveness and global positive changes,
but only among men.
Perhaps the most comprehensive prospective study of
expectancies and college drinking as of this writing is that
of Sher et al. (1996). In this sample, 458 college students,
half of whom were COAs, were assessed annually over 4
years, beginning as college freshman. Four subscales of
outcome expectancies were assessed (Tension Reduction,
Social Lubrication, Activity Enhancement and Performance
Enhancement) and used to measure a general construct of
the strength of alcohol outcome expectancies. Drinking rates
were assessed annually as well, using four measures of
drinking quantity and frequency. Results suggested first that
COAs report higher alcohol expectancies on all four scales
and that expectancies generally decrease over 4 years of
college. Prospective prediction of drinking rates from alcohol
expectancies was demonstrated over the 4-year interval.
This carefully conducted study also showed that the
prospective prediction was generally invariant across COA
status and gender.
Although the most consistent relationships have been
found for global positive expectations, some specific expectancies
have been linked to specific individuals. For example,
Mooney and Corcoran (1989), in a cross-sectional
design, reported that expectancies for social assertion were
associated with drinking rates only for those low in
assertiveness. Several studies, typically with cross-sectional
designs, have also sought to evaluate expectancies within
broader matrices of predictive factors for college drinking.
Wood et al. (1992) failed to find interactive effects between
expectancies and perceived norms and reasons for
drinking in the prediction of drinking. Cronin (1997), also
using a cross-sectional design, demonstrated that reasons
for drinking (motives) accounted for more variance in
alcohol use measures than did expectancies for alcohol
In the last several years, there has been considerable attention to social
norms for alcohol use on college campuses. Following data indicating that peer
use is a powerful predictor of individual use rates, and that heavy drinkers
hold attitudes more accepting of heavy drinking, Perkins and Berkowitz (1986)
noted that students, despite holding moderate attitudes about heavy drinking
themselves, perceived the community norm of alcohol use as much more liberal
than their own. This pattern of "pluralistic ignorance" was replicated
by Prentice and Miller (1996), documenting that Princeton students perceived
the average student to be more comfortable with campus drinking practices than
they themselves were. Baer and colleagues (Baer and Carney, 1993; Baer et al.,
1991) showed that students believed that normative drinking rates and drinking
consequences not only were higher than their own, but higher than they actually
were when measured independently. This discrepancy has been documented in ratings
of alcohol and other substance use in a large multicollege sample (Perkins et
There is some evidence that normative perceptions are
an individual risk factor for heavy drinking; that is, that
higher perceived norms are associated with higher levels of
drinking and problems (Perkins and Wechsler, 1996;
Thombs et al., 1997; Wood et al., 1992). Not all studies
document this relationship, including one specifically designed
to test it (Baer and Carney, 1993). One study (Wood
et al., 1992) showed that perceived social norms for drinking
were independently related to drinking rates but not
drinking-related problems, when tested within a multivariate
model that included measures of drinking motives and
alcohol expectancies. Perkins and Wechsler (1996) reported
that perceived norms for alcohol use predicted alcohol misuse
most strongly among students who also endorsed liberal
attitudes about drinking. Thus perceived norms for
drinking may justify or exacerbate heavy drinking only under
conditions where more accepting social attitudes already
exist. Research is needed to continue to refine the
measurement of perceptions of drinking norms and to better
understand what social and individual factors lead to
their development. Continued research is needed to document
that perceived norms independently predict heavy and
risky drinking with longitudinal designs.
Peer use is perhaps the strongest predictor of adolescent alcohol use (Bucholz,
1990; Jacob and Leonard, 1994). The college years are commonly marked by social
activity, and much of the alcohol used on college campuses is consumed at small
and large parties. Thus research into individual differences in drinking on
college campuses has begun to focus on both the assessment and prediction of
social activities in understanding drinking behavior. It is noteworthy that
the study of social activities necessarily combines studies of factors at the
individual level (i.e., the social organizations that students select and maintain)
and factors that exist at a more social level (i.e., the effects of social organizations
on their participants).
Social context is a term that is used to attempt to characterize social and
psychological environments where drinking takes place, and in so doing attempt
to measure the interaction of interpersonal, temporal and situation factors
(Thombs et al., 1997). Social contexts for drinking naturally vary with respect
to participants' age, gender, living situation, work and so on and thus hold
promise for capturing differences and similarities in drinking practices in
specific venues like college campuses.
