College Binge Drinking: An Empirical Test of Theories

Donna A. Copp, University of Florida

Perhaps most influential in drawing public attention to the issue of binge drinking was a report released in December of 1994 by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. In a nationally representative survey of college students, the College Alcohol Study reported that 80% of students drank during the school year and approximately 44% qualified as binge drinkers, defined as having 5 or more drinks in a row one or more times within a two week period. Despite the fact that a majority of students were under the legal drinking age, rates of alcohol consumption were highest among 18-21 year-olds. In the year following the release of the CAS findings, reports of binge drinking in major print media outlets increased eleven-fold.

Because even students with no prior history of alcohol consumption will begin either drinking moderately or binge drinking after arriving at college, social scientists have long been interested in learning what factors help to explain this behavior. Among the theories presented in the extensive literature on college alcohol consumption and binge drinking are differential association, childhood socialization, and alcohol expectancy theory. While all of these perspectives focus on identifying factors that influence deviant behavior, such as binge drinking, each one posits different explanatory factors and causal relationships to account for deviant outcomes. This research study tests how well each theory explains binge drinking on U.S. college campuses. The alcohol expectancy and differential association models emerged as the more explanatory.

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Updated 05/20/2006