Why do students drink? A Psychology Presentation

Last Thanksgiving, I discussed the highlights of my college life with my relatives, over turkey and cranberry sauce. However, when it came to discussing the underlying social culture of my new environment I brought up a question to my uncle who is a clinical psychologist. I asked him why he thought kids drink in college and he was just as puzzled as I was.

Recently, my psychology professor brought up an event hosted by the SMU psychology department that would be discussing that exact same topic. I sat riveted with at least 50 other students presented by a professor of psychology at Smith College, Byron Zamboanga. He received his undergraduate degree in Psychology at UC Berkley and a graduate degree in Developmental Psychology. He was funded multiple times for his research which is dedicated to understanding the relation between youths and alcohol as well as the drinking culture that we experience first-hand as college students.


Photo via Unsplash, by Matty Adame


Why do students drink at all?

Professor Zamboanga explained that all actions are formed through motivation before they are enacted; drinking motivation starts with our upbringing as children. How you have seen your family interact or discuss alcohol with you will affect how you see it or use it later in life. There’s also a pervasive stigma about drinking in college that we are aware of as we watch tv or movies as well as listen to stories from our parents and their friends. “A party isn’t a party without alcohol,” or “Missing class due to a hangover is part of being a college student.” We have grown up in a society which teaches us that drinking is a right of passage in college, a necessary evil.

As students prepare to engage in drinking activities they are choosing to do so for two reasons. The first is what is known as positive expected outcomes: when you drink, the expectation is that alcohol will enhance your life. This expectation is associated with drinking “to get buzzed” as well as events becoming more fun and exciting. The second reason is known as negative expected outcomes: alcohol is expected to reduce or entirely remove their problems. People who drink for this reason are hoping to feel better about their lives or conform to their current environment. These negative expectations are more likely to increase alcohol consumption and risk substance abuse.

 Why do students play drinking games?

Zamboanga defined drinking games as cognitive or motor tasks designed to promote alcohol consumption and increase intoxication based on specified rules describing when and how much to drink. These games are designed to target specific people to drink, stimulate adrenaline, provide a sense of risk or to increase a sense of community. Games like beer pong or flip cup are popular drinking games because they give players competitive adrenaline that they would not normally receive from drinking alone. TV drinking games, like “Take a drink every time someone from 'The Office' says ‘That’s what she said,’” are related to consumption involving a group of people while maintaining a lax environment for the participants.

The main difference that sets drinking games apart and makes them so popular is the fact that they give participants an outlet for competitive drive, similar to an athlete during a game. Unfortunately, like athletes who have a strong drive to win, drinkers who play these competitive games will have a stronger drive to win by drinking more. The more they consume the more intoxicated they will be, leaving them will health issues including a future tendency to abuse alcohol.


Photo via Unsplash, by Blake Lisk


Why do students pregame?

Lastly, pre-gaming is defined as drinking alone or with people, before going to an event or gathering where more alcohol may or may not be consumed. Professor Zamboanga was quick to point out however that this concept is not unique to the United States alone. In countries all over the world, mainly Europe and Australia, pre-gaming is a universal concept with the same objective: to consume alcohol in a relaxed environment while either catching up with old friends, making new ones or even looking for a romantic interest.

The motivation to pre-game stems from many different areas that are similar to drinking and pre-gaming. One unique reason is that the cost to drink decreases at pre-parties; there is also an easier environment to socialize with friends who may not be attending the same party later on. Another aspect is there are no barriers such as security to hinder consumption for those who are underag. A dark side to this pre-game, as Zamboanga explained, notes that those who drink at pre-parties will often consume more alcohol at the events they attend afterward, increasing the risk of intoxication.

From my perspective, I would agree on all the points that he made. In our world, we intuitively know why we ourselves would choose to drink. The importance of the talk revolves around the fact that through scientific research and experimentation, the motivations to drink can be proven. That in and of itself is an amazing accomplishment.

The end of the presentation should have covered intervention programs, but Zamboanga did not have enough time to truly go over his notes on this subject. Instead he concluded his presentation on an ominous point telling us that through research, these intervention programs with college students are not proving effective at all. Despite this, he believes that the only way we can truly combat alcohol use in college students is for society to change the stigma that the idea of moderate or nonexistent alcohol use is a positive activity.


Source: Byron L. Zamboanga, Professor of Psychology Smith College, ‘Why do young people: Drink alcohol, play drinking games and pre-party’, presented on September 21, 2017 by the SMU Psychology Department