Drinking contexts can be described without psychological
features, but simply by the size and the composition of
participants. Rosenbluth et al. (1978), for example, reported
that larger drinking groups were associated with greater
consumption of alcohol. Perkins and Berkowitz (1986) also
noted this pattern. More recently, Senchak et al. (1998)
evaluated social contexts of drinking with respect to the
size and gender makeup of social drinking events on college
campuses. Both group size and gender differences were
observed. Men reported greater frequency of drunkenness
in large groups of mixed sex and small groups of same sex
individuals compared with small mixed sex groups.
Women's frequency of drunkenness was unrelated to gender
mix or group size. It appears that women's presence in
small groups may moderate male consumption. It is noteworthy
in this study that men and women who reported
drinking in large mixed sex groups were less depressed
and less socially avoidant than those who preferred small
groups, although depression and social avoidance did not
account for differences in drinking in different social contexts.
Differences in drinking as a function of context also
could not be accounted for by alcohol expectancies or measures
of masculinity/femininity or youthful deviance.
Several researchers have recently sought to go beyond
the assessment of drinking context size and composition
and assess psychological and social factors present in drinking
contexts. At least two different measures have been
developed to assess drinking contexts specifically among
college students. Thombs and Beck (1994) developed a Social
Context of Drinking Scale with subscales assessing Social
Facilitation, Emotional Pain, Peer Acceptance, Family,
Sex Seeking and Motor Vehicle. O'Hare (1997) developed
a 23-item Drinking Context Scale, with three subfactors
assessing Convivial Drinking, Private Intimate Drinking and
Negative Coping. Thombs et al. (1997) reported that the
drinking context of social facilitation was strongly associated
with a measure of drinking intensity. Contexts of sex
seeking and emotional pain also contributed to multivariate
prediction. Beck et al. (1995) showed that drinking for social
facilitation and disinhibition were important discriminators
between higher and lower intensity drinkers in both
genders. However, for women, drinking in the context of
emotional pain further discriminated between higher and
lower intensity drinkers. Perhaps due to conceptual proximity
to actual drinking behavior, drinking context scales
for college students have been shown to be better predictors
of drinking than are measures of personality (Beck et
al., 1995) and alcohol expectancies (Thombs et al., 1993).
Carey (1993) reported that contexts for college drinking
are specific rather than general. Carey showed that heavy
drinkers in a college sample differed from moderate drinkers
in their ratings of the frequency of drinking in four of
eight types of drinking situations. The situations that did
differentiate between the groups were social pressure to
drink, pleasant times, pleasant emotions and physical discomfort.
Carey (1995b) replicated and extended this line of
research, showing that situation ratings were associated with
drinking problems as well as rates. It is noteworthy that
Carey (1995b) observed no gender differences in the relationship
between situation ratings and drinking problems.
Activities and organizations
Several studies have examined variation in student drinking as a function of
the types of activities and organizations in which students participate. Some
of these activities are quite public and highly visible (e.g., athletics) and
thus attract a fair amount of attention from administrators. Where students
live also affects drinking. Students living at home with parents tend to drink
less (Valliant and Scanlan, 1996). Residence in dormitories has also been associated
with increased drinking in larger population studies (Barnes et al., 1992; Gfroerer
et al., 1997).
There are strong data suggesting that members of Greek
social organizations, fraternities and sororities drink more
heavily and more frequently than other students (Cashin et
al., 1998; Engs et al., 1996; Wechsler et al., 1995). In the
Cashin et al. (1998) study of more than 25,000 students
from 61 institutions, students affiliated with Greek system
organizations reported greater frequency of drinking, greater
quantity of drinking and more negative consequences related
to use compared with students not affiliated with Greek
organizations. Members of Greek organizations felt that alcohol
was a vehicle for friendship, social activity and sexuality
in greater numbers than did comparison nonmembers.
Further, the leadership within Greek organizations drank as
much or more than did average members, suggesting that
leadership may set heavy drinking norms. Indeed, some
studies of biased perceptions of behavioral norms were conducted
among members of Greek houses (Baer and Carney,
1993; Baer et al., 1991). Fraternities also appear to accept
higher levels of drinking as normal (Baer, 1994). Fraternity
membership is associated with initiation of drinking among
that subset of students who do not already drink on entry
into college (Lo and Globetti, 1993). In Wechsler et al.'s
(1995) study, membership in a fraternity was the strongest
predictor of the frequency of heavy drinking in a final logistic
regression of 18 risk factors. It is noteworthy that
studies of Engs et al. (1996), Cashin et al. (1998) and
Wechsler et al. (1995) all involve questionnaire data from
multiple colleges, thus increasing confidence of the
generalizability of the finding. Finally, Sher et al. (2001)
have recently shown with their longitudinal study that heavy
drinking associated with membership in fraternities and sororities
does not persist in the years after college. Given
the time-limited nature of drinking in these social organizations,
and controlling for individual drinking levels when
entering the social organizations, led Sher et al. (2001) to
argue that social normative processes appear critical for
students in these contexts.
