Why do college students love getting wasted?

New research uncovers the secret attraction of binge drinking. An expert explains the surprising results

Published August 28, 2011 5:01PM (EDT)

Like many North American college students, I am an experienced binge drinker. Most weekend nights during my undergraduate years, I would "pregame" with my dorm mates, before moving to local bars, and then one of my college town's crappy dance clubs, before staggering home, and, often, ending up with my head perched above the toilet. As part of my college's crew team, I would celebrate our victories (and losses) by drinking half-liters of vodka straight out of the bottle. And I would often make my way to my morning classes feeling like one of the worms from "Tremors" had just tried to wedge itself into my forehead.

In retrospect, all of this sounds both obnoxious and exhausting, but when I was 18 years old, drinking held a real, magical appeal. When drunk, I would feel socially skilled, and wonderfully impulsive, and far more fun than I'd ever been before. I was drawn to alcohol because it allowed me to escape my natural shyness and bond with people I barely even knew.

It's those kinds of positive experiences that fascinate Thomas Vander Ven, an associate professor in the department of sociology at Ohio University. In his new book, "Getting Wasted," he aims to uncover not the dangers of college drinking, but what attracts  students to alcohol in the first place. And booze, he finds, not only helps young students alleviate their social anxiety, it helps them grow close friendships, and find romantic love. By taking care of other drinkers when they're feeling ill, he argues, many student drinkers also get their first taste of adult responsibility, findings that have major implications for the ways in which we think about alcohol.

Salon spoke to Vander Ven over the phone about the origins of college drinking, the Greeks' role in drinking culture and why helicopter parenting is making things worse.

Usually when people talk about college binge drinking they use terms like, "epidemic" or "plague." But you don't write about it in such a negative way. Why?

The history of alcohol research is the history of pathology. There's a lot of focus on addiction, and the ways in which alcohol destroys lives and destroys families, and in [the] college drinking world in particular, there are these long lists and inventories of all its harms. That's important because some bad things do happen, but what past researchers have missed is why it's fun. I asked that question of my informants, and I could tell it was the first time that anybody asked them that -- "Did you have fun?" "Yeah, of course I had fun." OK, so, what was fun about it? What are the payoffs? And I think it's important to know because if people are serious about understanding this issue, and what's behind it and what to do about it, they need to understand what college kids are getting out of drinking.

College has been associated with binge drinking for a very long time, especially if you think about its portrayals in popular culture. Where does this come from?

There's been this social construction of college as a place for heavy drinking, partly thanks to Hollywood depictions. I grew up in the '70s and our major exposure to college was "Animal House" and movies that were all about getting hammered. And then a lot of us are introduced to college through siblings and parents, and people who go to college have a ton of stories about drinking.

But a lot of it has to do with the structural position that these young people are in. They're 18- to 22-year-olds. They're away from the supervision of their parents, many of them for the first time, and that's an important time in life to search for identity. And for my informants alcohol was a vehicle for hooking up and meeting people and having romantic and sexual interactions. It's sort of a perfect storm to produce this high-risk behavior.

But in real life, it's something that really emerged from the Ivy League.

There was a lot of heavy drinking in the big three Ivy League schools. It represented establishment privilege. If I go away to college and I spend most of my time just drinking, and not working hard, that sort of suggests to my audience that I don't need to work hard and that I'm one of the elite. Some of that still happens today. One way to demonstrate to your audience that you have a lot of money and status is to buy a round of drinks. And students today are jacking up their credit card debt by buying a lot of drinks for others and themselves.

This is partly colored by my prejudices, but when I think about binge drinking in college, the first groups I really think of as being part of that are fraternities and sports teams. How true is that?

From survey research, we know who the typical drinkers are: People involved in Greek organizations are more likely to be heavy drinkers, and collegiate athletes do have higher levels of binge drinking. But non-Greeks are also heavily involved in drinking in the dorms and off-campus housing.

In the book, you talk about how the students are really drawn to binge drinking by the idea of the "shit show" -- that anything, from throwing up in a corner to hooking up with a stranger, can happen when they're extremely drunk. What do you mean by that?

Talking to my respondents, one of the things that struck me was how many students talk about being shy or feeling unprepared for social situations and that alcohol is a resource for them to let their guard down. One of my respondents told me that "alcohol takes a few bricks out of the wall." Mine is not a nationally representative survey, and a lot of my findings should generate hypothesis for larger-scale research, but if you take my informants at their word, there are a lot of shy people with some social phobias, and alcohol helps them to, as some of them describe it, let "the real me come out."

They're more likely to say and do things [when they drink] that they normally wouldn't do -- show affection to their peers, get angry at them, get more emboldened to sing and dance and take risks and act crazy and there's a ton of laughing that goes on. It creates this world of adventure. It creates war stories. It creates bonding rituals. When things go wrong -- the getting sick, the getting arrested, the getting upset -- it gives them an opportunity to care for one another, to deliver social support. So you've got young adults who, for the first time, are taking care of a sick person, staying up all night with them, consoling them when they're upset. It's an opportunity for them to try on adult roles.

A lot of what you say really rings true. I definitely had a lot of social anxiety when I was in college. I was on a varsity rowing team, and I was gay, and I drank partly to get over the awkwardness that came with that.

Oh god. Yeah, that makes sense. Did that work for you?

