Does Optimism—or a Lack of It—Affect Collegiate Drinking?

An article published recently in Nature Neuroscience entitled, “How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality” (see for abstract and full citation) suggests one mitigating factors that may shed light on the apparent intransience of collegiate drinking behavior – optimism.
Although neither the article nor the BBC report on it (see speak of collegiate drinking per se, one cannot help but wonder if there is a connection.

“If” a natural propensity to remain optimistic out weighs risk-related information made available to collegiate drinkers via prevention program, PSAs, and/or direct observation of peers and their experiences, then this could be an important factor for those focused on preventing high-risk and dangerous collegiate drinking to consider as they think about the next step in proactive programming targeting collegians.

This may also be a further argument for considering a suggestion I have been advocating, namely that better understanding of the “maturing out” or “aging out” phenomenon that seems to result in third and fourth-year students viewing alcohol as a substance and drinking as a behavior differently than they did when first and second-year students may be the next logical step in prevention efforts. This may be an important step in addressing the apparent intractability of collegiate drinking – see my 2nd and 3rd monographs in the When They Drink series - #2 - “
When They Drink: Deconstructing Collegiate Alcohol Use”  and #3 - “When They Drink: Is Collegiate Drinking the Problem We Think It Is?”

In these two monographs I argue that a student’s understanding of alcohol as a substance and drinking as a behavior is a function of how these symbols of contemporary collegiate life come to be understood by students. That understanding, born in middle and high school, drives collegiate behavior upon arrival at college only to be modified over the first 3 to 4 semester by experience and interaction with upperclassmen, resulting in a more moderate approach to alcohol and its use. This “social constructionist” view of collegiate drinking suggests that if we, as prevention specialists, were to study and better understand the process by which meaning is ascribed to alcohol as a substance and drinking as a behavior, then we would be in a position to affect this process in such a way as to hasten this maturing out process. This could result in expediting the passage from “high-risk use” to social or at least “lower-risk” use in months rather than semester, thereby closing the window of risk out of which so many contemporary collegians see to fall while trying to glean a better view of “the wonder of the college years” they have heard so much about from parents, older siblings, the popular media, etc.

In short, “if” we have a predilection to optimism and “if” this results in down-grading if not ignoring negative information or risk associated with personal behavior, “then” it is likely the prevention field will not move much past the gains it has made in recent years as the result of using current evidence-based strategies. It also means that efforts like BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students) may be successful, in part, because students exposed to such programs have the opportunity to revisit the meaning they had ascribed to “alcohol” and “drinking” moderate the meaning for this icons of contemporary collegiate life and hasten the very maturing out phenomenon that researchers have noted in collegians for years.

What do you think?


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