Data from two different multicampus data sets also suggest
that college students involved in athletics drink more
frequently than other students. Based on the Core Survey,
Leichliter et al. (1998) reported on responses of more than
50,000 students from 125 institutions. Both male and female
college students who were also athletes drank more
heavily, drank more frequently and reported more negative
consequences from drinking compared with nonathletes.
Leichliter et al. further found that male leaders of athletic
teams drank at a rate higher than that of other team members.
In the Wechsler et al. (1995) study of 140 colleges,
response to the item "athletics are important" was associated
with increased rates of heavy drinking, even when
controlling for other risk factors.
It is noteworthy that, although members of athletic and
Greek organizations have been shown to drink more than
other students, little is known about how members of these
organizations differ from other students on other dimensions.
Heavy drinking is not found uniformly in all Greek
organizations; students in some organizations drink considerably
more than students in other organizations (Harrington
et al., 1997). Leibsohn (1994) noted, for example, that students
entering college selected friends who drank in a similar
manner. There is some evidence that high school students
who plan to join fraternities drink more than their peers
who do not plan to join (Baer et al., 1995). Yet in this
same study the drinking of fraternity members increased
more than did the drinking of others on entry to college. It
is likely that drinking is influenced both by selection of
social organizations and by socialization within organizations.
Sher et al.'s (2001) recent study suggests that heavy
drinking occurs in Greek houses independent of selection
processes and provides some hope that such heavy drinking
is limited to the time period in college when social
norms for drinking are elevated.
Researchers have recently begun to study a specific social interaction common
on college campuses, the "drinking game." Drinking games involve a
set of rules that typically define when and how much participants must drink.
Most rules are designed to ensure large consumption of alcohol (Newman et al.,
1991). Participants in such games report increased levels of drinking and drinking-related
problems compared with nonparticipants (Engs and Hansen, 1993; Wood et al.,
1992). Yet, in one descriptive study, once general alcohol use rates are controlled,
game playing did not contribute to the prediction of alcohol-related problems
(Nagoshi et al., 1994). Nagoshi et al. found that game participation was related
to celebratory reasons for drinking, use of marijuana and impulsivity. Johnson
et al. (1998), via questionnaires completed by college undergraduates, reported
that greater frequency of play was associated with lower social anxiety. Alcohol
expectancies were not found to moderate this relationship. In a follow-up study,
Johnson et al. (1999) developed an assessment of specific reasons for game playing
and found that game playing was associated with a desire for celebration and
a desire to meet potential sexual partners.
Summary and Commentary
The goal of this review was to examine research on individual factors in relation
to alcohol consumption among college students. Research before 1985 was summarized
in a comprehensive review published in 1986 (Brennan et al., 1986a,b), which
creates a natural point of reference. Initial pre-1986 research into individual
differences in college student drinking focused on traditional aspects of personality
to explain why some students drink more than others. Drinking motives were examined
as a way of understanding different needs that alcohol might fulfill. Few multivariate
hypotheses were tested. In general terms, a pattern of behavior characterized
by sensation seeking, impulsivity and nonconventionality consistently related
to increased drinking. There was also evidence of a smaller factor of stress
and affect relief drinking among college students, although studies are more
mixed in support of this dimension. Drinking for stress and relief of negative
affect was more consistently noted among females. Early studies of drinking
motives tended to suggest that personal, emotion-coping motives were more strongly
related to problems with alcohol than were social motives for drinking. Membership
in Greek social organizations and social activities in large groups were associated
with increased drinking.
Research since 1985 is highly variable in quality;
many studies still rely on questionnaires at one point in time and ignore multivariate
models of risk of alcohol-related problems, whereas other studies have become
somewhat more sophisticated. Several recent reports assess multiple dimensions
of drinking behavior and test multivariate relationships. In the last 15 years,
new dimensions of individual differences have been developed and assessed, including
expectancies of alcohol effects, better measures of drinking motivation, assessment
of perceived norms for drinking and assessment of drinking contexts. It has
now become the norm to assess both drinking rates and drinking problems. Further,
there are now at least three large, cross-institution data sets that can address
student factors (Meilman et al., 1998). Relationships documented with these
data sets lend considerably more confidence to results than those found with
studies from single institutions and based on samples of convenience. Perhaps
most importantly, recently a few well-designed longitudinal studies have been
completed that better address causal inferences (albeit most of the longitudinal
studies are from one data set in Missouri).
