Resisting Peer Pressure: Characteristics Associated with Other-Self Discrepancies in College Students' Levels of Alcohol Consumption

Article excerpt

Abstract

Since college undergraduates tend to increase their use of alcohol to match what they perceive to be normative, the assumption has been that students who believe that others on campus drink more than they do (a common misperception) are in a vulnerable position. Taking a different perspective, we consider large other-self discrepancies in levels of alcohol consumption as indicative of a capacity to resist situational pressures that favor drinking. OLS regression was used to assess the relationship between student background characteristics, self-presentational tendencies, and a gender-specific other-self gap measure. Overall, those individuals who drank closest to what they regarded as typical for same-sex peers at their school were students high in public self-consciousness with a family history of alcohol abuse and males who exhibited a tendency toward cross-situational variability. Students not affiliated with the Greek system who consciously limited their alcohol intake to avoid negative outcomes, on the other hand, drank substantially below what they perceived to be normative for their gender, suggesting that they were the most able to resist peer pressure.

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Given the negative consequences associated with the abuse of alcohol on college campuses, many institutions now have specific policies designed to reduce students' levels of alcohol consumption (Wechsler, Kelley, Weitzman, Giovanni & Sebring, 2002). Despite this, the rate of heavy, or binge drinking, has remained relatively stable at around 44%. Moreover, both the percentage of frequent binge drinkers and drinkers who report consuming alcohol for the explicit purpose of becoming intoxicated have increased since the early 1990s (Wechsler, Lee, Kuo, Sebring, Nelson & Lee, 2002).

Although students drink for a variety of reasons (Baer, 2002), peer pressure plays an important role in maintaining these patterns. Peer pressure has three forms: explicit offers of alcohol, role modeling, and social norms (Borsari & Carey, 2001). In this paper we focus on the latter type of social influence.

Across analyses, measures of common campus drinking practices, often constructed by asking survey respondents to estimate how much alcohol the "typical" student at their school drinks (e.g., Baer, Stacy & Larimer, 1991; Wood, Read, Palfai, & Stephenson, 2001), are strongly associated with students' personal drinking habits (see Borsari & Carey, 2001 for a review of this literature). Since they are based on the behaviors of non-intimates whose approval and friendship has yet to be obtained, conceptualizing drinking norms in this manner captures the essence of the concept of peer pressure (Shore, Rivers & Berman, 1983). Students who see heavy drinking as a common activity at their school are likely to increase their levels of alcohol consumption in order to gain social acceptance and avoid negative peer evaluations. Since they tend to overestimate the amount of alcohol consumed by others on campus this serves to perpetuate abusive drinking practices (Baer, Stacy & Larimer, 1991; Perkins & Wechsler, 1996) that may not coincide with their underlying attitudes (Prentice & Miller, 1993; Schroeder & Prentice, 1998).

Given their success in reducing alcohol abuse on some college campuses (Perkins, Haines & Rice, 2005), norm corrective initiatives, which provide students with accurate information about how much other students are drinking, have been the subject of much discussion within the substance abuse literature. This approach is based on the assumption that students who perceive large other-self discrepancies in levels of alcohol consumption are in a vulnerable position and are highly likely to benefit from this type of intervention (Borsari & Carey, 2001). On the other hand, substantial gaps between students' own drinking and what they believe to be normative may reflect a capacity to resist peer influence. …