Thursday, April 27, 2006

College Drinking: from Academic Pressure, or Family Functioning?

In my family life class we study the Beavers Scale of family functioning. In the middle of the Beavers Scale is the Level 3 family, which he describes as "rule bound." In such families, order is maintained by a set of rules, yet these same rules often prevent intimacy. I (not Robert Beavers) speculated that this kind of family is the most common kind, the kind that most Centre College students come from. This would explain to me why most, but by no means all, students drink so much alcohol: the "social lubricant" lets them suspend the rules and allow intimacy temporarily. In the morning, though, the rules, and their authority to create order, snap back into place.

Ginny Anderson, a fine student in that class, offered this further insight in her class journal:

You suggested in class today that your average “fraternity party-goer” comes from a Level Three family, using alcohol to suspend the inhibiting family rules and foster a sense of intimacy with others. Although this would never have occurred to me, I’m inclined to agree, because it fits so well into the pattern of alcohol use at this college.

In general, when Centre students drink, it isn’t a glass of wine at dinner, or a beer while the game is on. It is “split a pitcher” margaritas at dinner, rum and coke at the pre-party, and an extra helping in the solo cup as you head out the door. This isn’t about enjoying a refreshing beverage – it is absolutely about being at least moderately blitzed before you have to interact with people of the opposite gender. Groups like SMART (alcohol peer educators) and the Panhellenic Council [the sorority coordination board] sometimes postulate that this behavior is academic-related escapism – the “work hard, play harder” mentality. But I don’t think that really gets to the root of the problem. Alcohol (ab)use is fairly standard across the spectrum of colleges and universities (with notable exceptions, of course), even at schools where the workload is lighter than Centre students experience. The great equalizer in this case could be the number of the students that were born and raised in rule-bound families.

I feel like a lot of pieces of information start coming together when you consider college social scenes in this light. Alcohol use as a method of shedding inhibitions. The way that college women say it’s easier to sleep with a guy than have a genuine conversation with him. And a study that I read in intro psychology, which observed the “placebo effect” of alcohol. Women who thought they were drinking beer but were actually receiving a non-alcoholic substitute still act as if the rules are suspended (which is often manifested in provocative and forward behavior). All of these become “intimacy crutches” for people (especially women) who never learned how to find real intimacy. But with this behavior, all they ever get is the substitute, never the real thing.


Ken Lammers said...

While I'm always a little amused when theories about why people drink ignore the fact that people feel good when they drink, I think you're right that it is a social lubricant. However, I must disagree, at least partially with Miss Anderson's thought that it is always about the opposite sex. I would argue that (at least for males) it is as much, or more, a matter of bonding in an acceptable manner between same sex individuals as Brothers, friends and comrades.

BTW: If you think that drinking is heavy at Centre you should spend some time with military folks. I remember getting out of the military, enrolling at Centre, and laughing at all the light-weights when I went down to the fraternity houses.

Anyway, I must say that I disagree with your "supension of the rules" hypothesis. The rules change - they are not suspended - and violations can lead to immediate or long term social consequences. I know it's impractical because observation changes interaction, but I think you'd find it interesting to go to a fraternity house and observe for a period of time. There is definitely a set of rules in place (and I don't mean those imposed by the college). The rules will vary from house to house and may be hard to define but they are present. There are social punishments for consistent over drinking - in my house this usually meant that you got pictures drawn on your face in permanent black marker when you fell asleep. People will be obligated to help someone who overindulged this one time. There's also going to be a set of rules about which guy can go after which girl (or vice-versa) for various reasons involving her standing in that house - no matter how drunk a Brother is another Brother's girlfriend is off limits and so is the girl everybody in the house hates. These are just a few examples. I'm sure your students who are currently experiencing this would be better at describing these rules than I am using 10 year old memories.

Anonymous said...

" women say it’s easier to sleep with a guy than have a genuine conversation with him." Maybe I just need to shut my mouth!

ken mcintyre said...

If Prufrock had consumed a pitcher of margaritas, perhaps he would have dared to eat a peach.

I actually agree with Mr. Lammers. From my admittedly narrow experience, undergraduate drinking is as often a way of fitting in with other guys as it is a way of meeting women.

When I was an undergraduate, males outnumbered females two-to-one at my institution and there was not a great deal of romantic interaction between the sexes. (The school had only gone coed twenty years before my matriculation.) Still, I think that alcohol consumption was the primary extra-curricular activity of a high percentage of the student body.

Anonymous said...

This is the author of the journal entry. Thanks to Mr. Lammers and Mr. McIntyre for sharing their collegiate experiences. What you've said about alcohol as a method of male bonding is valuable to my understanding. However, our class is about mate selection, gender relations, and family nuances, so that's the phenomenon that currently interests me. After reading David Buss' "The Evolution of Desire," I was surprised at how mate selection, often subconsciously, underscores nearly every activity that human beings pursue. It's part of our basic biology.

When I talked about "suspending the rules," I wasn't necessarily referring to the unspoken code of fraternity brothers. Rather, members of Level Three families are defined by the obligations of their roles in the family. "A good husband spends his free time with his wife and children," even if he would like to occasionally spend the weekend fishing with his buddies. "A good daughter calls home every week," even if she doesn't really want to talk to her mother. Because their interactions are so guided by "should" and "ought," it's difficult to establish intimacy between family members. Carry that into college interactions - if most students didn't learn intimacy skills in their families, it stands to reason that they could have a hard time finding way to connect within friendships, brotherhoods/sisterhoods, and romantic relationships. Then we might start to think of alcohol as the crutch that breaks down the initial barrier to intimacy without undermining all the values of the family.

You're right, it's often impossible to pinpoint the motives that underlie behavior, because people so rarely know WHY they do what they do. I certainly don't think that I've come to the conclusive answer on why college students drink too much and then "hook up," and I don't believe that one single explanation that will ever adequately cover all the facets.