It is noteworthy, of course, that even large, multicampus
data sets can be biased based on who tends to complete
questionnaires at various institutions. Even recent large studies
of college students do not attempt nor document representative
sampling across different demographic and social
dimensions of college populations (Meilman et al., 1998).
Thus what we know about student factors and drinking for
the most part is limited to those who complete questionnaires.
Studies of representative samples of college populations
remain sorely needed.
Results of research conducted in the past 15 years are
consistent with those that came earlier. For example, results
from personality research showing a strong relationship
between impulsivity and drinking are supported by
research on drinking motives and drinking expectancies, as
well as drinking contexts. An impulsive/sensation-seeking
style seems manifest in the reporting of positive social motives,
expecting greater positive effects from alcohol and
participating in drinking games. Research has not yet directly
linked personality dimensions of sensation seeking/impulsivity to specific drinking motives, expectancies and
game playing, but some evidence provides linkage, and the
confluence seems likely. A second general pattern of drinking,
one that is associated with stress and emotional coping,
also is supported by research on drinking motives,
expectancies, self-esteem and drinking contexts. Furthermore,
anxiety disorders have been shown to be comorbid
with alcohol disorders among college students, from both
cross-sectional and longitudinal designs. This pattern of
drinking likely constitutes a relatively smaller proportion
of college drinking than that associated with socializing
and impulsivity, but should not be overlooked. At least one
longitudinal study has demonstrated prospective reciprocal
relationships between alcohol diagnoses and anxiety diagnoses
years after college. Thus alcohol use associated with
managing anxious affective states may contribute to longstanding
adjustment problems. Longitudinal relationships
with drinking have not been demonstrated with more common
and socially based motives for drinking.
Research further suggests that sociability and extraversion
may have a specific role in the etiology of drinking
within the college context. This is noteworthy because sociability
does not consistently relate to drinking problems
in other, noncollege populations (Sher and Trull, 1994;
Wood et al., 2001). Data showing the strong effects of social
organizations on drinking, as well as personality assessment,
suggest this conclusion. Sociability and
extraversion may also at least partially explain why college
students, temporarily, drink more than their noncollege peers
(Schulenberg et al., 2001).
The consistent assessment of both drinking rates and
drinking problems has not, to date, revealed simple conclusions
about differences in the prediction of rates and problems.
In summary, both impulsive/sensation-seeking type
drinking and stress/anxiety-based drinking are associated
with both increased drinking rates and increased negative
consequences. There is some evidence that stress/anxiety based
drinking is associated with long-term and more severe
negative outcomes. Yet even highly social drinking
results in negative consequences for college students. Future
research should examine if different drinking motives
result in different types of drinking problems. Such research
necessitates the development of assessment techniques that
can reliably differentiate among various negative consequences
experienced within college contexts.
It is tempting to call for more multivariate research that
tests theoretical and mediation models among the array of
etiologic factors reviewed above. The dimensions or levels
of individual variation reviewed above may interrelate in
complex ways. For example, social contexts that students
select or are exposed to may have powerful effects on attitudes
and on drinking behavior. Dimensions of personality,
such as a tendency toward sensation seeking, may relate
not only to drinking but to the choice of drinking partners
as well. Research that integrates these various levels of
influence and dimensions of behavior is needed. Further,
multivariate models should also be developed and interpreted
in combination with other broader social factors reviewed
elsewhere. For example, it may be that students
who reside in certain microsocial settings (i.e., fraternities)
or individuals characterized by a certain personality style
(i.e., sensation seekers) are least affected by broader social
factors (i.e., price and availability constraints).
Some of this research has already begun. In the last 15
years, several researchers have begun testing multivariate
or interactive models of individual differences among college
students, for example, by examining demographic factors,
drinking motives, expectancies and personality
simultaneously and statistically controlling for multiple effects.
Some intriguing interactive effects have been noted
in the literature. For example, religiosity may be more protective
against heavy drinking when or where social mores
are most ambiguous (Perkins, 1994). Multivariate research
also has addressed the uniqueness of factors being studied,
for example, by showing that motives are to some extent
distinct from expectancies.
