Shaming binge drinking will not solve problem

Many college students drink alcohol. Some students, perhaps more than we would like to think, have left the realm of mild drinking habits in favor of the risky arena where people drink too much, too often.

Binge drinking, defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as “a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 gram percent or above,” has spread rampantly across college campuses.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “44 percent of students attending 4-year colleges drink alcohol at the binge level or greater.”

As a result of the widespread popularity of binge drinking among college students, there has been an increase of public-service advertisements that attempt to discourage students from picking up the bottle by linking binge drinking with feelings of shame, guilt and disgrace.

The intentions behind the ads are noble; binge drinking is clearly harmful, unhealthy and void of any benefit, and the desire to discourage people from making decisions that may have an adverse effect on their well-being is a good thing.

However, these public-service advertisements appear to be having a rather surprising effect: After college students are exposed to ads suggesting that feelings of shame and guilt are related to binge drinking, some of those students may actually become more likely to engage in binge drinking then they would have been if they had not seen the advertisements at all.

A recent study conducted by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management discovered that people who already feel shameful, guilty, etc. to some extent may naturally evade anti-binge drinking messages that highlight these types of emotions, and may even become more likely to participate in binge drinking, even though that is precisely what the ad encourages them to avoid.

“When messages make people feel bad about themselves or their behaviors, they are likely to resist the message,” said Karen Moses, director of Wellness and Health Promotion Department at ASU, in an e-mail.

So what can be done to actually reduce the prevalence of binge drinking among college students?

“Messages that have been shown to be effective at changing behavior … include those that promote and reinforce positive health behaviors: in this case drinking in moderation, or choosing not to drink,” Moses said. “In addition, studies have shown that most college students believe that students from their school drink more than they actually do. Messages that correct this misperception by providing accurate information about the typical drinking attitudes and behaviors of students … have been shown to actually reduce high risk drinking.”

It’s clear that binge drinking is a serious problem among college students. However, it’s also becoming clear that the solution to the problem cannot be found in advertisements that link binge drinking with feelings of shame and guilt, even if they’re founded on good intentions.

If we’re going to get anywhere in solving this problem we need to leave these types of advertisements behind and move to methods that have actually been shown to help.

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