Friday Weird Science: College Student Regrets

May 28 2010 Published by under Behavioral Neuro, Friday Weird Science

Sci happened to be Pubmedding the word "vomit"* today when she ran across this article. It's one of those articles that is weird because it's. So. Obvious. Mallett et al. "Do We Learn from Our Mistakes? An Examination of the Impact of Negative Alcohol-Related Consequences on College Students' Drinking Patterns and Perceptions" J Stud Alcohol. 2006
That's right. The study of vomiting, hangovers, blackouts, and other stupid stuff you did in college.

Actually, this paper does have some interesting correlations for people who study alcoholism and binge drinking, but for the moment, it's about drunk college students. We'll get to the rest of it at the end.
*What, like you don't Pubmed "'vomit"' or "clitoris" or "ejaculation" all the time?! Admit it, you do. And then you giggle.

So, as we know, many college students like to drink. A Lot. When and where, and especially how much, a college student or teenager is going to drink depends on two things, the environment the drinking is taking place in (a frat party vs with your parents) and how much the person themselves thinks they can handle at the time. A party environment is a particularly good example, it turns out that many college students think that their friends are drinking, or are capable of drinking, more than they actually are, and will up their own alcohol intake accordingly. But it's the second thing we're concerned about today, an aspect called "intrapersonal". Your intrapersonal experiences regarding drinking have to do with your past experiences (how much you had the last time you threw up, for example).
Scientists already know (from both studies in the field and their own anecdotal experience, probably) that people are REALLY bad at judging their own BACs. It turns out people don't accurately estimate their own BAC when they are (a) drinking, (b) recalling stupid stuff they did while drinking (c) if they have a high tolerance, and (d) basically in any hypothetical drinking situation. Often, this results in people thinking they are below the legal limit for driving when in fact they are well above it.
Where the aspects of predicting your BAC and determining how much you are about to drink come in to play in this study is the question of whether or not you learn from your experiences. If you drink a lot, vomit, blackout, and wake up in Tiajuana in jail, how much alcohol will you think it took? And will you drink as much again?
Well, um. Duh. These are college students we're talking about.
But just to get the data, for this study they had 300 college students, 66% of which were women, recruited from intro Psych courses (so, freshmen) from Penn State. 90% reported alcohol use. The scientists them asked them questions to assess problem use, and to look at the relationships between alcohol use, hangover, blackout, and unwanted sex, as well as the important thing: how many drinks the college students THOUGHT they had to have to have the bad effects of drinking listed above.
What they found was, well, ok it was kind of obvious in some bits. For example, they found positive correlations between the number of drinks consumed and the number of blackouts, hangovers, and unwanted sex the college students were having. But when they asked those same students, who had previously had bad experiences associated with a lot of alcohol, how much alcohol they would need to drink to do it again, they got this:

In the dark bars up there are the number of drinks the college students thought they would have to drink in order to have the adverse consequences listed. The white bars are the ACTUAL number of drinks they'd have to have.
And what it shows is that college students (shockingly) don't really learn from their previous mistakes. They aren't learning their alcohol limits effectively. In addition, the students that overestimated their limits the worst, were the ones that were undertaking the most risky drinking practices.
It turns out that this is not abnormal. People who experience the negative aspects of drinking more often are more likely to exhibit risky drinking behavior in general. Basically, even when risky drinkers have experienced the negative consequences of drinking heavily, it doesn't stop them from doing it again.

Sci mostly thinks this paper is weird because it seems rather obvious. There's all sorts of human literature showing that people who engage in risky drinking behaviors do so regardless of negative consequences. But this study also highlights something in the alcohol field that wasn't even mentioned in this paper: impusivity.
Impulsivity is a measure of how likely you are to take risks. This is a trait that varies drastically in terms of genetics and environment and everything else, but it's become the latest buzzword in the addiction field. It's a big buzzword because the one thing that ties many addicts together is their impulsivity, their willingness to take risks despite the negative consequences. This is a trait that exists long before someone ever takes their first drink. So while the data in this paper don't address impulsivity, it'd be interesting to study impulsivity rates in college students, how they rate against the population in general, and how those who show risky drinking behavior rate in comparison to the rest of the college population. I'm sure those studies are underway.
But for now, did you learn from all the drinking you did freshman year? Probably not. Is anyone surprised?
Mallett KA, Lee CM, Neighbors C, Larimer ME, & Turrisi R (2006). Do we learn from our mistakes? An examination of the impact of negative alcohol-related consequences on college students' drinking patterns and perceptions. Journal of studies on alcohol, 67 (2), 269-76 PMID: 16562409

10 responses so far

  • Daneel says:

    I actually learned a lot from my experiences with alcohol in my teen years. After some vomiting episodes I just stopped drinking altogether except an occasionally glass of beer at dinner or a glass of cider when toasting.
    I basically don't like getting drunk anymore. My fiancée says I'm boring, though.

  • Jockaira says:

    I'm sure you're wondering how excited your fiancée would be if you dumped her and found someone who considers you intriguingly exciting.
    If you feel that she might be worthwhile to keep around, you might try to make yourself more exciting by trying some things you never did before. You might also ask her if she can make suggestions. It takes at least two to have a good time.
    If things remain the same around you two, boredom may drive you back to drink. I'm sure you wouldn't care to repeat those unpleasant experiences.

  • Andreas Johansson says:

    How are the "real" amounts need to provoke the various negative consequences calculated? I've always found that hangovers and vomiting (no experience with unwanted sex or alcohol-induced blackouts) are heavily influenced by factors other than the absolute amount of alcohol consumed, such as what else, if anything, one is eating/drinking, how fast one is drinking, general health, etc.

  • hectocotyli says:

    "vomit", "clitoris", & "ejaculation" are my three favorite search terms, too! And when they all show up in the same article? *heaven*

  • anthracite says:

    Just like Homer Simpson says "There's a time and a place for everything...and that's college". Or better yet, "Ahhh alcohol, the cause of - and solution to...all life's problems".

  • FiSH says:

    Sci, incredibly interesting as always. With regards to impulsivity there are a number of types of impulsivity that have been defined, although most of these are based on particular experimental paradigms in rodents (or humans) and it is sometimes difficult to relate these to particular real life behaviors. For "adverse" effects of alcohol the important thing is probably timing, all of the bad effects occur after the good effects; and those prefrontal circuits involved in calculating these trade-offs, and preventing lower motivational structures from dominating behavioral output, aren't fully developed in teenagers yet. This all seems to have an important purpose, evolutionarily speaking, making young people bigger risk takers (we need some people like that in our society, and really we haven't invested that much in them yet and can always make some more if things go badly).
    Oh, and on the topic of interesting search terms, try "MRI" and "coitus".

  • FiSH says:

    I should have figured . . .

  • becca says:

    What's amazing to me is how high the numbers are. But then, I've never reached "blackout" or "hangover" consequence level, and I know I'm a lightweight. Still, there are times I think I'd hit "vomit" at 4 drinks.

  • andy says:

    Starting at zero on the Y axis would be nice.
    The graph makes it look as though people underestimated the number of drinks to black out by about half.