July 1st, 2016

Interventions can’t stop fraternity overdrinking

Social psychologist Lori Scott-Sheldon, Ph.D., wanted to find out what interventions worked best to curb overdrinking among college fraternity and sorority members when she led a team of researchers to conduct a systematic review of the literature on such programs.

The answer: none.

The results of their study published online May 16 in the journal, Health Psychology concluded that a range of interventions to reduce drinking by student members of this at-risk group were about as effective as not doing any interventions at all.

“Our goal really was to provide guidance to key stakeholders such as students, campus health educators and college administrators on the best strategies to reduce the problems associated with alcohol use among Greek members,” said Scott-Sheldon, senior research scientist at The Miriam Hospital’s Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island.

She is also an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

“I can’t give any guidance. I can’t encourage the use of a particular strategy because there isn’t really one that really stands out.”

Alcohol use is very prevalent among U.S. college students but an extensive body of research has found that students who belong to Greek letter organizations report more frequent drinking and experience more alcohol-related consequences, including assault and battery, sexual assaults, and falls from heights, than their non-Greek peers.

Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 15 studies assessing 21 separate interventions involving a total of 6,026 college students. Eighty-two percent of the participants were male. The studies spanned from 1987 to 2014.

Interventions used various strategies including education, identifying situations that could lead to drinking, goal setting, providing feedback on personal alcohol use, and challenging perceptions that drinking produces positive outcomes such as making someone more sexually attractive.

Other interventions provided tips for reducing drinking such as setting personal drinking limits, sipping slowly and alternating with non-alcoholic beverages.

“We do find that well-designed alcohol intervention is typically fairly effective at reducing alcohol use and problems among the broader student population, but that didn’t happen here,” Scott-Sheldon said.

The study found some evidence that interventions addressing fraternity and/or sorority members’ beliefs about alcohol use – or alcohol expectancies – reduced drinking on specific days such as the weekend.

“That was kind of the one glimmer of hope,” Scott-Sheldon said.

But because only two studies examined this approach, Scott-Sheldon said more research is needed to determine whether addressing these beliefs would reduce a range of drinking behaviors.

Additionally, none of the studies reviewed focused exclusively on sororities, although 10 studies targeted only fraternity members. Scott-Sheldon said more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of alcohol interventions targeting sorority members.

Scott-Sheldon said the results of her research present an opportunity for colleges and universities to rethink their campus policies and enforcement of those policies for both Greeks and the broader student population. She encouraged higher education institutions to bring fraternities and sororities into the conversation when it comes to developing new strategies to curb overdrinking.

“Let them be part of the solution, have them recognize that there is a problem and give them a seat at the table,” Scott-Sheldon said.

Scott-Sheldon’s research focus on meta-analysis identifies gaps in the new literature rather than evaluating new strategies. She said she hopes her work will encourage others to develop new interventions to address the specific needs of fraternity and sorority members.

“Hopefully in another five to 10 years, we’ll review a new body of literature and find very positive outcomes,” she said.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health.

By Janine Weisman

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