Understanding Why Students Love 'Getting Wasted' In Getting Wasted, Ohio University professor Thomas Vander Ven asks why Americans have come to see college and drinking as synonymous.
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NEAL CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Thomas Vander Ven notes in a new book, that there's a lot of anti-student sentiment in his college town. I hear it all the time, he writes, college kids are drunken idiots. They vomit in public, they pass out and black out. They burn couches, make fools of themselves and have casual, risky sex. It's out of control; it's disgusting.

CONAN: Vander Ven spent seven years asking kids to explain. Since they know binge drinking often ends badly and sometimes very badly, why do they do it? So if you partied hard in college, call and tell us why. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, George Joffe joins us as rebel forces close in on Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. But first, binge drinking in college. Thomas Vander Ven joins us from member station WOUB in Athens, where he teaches sociology and anthropology at Ohio University. His new book is called "Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard." And nice to have you with us today.

THOMAS VANDER VEN: Hi, Neal, thanks for the opportunity to talk about my research.

CONAN: And we have to point out you do find that there is not only a dark side to binge drinking, but we have to begin by emphasizing there is a very important and very significant dark side to this.

VEN: That's true. There's a, you know, tremendous body of literature on the consequences of high-risk drinking. Students get injured. There are fatalities. There's a significant level of sexual victimization that's connected to the college drinking scene. It affects them - their ability to do well in school. There certainly is a dark side.

But that's what most of the research so far has focused on is the negative consequences, and few people have asked the question, you know, why is this fun for them, what are they getting out of it, you know, what are the payoffs of it, and that's part of what I'm addressing in my book.

CONAN: It's interesting, you say when you first got interested, you had to overcome this sort of consensus thinking that, well, this is normal, this is what happens.

VEN: Yeah, well, I mean, that - you know, when I asked my respondents, you know, why did you drink on this particular occasion, that's what I did with - in my methodology, I ask them to describe a recent drinking episode and why did you do it. And a lot of them just said because it's college.

So it just seems to - you know, it's unproblematic for them, that question is. You're just going to drink; you're in college. So yeah, I mean, that sentiment is certainly out there. But there's much more. It's much more complicated than that.

CONAN: It's a lot more complicated than that. And is it mostly kids drinking by themselves, or is it kids drinking in groups?

VEN: No, they're drinking in groups, and that's part of why I conducted the research. Most of the research on college drinking - and there's a huge body of literature on it - surveyed individuals and asked them how much they drink and when they drink and what are the consequences.

Well, as a sociologist, you know, I was - you know, I suspected that drinking is collective activity. Students work together to decide when to drink and how much to drink, and they also help each other out and manage their drinking episodes. So when things go wrong, there's a lot of collaboration over the things that go wrong, too. So I think as a sociologist, I want to see drinking as a social process and not an individual event.

CONAN: So in a sense, it's a little like an adventure that has dangers associated with it, but as in a lot of adventures, those who are on it bond together.

VEN: Absolutely. They do, and that is part of the payoff, that when you have a lot of young people together drinking to intoxication, for some of them, they feel that it's fun because anything can happen. Inhibitions are down. People say and do things that they wouldn't normally do. They're more courageous, more socially dexterous. They're able to approach people that they're interested, either romantically or sexually, and they sort of let their guard down.

One of my respondents says alcohol takes a few bricks out of the wall. What he's saying is it allows him to do and say things that he wouldn't normally do. So it does create a world of adventure for them.

CONAN: Yet again, this can lead to fights, it can lead to all kinds of dangerous and, well, assaulting sexual situations.

VEN: That's true, and that - after, you know, seven years of research on this, the thing that troubled me most, looking at the literature and at my own data, is the risk for sexual victimization.

But, you know, and then when I talk about this as a social process, one of the things that I came to appreciate was a very high level of informal social support that's occurring in the drinking scene. So drinking partners look out for each other.

So when it comes to sexual victimization, one of the things that they do is step in when they see a friend who's too intoxicated. And leaving a party with somebody, they'll escort their friends home. They have, you know, little games and signs that they use with one another to say, you know, get this guy away from me, that sort of thing.

So those risks are certainly there, and the students are well aware of that, and there is that support there to help each other out.

CONAN: If we're going to mitigate the ills of binge drinking, we have to understand why kids do it. If you partied hard in college, give us a call and tell us why you did it, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Jordan(ph), Jordan calling us from San Francisco.

JORDAN: Hi, Neal, big fan of the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

JORDAN: Yeah, I mean, when you get to college, you know, it's like hey, I come home, and there's no parents here, and it's all my friends, and there's just alcohol everywhere. And so you just do it until you pass out or throw up. And it's really kind of ridiculous when I think about it now, just even though that was, like, two years ago.

CONAN: And while you can understand doing that once, I mean that's pretty easy to understand, doing it again after having that experience, that's kind of curious.

