Deconstructing drinking rituals

Research findings help understand motivations for binge drinking

Dr. Joyce Wolberg understands the dangers of binge drinking on college campuses. But as a researcher, she withholds judgement to study and understand the behavior as she listens to focus groups of students.

If we can truly understand the motivation that causes the behavior, she said, we can start to impact the problem.

Wolberg, Diederich College of Communication Associate Dean and Professor of Strategic Communication, interviewed Marquette undergraduate students about their drinking habits, and especially the traditions of their 21st birthday.

“It’s a shared and bonding experience,” Wolberg said. “I had one student that on her birthday her friends had taken her home and even taken her contact lenses out. She viewed that as the epitome of friendship — that there’s nothing a friend won’t do for you.”

Wolberg chronicled her findings recently in an article titled “Insights for Prevention Campaigns: The Power of Drinking Rituals in the College Student Experience from Freshman to Senior Year,” published in the Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising.

Her study found that students have an intense need to find and develop friendships, and they see drinking in a group as the most expedient method to build relationships. For students, the potential rewards outweighed the risks.

“What struck me was students could name all the potential risks but they didn’t feel like they were at risk,” she said. “Because they were drinking with a group of friends they felt safe.”

For her study on 21st birthdays, she said students talked about feeling like a celebrity. At the same time, the peer pressure to drink to excess on that day is intense — it’s difficult to turn down shots and drinks bought by friends and acquaintances.

But the potential dangers of excessive drinking are well-documented, and ultimately Wolberg wants advertising professionals to use her research to create campaigns that speak to students about making safe and smart decisions. From her focus groups, Wolberg identified a key campaign strategy based on students’ desire to avoid being the one who drinks the most or the one who drinks the least.

“This is a real rite of passage,” she said. “I think this is a harder thing to turn around than what anyone thought.”