To date, however, multivariate research efforts have for
the most part not produced evidence of powerful interaction
or mediation among constructs. Most multivariate research
reviewed above tends to show that when various
theoretical predictive factors are tested simultaneously, each
carries unique predictive capacity (Bradley et al., 1992;
Clapper et al., 1994; Cronin, 1997; Engs et al., 1996; Evans
and Dunn, 1995; MacDonald et al., 1991; Pullen, 1994;
Thombs et al., 1997; Wechsler et al., 1995; Wood et al.,
1992). Although such results could be artifactual based on
sampling and the nature of questionnaires, it is also likely
that each of the "explanatory" factors contributes to the
prediction of heavy drinking, but is not a simple or central
predictive factor in and of itself. Strong models of mediation
have not to date been supported in the literature with
Future research efforts on student factors also should
attend to developmental models of drinking as a method to
specify dependent measures. In particular, Zucker and colleagues
(Zucker, 1987, 1994; Zucker et al., 1995), in proposing
a multivariate and integrative model of alcoholism
risk, suggested that different types of "alcoholisms" are associated
with different etiologic processes. Three central
types of developmental paths are proposed to account for
common courses. The first, "sociopathic alcoholism," is
characterized by early onset, high sociopathy, criminality
and high severity of drinking problems. This pattern of
drinking problems may be strongly genetically influenced
and associated with personality patterns of implusivity and
sensation seeking, begin early and follow a chronic course.
A second pattern of "developmentally limited" alcoholrelated
problems is also proposed, consistent with epidemiological
data showing that heavy drinking in adolescents
is associated with other delinquent behavior, but is commonly
limited in time, diminishing significantly on the transition
to young adulthood. This second pattern is likely
associated with impulsivity (to a lesser degree than the sociopathic
type) as well as extraversion. "Negative affect
alcoholism," alcohol-related problems related to depressive
and anxious symptomatology, is a third developmental path.
It is thought to begin later in life, develop more slowly and
be less associated with adolescence in general and delinquent
behavior in specific. Zucker et al. (1995) suggested
that in each case environmental processes (stress, lack of
essential parenting, availability of alcohol) and/or biological
processes (temperament, physiologic sensitivity) facilitate
the development of problems (see also Tarter and
Taken as a whole, the research literature with college
students suggests that the first developmental trajectory (sociopathic)
may not be common on college campuses. The
key endpoints, high levels of dependence and high criminality,
do not appear as dependent measures in the college
drinking literature. Genetic effects, although likely present
in college populations, may be limited in magnitude, and
the chronicity and severity of drinking problems associated
with sociopathic trajectories are not documented. It is
likely that many of these individuals never achieve college
entrance. Thus a search for the individual with severe
alcohol-related problems and high sociopathy among current
college students will be generally unsuccessful and will
miss much of the problematic drinking that does exist.
In contrast, the second pattern of developmentally limited
alcohol-related problems may account for much of the
drinking found on college campuses. Relationships between
drinking and impulsive expression, deviance, alcohol expectancies
and drinking contexts support this conclusion.
That college drinking is associated with sociability and
extraversion also fits well within a model of developmentally
limited alcohol-related problems. A developmentally limited
model of college drinking is also consistent with data
documenting that heavy drinking does not generally persist
into postcollege roles (Donovan et al., 1983; Jessor et al.,
Negative affect alcoholism, alcohol-related problems related
to depressive and anxious symptomatology, also appears
to be represented in college samples and, although
less common, may carry greater risk for chronic problems
over the long term. There is some albeit inconsistent evidence
that drinking motives associated with management
of negative affect are associated with greater problems. Longitudinal
studies also document reciprocal prediction of anxiety
diagnoses and alcohol diagnoses.
As just described, the now large literature on the etiology
of drinking problems can be conceptually summarized
by examining covariation in several risk factors and by as-
sessing patterns of change over time. It is likely that the
population of college drinkers represent several different
patterns of drinking with different developmental trajectories.
The research on college student drinking too often
examines only one point in time and thus does not relate
research findings to possible developmental processes. Some
central issues remain unexplored. For example, is variability
in college drinking time limited or enduring over years?
For whom? What constellation of etiologic factors predicts
different patterns of drinking over time? What types of settings
constrain drinking for what types of students? Through
what kinds of social influence processes? A better understanding
of the processes that lead to problems for certain
individuals in certain settings will develop through exploration
of these questions. Further, with an understanding of
risk factors in contexts, administrators and health professionals
will be better able to identify and reach those most
in need of services and adjust the content of prevention
programs for maximum effectiveness.
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†Correspondence should be sent to the author at VA Puget
Sound Health Care System, S-116-ATC, 1660 South Columbian Way, Seattle, WA 98108-
1597 or via email at: JSBAER@U.Washington.edu.
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005