I don't know if it helped my social skills but it did give me a sense of camaraderie. After a race, everyone would get shitfaced and the next morning we would all feel like crap, and it was like we had survived something together -- like seeing a horror movie. Just being part of that experience made me feel less like an outsider.

The analogy to the horror movie is very consistent with my data. Putting a positive spin on something like a hangover is part of this stuff. Because nobody wants to be sick, but if you're doing it with a bunch of other people and kind of laughing at it, like, "Oh my god I feel like shit," it brings a group of together.

And as soon as I left college -- it was almost instantaneous -- the idea of being hung over just became extraordinarily unappealing and I stopped drinking so much.

That's a lot of people's experience -- drinking in college is just a very different enterprise than once you graduate.

How has the growth of "helicopter parenting" changed the college drinking experience?

There's been some recent research on this. In recent decades parents have been able to check up on their kids more through technology, through Facebook and text messages, and kids' lives have been more choreographed, whether it's being involved in teams or different kinds of lessons and activities and structured places. A recent phenomenon is the parent-orchestrated play date -- when I was a kid I'd never heard of a play date, you just kind of found somebody to play with, and now parents are organizing this. So when they go away to college they feel more off the leash than they would have in past history. They feel this real sense of autonomy. That might result in them taking more risks, and it also means that they may have less practice in managing those risks.

But if they weren't given the opportunity to solve problems when they were younger, the drinking scene also provides them with opportunities to do those things. Taking care of drunks is a way for them to show adult competence.

I imagine that Facebook has also changed that. Posting Facebook photos of yourself doing stupid stuff while drunk is almost a badge of honor for a lot of people.

I get the sense, at least from my limited sample of respondents, that posting pictures on Facebook to document the night is now part of the narrative. The war stories now are there forever. I can't imagine wanting that to be out there, but you now can document a night of drinking on there as a living diary.

College binge drinking seems to be a very American phenomenon. Countries like France, for example, seem to have much more responsible attitudes toward alcohol. What makes us so different?

Part of it could be drinking age, and the reason it may be related is that in cultures where people are allowed to drink at a younger age and as a part of everyday life, they learn how to use alcohol. Learning how to drink safely is a process, and in some other cultures alcohol is not just about getting hammered. They learn to drink moderately, they learn to drink as part of a meal, for example. And then it also raises the question: If you compare us to other nations, are American young people so self-conscious and so shy and lacking in social skills by comparison that they feel they need alcohol to navigate the social scene?

I think part of the excitement of drinking when you're underage is that process of getting the fake ID, and the sense of adventure that comes with it. It makes you want to binge drink because it's so hard to get alcohol at that point that when you have it, you really go crazy.

When it's illegal, it drives it underground, and it creates more adventure -- getting the fake ID, working together with peers to avoid social control, whether it's cops or RAs, ID, all that. One of my students talked about it as this cat-and-mouse game with the university, and that added to the excitement of it.

I think if you're of legal age, you can incorporate it a little bit more into everyday life. After a day at work you can have a drink at the pub, instead of going to somebody's room and turning it into an event. In the part of Canada where I'm from the legal drinking age is 18, and I honestly think it helped me develop a healthier attitude toward alcohol.

Right, I like the language you used there -- integrate it more into your everyday life. I think that's what a lot of college kids are missing. When they drink it is the main event. They're gathering somewhere together to get intoxicated, instead of just having a beer with a meal or after a meet. I think that does make a difference.

Are you in favor of lowering the drinking age?

I don't know that it would make much of a difference, at least initially. I would be in favor of lowering the drinking age if it was accompanied by some cultural changes, but you know as much as we love alcohol in the United States, we really are a temperance society. I think that if we lowered the drinking age, if young kids still think alcohol deviant, and it isn't integrated into everyday life in the way that you said, college drinking would still have the same sort of draw. And all the things that I say that contribute to college drinking, like the breaking down of barriers and feeling less shy and needing love interests, all these things would still be there. And in some nations where you can drink at a younger age there are some pretty high levels of alcohol dependence. Look at Russia, for example -- people are drinking at a younger age there, but there's also a lot of alcoholism.

In that case, how do you think we can actually improve our college drinking culture?

If you talk to university administrators and health promotion specialists at universities around the nation they will often say they have reduced heavy drinking at their college. I don't want to say it's been worthless, but the rates of drinking have remained pretty constant -- around 44 percent of college students are binge drinkers. So what can we do to make it a safer enterprise? One of the things we can do is educate and train students to be better bystanders. Effective bystanders notice that something is wrong. They recognize that there's something that needs to be attended to, and they feel responsible enough to help.

One of the things that worries me about the college drinking scene is the high level of sexual victimization. So why not tell first-year students to take care of their friends, look out for them, don't let them get in situations with a high potential for sexual victimization. Notice the signs of dangerous intoxication. It's a simple thing -- if your friend is really passed out drunk and unresponsive, don't put him to bed, call 911. And we should train students to not only respond to tragedy or potential tragedy, but to exert pressure on one another when their friends are drinking more than they should. If your friend's really intoxicated and they think they need more shots, it's your job as a friend to tell them that it's not a good idea.

I'm not saying tell them not to drink. You can do that too, but if they are going to drink, what can you do to encourage them and train them to take care of each other? 

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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