Young Adults With High Social Status Drink More

Posted on May 13th, 2014
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Social scientists and public health officials are well aware that an individual’s social status has an impact on how he or she feels about alcohol use, as well as on how much alcohol he or she consumes. In a study published in April 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a team of American, Canadian and Australian researchers explored the impact of social status within young adult peer groups on the amount of alcohol various members of those groups consume during a night of drinking in bars and similar locations.

All people have some sort of status within a peer group or within larger society. In some cases, status comes from an individual’s actions within a group or society; social scientists refer to this kind of status as achieved or earned status. In other cases, status comes from other factors that don’t involve personal accomplishment, such as the achievements of parents or other predecessors; social scientists refer to this kind of status as ascribed or assigned status.

Peer Groups and Alcohol

As a rule, when people drink, they hold preexisting expectations about the positive or negative consequences of alcohol consumption. Common “positive” expectations associated with drinking include feelings of pleasure, enhancement of an existing good mood and relief of unpleasant emotional states. Common “negative” expectations associated with drinking include hangovers and other unpleasant side effects, reinforcement of an existing bad mood and consequences such as accidents or a decline in physical health. In a study published in 2005 in the journal Addiction, researchers from two Dutch universities examined the drinking expectations held within young-adult peer groups. These researchers concluded, among other things, that “positive” expectations about alcohol’s effects within a peer group lead to increased drinking levels in bars and similar settings.

Effect on Specific Drinking Behaviors

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from one U.S. institution, one Australian institution and four Canadian institutions looked more closely at the impact that social status within peer groups has on the nighttime drinking behaviors of young adults. For their project, the researchers enlisted the participation of 106 separate groups of young adults out for a night of drinking in a bar or similar establishment. All of these groups contained only men or only women, with the all-male groups accounting for roughly 60 percent of the total. On average, the groups had three to four members with ages ranging from 21 to 22. The members of each group completed a survey detailing things such as social status within the group and their own typical level of alcohol intake; they also took a Breathalyzer test. After drinking, the study participants resubmitted this information and also identified the individuals within each group who actively urged other group members to consume alcohol.

Some of the groups involved in the study consumed a relatively large amount of alcohol over the course of the night, while other groups consumed a relatively small amount. The researchers concluded that, among the groups that drank a lot of alcohol, those individuals with the highest status within their group consumed the most. They also concluded that, among both the light-drinking groups and the heavy-drinking groups, the members with the highest social status were the most likely to urge other group members to consume alcohol. In addition, the researchers concluded that group members perceived as likeable by others within the group typically drank enough alcohol to qualify as intoxicated.

Some of the campaigns that public health officials use to discourage alcohol abuse are intended to produce their effects on a peer-group level. The authors of the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research believe their findings indicate that the organizers of these campaigns will benefit from an improved understanding of the status-related factors in play among young adults who consume alcohol.

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