Sci happened to be Pubmedding the word “vomit”* today when she ran across this article. It’s one of those articles that is weird because it’s. So. Obvious.
Mallett et al. “Do We Learn from Our Mistakes? An Examination of the Impact of Negative Alcohol-Related Consequences on College Students’ Drinking Patterns and Perceptions” J Stud Alcohol. 2006
That’s right. The study of vomiting, hangovers, blackouts, and other stupid stuff you did in college.
(Including when you wore this shirt around because you wanted to be as cool as this guy)
Actually, this paper does have some interesting correlations for people who study alcoholism and binge drinking, but for the moment, it’s about drunk college students. We’ll get to the rest of it at the end.
*What, like you don’t Pubmed “‘vomit”‘ or “clitoris” or “ejaculation” all the time?! Admit it, you do. And then you giggle.
So, as we know, many college students like to drink. A Lot. When and where, and especially how much, a college student or teenager is going to drink depends on two things, the environment the drinking is taking place in (a frat party vs with your parents) and how much the person themselves thinks they can handle at the time. A party environment is a particularly good example, it turns out that many college students think that their friends are drinking, or are capable of drinking, more than they actually are, and will up their own alcohol intake accordingly. But it’s the second thing we’re concerned about today, an aspect called “intrapersonal”. Your intrapersonal experiences regarding drinking have to do with your past experiences (how much you had the last time you threw up, for example).
Scientists already know (from both studies in the field and their own anecdotal experience, probably) that people are REALLY bad at judging their own BACs. It turns out people don’t accurately estimate their own BAC when they are (a) drinking, (b) recalling stupid stuff they did while drinking (c) if they have a high tolerance, and (d) basically in any hypothetical drinking situation. Often, this results in people thinking they are below the legal limit for driving when in fact they are well above it.
Where the aspects of predicting your BAC and determining how much you are about to drink come in to play in this study is the question of whether or not you learn from your experiences. If you drink a lot, vomit, blackout, and wake up in Tiajuana in jail, how much alcohol will you think it took? And will you drink as much again?
Well, um. Duh. These are college students we’re talking about.
But just to get the data, for this study they had 300 college students, 66% of which were women, recruited from intro Psych courses (so, freshmen) from Penn State. 90% reported alcohol use. The scientists them asked them questions to assess problem use, and to look at the relationships between alcohol use, hangover, blackout, and unwanted sex, as well as the important thing: how many drinks the college students THOUGHT they had to have to have the bad effects of drinking listed above.
What they found was, well, ok it was kind of obvious in some bits. For example, they found positive correlations between the number of drinks consumed and the number of blackouts, hangovers, and unwanted sex the college students were having. But when they asked those same students, who had previously had bad experiences associated with a lot of alcohol, how much alcohol they would need to drink to do it again, they got this:
In the dark bars up there are the number of drinks the college students thought they would have to drink in order to have the adverse consequences listed. The white bars are the ACTUAL number of drinks they’d have to have.
And what it shows is that college students (shockingly) don’t really learn from their previous mistakes. They aren’t learning their alcohol limits effectively. In addition, the students that overestimated their limits the worst, were the ones that were undertaking the most risky drinking practices.
It turns out that this is not abnormal. People who experience the negative aspects of drinking more often are more likely to exhibit risky drinking behavior in general. Basically, even when risky drinkers have experienced the negative consequences of drinking heavily, it doesn’t stop them from doing it again.
Sci mostly thinks this paper is weird because it seems rather obvious. There’s all sorts of human literature showing that people who engage in risky drinking behaviors do so regardless of negative consequences. But this study also highlights something in the alcohol field that wasn’t even mentioned in this paper: impusivity.
Impulsivity is a measure of how likely you are to take risks. This is a trait that varies drastically in terms of genetics and environment and everything else, but it’s become the latest buzzword in the addiction field. It’s a big buzzword because the one thing that ties many addicts together is their impulsivity, their willingness to take risks despite the negative consequences. This is a trait that exists long before someone ever takes their first drink. So while the data in this paper don’t address impulsivity, it’d be interesting to study impulsivity rates in college students, how they rate against the population in general, and how those who show risky drinking behavior rate in comparison to the rest of the college population. I’m sure those studies are underway.
But for now, did you learn from all the drinking you did freshman year? Probably not. Is anyone surprised?
Mallett KA, Lee CM, Neighbors C, Larimer ME, & Turrisi R (2006). Do we learn from our mistakes? An examination of the impact of negative alcohol-related consequences on college students’ drinking patterns and perceptions. Journal of studies on alcohol, 67 (2), 269-76 PMID: 16562409