Mare Nummer 22     05 maart 2009

‘Students from fraternities drink even more than the average student.’
FOTO: Taco van der Eb
Down to thirty beers a week
Leiden psychologists discover that women can cut down more easily than men

Students drink more than is good for them, but health psychologists in Leiden have examined ways to help members of fraternities cut down on the booze. Women only need some information, but men need more support.

DOOR BART BRAUN “Saying ‘no’ is a complicated matter, for everyone”, explains health psychologist Winnie Gebhardt. “Everyone always says that the choice is yours, but actually it is influenced by a person’s biology and the social context. It takes a lot of mental energy to turn things down – you simply don’t always feel up to it.”

Gebhart is talking about refusing things in general: unhealthy eating habits, cigarettes and other drugs, but more particularly about beer at student fraternities. She, her colleague Pepijn van Empelen and their students have researched this phenomenon. “There’s a huge gap between what people want and what people do”, she explains. “As a health psychologist, I want to know why, and whether you can exercise any influence on it. New research has shown that your resolutions will be easier to maintain if you make plans in advance. If I end up in situation X, I’ll do Y. If you write it down, you’ll find that it’s very effective.”

The research into these kinds of resolutions focuses primarily on what people do, instead of what they don’t do: more exercise, healthier food, etc. Gebhardt: “It was hardly known whether it worked with people who wanted to drink less. We studied that. With alcohol, it’s logical to work with students, as they like their booze and then you can measure the effects.”

“Like their booze” is a euphemism: the majority of students drink so much it physically threatens their health. Binge drinking, i.e. drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time, will damage your liver and brain. So what is “a lot of alcohol”? For men, the limit is as low as five small beers in an evening; more than three is too much for the girls. Gebhardt: “I don’t think that women realise how very little they really should be drinking.”

Add that to a few other problems that arise from drinking too much - reckless behaviour, increased risk of cancer, the danger of addiction – and you can see why people want to drink less. The researchers wanted to know whether advance planning would help people to stick to their resolutions.

Students from fraternities drink even more than the average student, according to research done in 2003, and so to find their answers, the researchers contacted more than two hundred students from social fraternities in various towns. The students were happy to cooperate, on the condition that the researchers would not look into the differences in alcohol consumption between fraternities. Anyone who wants to know whether the average member of Minerva drinks more or less than the average Quintus member will have to look elsewhere. “You want to know whether there’s any competition between the fraternities? Who knows? The Boards don’t compete, at any rate.”

The researchers investigated three ways to cut down. The participants could resolve to refuse any beers after the fifth (or third in the case of a women). A second group had to make a resolution to drink less. “There is less explicit focus on social interaction,” says the psychologist to explain the difference. Group number three had to make detailed plans about how to cope with situations in which the temptation to drink more may arise. All of the groups, including a fourth control group, were given a piece of paper containing information on the consequences of alcohol abuse.

For the women, this information proved to be sufficient; in fact, it even had a slightly better effect than the more extensive prevention strategies. “I think that this group lacks information on the subject, and that they were horrified by the information.”

The male students needed more help. Only the third option, which consisted of drawing up detailed plans, was any help. Their consumption dropped from an average of forty alcoholic beverages a week to thirty. That is still more than the limit of 21 that doctors recommend, but at least it is something.

One problem was that there are many dropouts among the heavy drinkers. “That often occurs in these types of studies”, she sighs. “Researchers try to withhold from making any moral judgements, but the participants still have to face the hard facts.”

In a follow-up study, the psychologists attempted to manipulate the students’ emotions too. “Imagine that you were having fun at the bar, but even so, you stuck to the limit. You’ll go home feeling good.” Or the opposite: “Imagine, you’re at the fraternity, you’re enjoying yourself and everyone’s had a few. However, that morning you had resolved to limit yourself to three beers. When you go home in the evening, you’ll be feeling bad and disgusting with yourself.”

Thinking about this sort of situation can be helpful to health psychology as well. If you think about how you will feel after a night of unprotected sex, you will be more likely to avoid it. But this study did not lead to any effects of this kind. “The participants were very committed, but you didn’t see the effects of it in their behaviour.”

“To me, it’s more interesting to know why people still smoke, and why they still drink beer, than how I can help them stop doing it. I’m not actually on a mission”, says the psychologist about herself. Nevertheless: “Recent brain research has proved that alcohol has a very harmful effect on the brain, particularly in young people under the age of 22. Our social standards should change, or, at the very least, everyone should know about it.”

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