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May 24, 2016

Alcohol education doesn't work on frat bros, study finds

Review of 15 previous studies finds alcohol interventions had little effect on sororities, fraternities

The drinking habits of fraternity and sorority members are hard to change, even with alcohol education, according to a Brown University study.

Researchers combined data from 15 previous studies conducted over nearly three decades. All of the researchers tried different kinds of interventions that could help members of fraternities and sororities drink less, but when looked at all together, the results were discouraging.

Not only did the interventions not work, but on one measure they appeared to have the opposite effect of what educators intended. Members of Greek organizations who received alcohol education were more likely to report that they drank alcohol that week or month than peers who hadn't participated.

Related story: Rutgers bans fraternity, sorority house parties for rest of semester

"We expected that well-designed alcohol interventions delivered to members of Greek organizations would help members reduce their drinking when compared to controls but that did not happen," wrote co-author Lori Scott-Sheldon, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown, in an e-mail to PhillyVoice.

The various interventions that people have tried include giving personalized feedback on students' alcohol use, educating the brothers and sisters about moderate drinking and encouraging students to set reduced drinking goals. The control groups were members of Greek organizations who didn't take part in any of these interventions.

There was some evidence that members of Greek organizations who got alcohol education did have fewer heavy drinking days and drank less during certain specific occasions, such as parties. However, these results were not statistically significant when compared to the control group.

Moreover, the outreach efforts did not appear to have any effect on reducing alcohol-related problems like passing out or getting into fights because of excessive drinking.

Why people drink

While none of the alcohol-education strategies worked spectacularly well, at least one method seems promising: addressing the reasons why people drink. The beliefs that people hold about drinking, like "alcohol will make me more sexually attractive" or "alcohol will help me fit in socially," are known as "alcohol expectancies."

"We found that interventions that addressed beliefs about alcohol use (also known as alcohol expectancies) were more successful in reducing the amount of alcohol consumed on specific days such as the weekend," said Scott-Sheldon.  

One serious limitation of this study is that almost all previous research has focused on members of fraternities, not sororities. A little over 4 out of 5 participants in the 15 studies collected for this report were male, and none of the experiments focused solely on sorority sisters.

This gap in the research belies the fact that sorority sisters can face significant risks from being in an environment where heavy drinking is a social norm. One survey at a public university in Virginia, for example, found that women in sororities were four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their female classmates.

Previous studies have shown that there are proven ways to help college students drink less — but helping students in fraternities and sororities is a much greater challenge.

"They are immersed in a social environment that endorses and facilitates alcohol use," said Scott-Sheldon.

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