The MSU Social Norms Research Project

The Social Norms Project at MSU has focused on several different types of behaviors regarding alcohol. We have looked at drinking in general, differences between types of drinkers, differences between contexts (i.e. typical drinking behavior and celebratory drinking behavior), the protective behaviors which students implement when they are drinking, and what students believe to be normal behavior when it comes to alcohol consumption. Our goal has remained the same throughout the different projects: To challenge the environment of high-risk drinking on our campus by changing students’ misconceived notions regarding alcohol consumption, encouraging safe and protective behaviors, and discouraging risky behaviors. One outcome of the Action Team process was a clarification of terminology to use which would support our goal and lessen confusion among our stakeholders as to how we have identified the ‘problem’. We decided upon the term “high-risk” as opposed to ‘‘binge’’ to describe our ‘problem.’ The next short section clarifies the difference between binge drinking and high-risk drinking and why the distinction is important. We also outline other vocabulary we have used with regard to our program.

Binge Drinking vs. High-Risk Drinking

The phrase “binge drinking” is used widely, and often inaccurately. Traditionally, the term binge drinking referred to a period of prolonged alcohol use (usually two or more days) during which a person repeatedly uses alcohol or another substance to the point of intoxication, and gives up his/her usual activities, interests and responsibilities in order to use the substance. This is the definition most commonly used within the field of substance abuse, including the clinical treatment of addiction, and in associated scholarly publications.

Recently, binge drinking has been defined as consuming a certain amount of alcohol in any one setting: typically, 5 drinks for males and 4 drinks for females. Understanding that the pace of drinking often predicts level of intoxication and harm much more adequately than simply the amount consumed, some researchers have added a time period of consumption (typically 2 hours) to more accurately reflect higher risk drinking patterns. These definitions are much more common in the field of substance abuse prevention and health promotion. It is also the definition used most frequently to characterize abusive drinking patterns among college students.

Despite the fact that our campaigns have been predominately prevention-focused, we use the first definition to define binge drinking, mostly because it has withstood the test of time as a reliable clinical indicator for the diagnoses of a chronic alcohol abuse disorder. This does not mean we would endorse the consumption of 4 or 5 drinks over a 2 hour period as moderate or safe, but we would not consider it binge drinking. Instead we might use the term “higher risk drinking” to describe the behavior, particularly if it occurred in conjunction with other factors which are likely to contribute to harm, i.e., driving a car, having untreated depression, drinking with strangers, drinking while taking other drugs, including prescription drugs, etc. Indeed, a 200 pound male could consume 5 drinks over the course of 2 hours and if he were in the company of good friends, in a known environment, had consumed food with the alcohol and had no other confounding factors, we might very well consider this lower risk drinking. On the other hand, let’s take that same male and place him in an unknown situation, operating a motor vehicle and taking prescription medications, and we would consider him to be at much higher risk. As prevention educators, our objectives and thus, our prevention strategies, are aimed at reducing this incidence of higher risk drinking. Our strategies address the entirety of the behavior, circumstances and environment of the drinking episode, not just the amount and pace.

Clarifying our Language

Protective Behavior – “Behaviors that individuals can engage in while drinking in order to limit negative alcohol-related consequences” (Martens, et al., 2004, p. 390). Examples of protective behaviors include staying with the same group of friends, alternating drinks, or using a designated driver.

Celebratory Drinking – Drinking during celebratory occasions, such as “Welcome Week,” holidays (21st birthday, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, et al.), football games, spring break, etc.