March 2001

From University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Study: Drinking in fraternities, sororities doesn't necessarily continue after college

Chapel Hill -- In the past, research has often linked belonging to a fraternity or sorority to heavy drinking during college.

Now, however, contrary to popular belief, students who drink a lot as part of fraternity and sorority life do not necessarily keep drinking at that level after they have finished college, a unique new study shows. Many "Greek" graduates appear to moderate their drinking once they leave campus.

Belonging to and participating in the social organizations, which tend to accept heavy drinking as normal, is what promotes the behavior, not a predisposition to drinking, the study shows. Other research has demonstrated that changing surroundings and social roles associated with work, marriage and parenthood tends to promote varying degrees of abstinence.

"This is an important study because for the first time it shows directly how important the perception of peer support is in these groups and that the behavior changes after college when presumably the peer support ends," said Dr. Bruce D. Bartholow, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Previously, some people have believed that students who were in fraternities and sororities drank heavily because that's the kind of personality they have. We've shown that the social context, or situation, is what's important." A report on the study appears in the March issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, a professional journal published by the American Psychological Association. Besides Bartholow, who earned his doctorate at the University of Missouri, authors are Dr. Kenneth J. Sher, professor of psychology, and undergraduate Shivani Nanda, both at UM.

"In a sense, what we found echoes the expression 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do,'" Bartholow said. "When people are no longer in Rome, they aren't expected to act like Romans and usually stop doing so. In general, the same holds for drinking behavior."

The research involved surveying 319 continuously enrolled college students about their drinking habits each year during their time at the University of Missouri and again three years after graduation. Researchers also assessed and controlled for the students' academic abilities, major personality traits, previous alcohol use and other factors.

As expected, members of Greek letter organizations drank significantly more than non-members during their college years, investigators found. The former were no more likely than non-members, however, to drink excessively three years later.

"Drinking patterns among Greeks and those not affiliated with a Greek house were clearly different during college, but by three years after college, levels of heavy drinking among Greek members had moderated significantly," the authors wrote. "Once the students leave campus they are no longer immersed in a social environment that supports heavy drinking, and their drinking decreases as a result."

Effective prevention of excessive alcohol consumption on campus involves efforts with clear alcohol policies, consistent enforcement of those policies and coordination with prevention efforts in the larger community surrounding the campus, they wrote.

"There also needs to be appropriate intervention services for those students manifesting signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence and methods for identifying and motivating them for treatment," the three concluded.

In a sense, the findings are good news, Bartholow said.

"Our study shows that the heavy drinking does taper off for most of these people after college," he said. "Drinking among most members of these social organizations is almost totally driven by what students believe their friends think and not by a need to drink."

One strength of the study was that it utilized a prospective design and followed students over time, Bartholow said. That allowed researchers to predict future behavior with current or previous Greek affiliation. Most studies of college student drinking examine such questions at only one time, which limits the results. The study group did not include students who dropped out during their college years, however.

Note: Bartholow can be reached at 919-843-5486 before 10:30 a.m. Friday, March 9 and again beginning March 19. Friday afternoon (March 9) to Saturday evening (March 10), he will be at 913-381-1857. During UNC's spring break, March 12-17, he will be at 573-882-9770 days and 573-441-0273 evenings. E-mail: bartholow@unc.edu. Sher's number is 573-882-4279 and e-mail, sherk@missouri.edu. Their article is available at http://www.apa.org/journals/adb/adb15142.html.












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