Greek life won’t make you a drunk, yet

WASHINGTON – Participation in Greek fraternities and sororities, long considered a haven for heavy drinking on college campuses, may not necessarily lead to heavier drinking later in life, a new study shows.

The study, published Sunday by the American Psychological Association, found that students in the Greek system tend to drink more often and more heavily than other students. But the average number of times a week that fraternity and sorority members drank – four or five for some – dropped significantly after graduation.

“Our analyses consistently indicated that Greeks drank more heavily than non-Greeks during the college years but that this difference was no longer apparent three years after college,” the report stated.

The report found that most heavy drinkers are peer-influenced, and that most Greek students weren’t driven by how enjoyable they perceived alcohol to be or by the perceived social benefits of alcohol use. Students drink more in an atmosphere where heavy alcohol use is considered normal and where peers encourage and support this type of behavior.

But when the situation changes, so does the drinking behavior. It’s what the report’s co-author, Dr. Kenneth Sher, referred to as “the maturing out effect.” Recent graduates assume new roles in society as parents, spouses and members of the workforce, and find they can no longer continue their college behavior.

“It’s possible they still would like to engage in heavy drinking but find reality constraints prohibit that type of behavior,” said Sher, a psychologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

The study attributes heavier drinking in fraternities and sororities to a combination of two factors. First, the Greek environment may attract personality types already predisposed to heavy drinking. Second, the Greek social environment encourages heavy drinking.

The report studied 319 mostly white participants at a large Midwestern university. They were evaluated yearly for their first four years at college and once three years later. Participants averaged 24 years old by the end of the report, and they will continue to be evaluated in future studies.

While heavy drinking tends not to continue after graduation, Mark Goldman of the University of South Florida said it could cause problems in school. Goldberg, a research professor working on a national report on college binge drinking, said alcohol-related violence, sexual assaults and car accidents continue to be campus problems.

Also, the long-term consequences of heavy college drinking can range from the subtle to the not so subtle, he said.

“Perhaps a student is not fulfilling their potential because they sort of went with half a brain throughout college,” Goldman said. “There has also been some evidence that heavy alcohol use slows the nervous system. You’re not as sharp, you’re not as quick, your memory is not quite as good. The question is whether it remains there.”

He added that many college students would be considered alcohol dependent using clinical criteria. And while many students are able to moderate their drinking after graduation, heavy drinking in college can trigger full-fledged alcoholism in some.

Sher pointed out that heavy drinking is a part of American culture, in particular college culture. This is part of the reason, he said, that college administrations are having a hard time combating heavy drinking.

In addition, universities have trouble delivering a clear message because they deal with both minors and adults, which means a college can denounce underage drinking yet permit alcohol advertising in its athletic stadium.

“It’s a way of people spending time together and socializing. Social functions are strongly associated with alcohol. The reality is it’s part of college life,” said Sher.