JORDAN: Well, it's just - I mean, I think it's kind of a mob mentality in a way or kind of a groupthink. But it's really just about - it's just kind of an extreme sport, in a way, and especially that since you can't go to a bar and just have, like, one drink and have a nice chat, which I do now as 21, when you're underage, it's really - there's just pressure to really kind of do it fast and get loaded fast, so then you can go out and be in public.

And there's this kind of - I guess there's some pressure involved.

CONAN: That's interesting, Jordan, and as you say, this is completely outside your experience since you left school?

JORDAN: Wait, say that again?

CONAN: Have you done it since you left school?

JORDAN: Oh, well, I'm actually - I'm going back for my senior year. But I definitely do it a lot less. You know, I got out and - you go out and just have, you know, one drink, a martini at the bar. And you can - it's a fun experience, but falling down and all that, I'm just not interested in doing that anymore.

CONAN: Well, Jordan, that's a good approach. Thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

JORDAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And Thomas Vander Ven, I think Jordan said a couple of interesting things, One of which was that this is like an extreme sport.

VEN: Oh, I love that. I had not heard that before. That was pretty well-articulated. I think, you know, one of the - one of my questions was why do they continue to do this when so much can and does go wrong: getting sick, getting arrested, getting in fights and all that.

And my data sort of suggests that part of the reason they continue is because of those things that go wrong. The - drinking crisis is what I call it, when somebody gets arrested or sick or upset over a relationship or something. Their co-drinkers will mobilize and help each other out and support one another, and that - there's a payoff. It feels good to be supportive. It feels good to be supported. And these are emerging adults who are sort of trying on adult roles.

They're taking care of each other, maybe, you know, in a way, in an adult way, that they hadn't before. So part of - I think when things go wrong, there's a payoff in the way that they take care of each other. Unfortunately, that probably facilitates some of the heavy drinking, too.

CONAN: Another thing that Jordan said, though, this is, for the very large part, underage drinking.

VEN: That's true. Well, it has to be. I mean, if we're talking about undergraduates, we're talking about 18- through 22-year-olds. Yeah, it's - most of my respondents were certainly underage.

CONAN: And what effect does that have on it? He says, you know, we couldn't go, just go to a bar. We had to go somewhere and tank-up quickly.

VEN: Well, you know, I think one of the things that a lot of college students do is pre-game. If you're familiar with the term pre-gaming, that's drinking before you go out. And for students that can't get into a bar, they might pre-game pretty heavily beforehand.

If they're going to a party where they don't think they're going to be able to get served, if they think the lines are going to be too line at the keg, that sort of thing, there is some pretty heavy pre-gaming going on. So that certainly relates to being underage.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kevin(ph), Kevin with us from Toledo.

KEVIN: Hello, gentlemen, it's incredible that you're on this topic. I'm just driving back from the funeral of a fraternity brother. I joined the fraternity my freshman year, and it was such a - drinking was such a big part of that social scene. We had one fraternity brother that was an employee of the local beer distributor. We would have a beer machine, which was a Coke machine that they would put dented beer cans in. So anybody who came to the house, if you had 50 cents, you could get a beer.

And I was the captain of the beer-drinking Olympics, which was a beer-drinking relay. You'd sit on your knees, and you'd have a couple beers in front of you, and the person would drink, and as soon as the one next to you was done, you would drink, and you would just go right down the line. We were the fraternity champions.

And I've got to tell you, even though I was on the seven-year plan for college, it was probably the biggest part of school was drinking beer.

CONAN: And the funeral of your fraternity brother, was that related to this?

KEVIN: Oh heaven's no. This was something entirely different. I mean, that didn't have to do with drinking. But it was - and the gentleman who you have on, he wants to know why: It's spreading your wings. It's learning what your limitations are.

Some fraternity brothers couldn't handle it. They immediately quit drinking. But then there are some who still - I mean, I graduated from college 32 years ago, but, you know, I turned out all right, but I was probably one of the biggest binge drinkers on the planet. I probably got sick so much from drinking that now when I vomit, it feels like somebody took me out in the alley and beat the hell out of me.

CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much for the call, and sorry for your loss, and drive safely, okay? And, well, spreading your wings and testing your limits, again pretty normal adolescent activities.

VEN: Well, yeah. You know that's the other thing. You've got all of these young people arriving together on campus at the same time. They're - you know, for the first time they're away from their parents, many of them, and this is an important time for identity exploration for young people, emerging adults, trying to figure out who they are and developing, you know, new friendships and all that, and I guess spreading your wings is one way to say it.

But alcohol is a way for a lot of them, that's their perception anyway, to, you know, to meet new people and to, you know, experiment with social roles. So yeah, I think that makes sense.

CONAN: We're talking with Thomas Vander Ven, author of "Getting Wasted." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Two o'clock in the morning, when the bars close at a Midwestern university town, is not a pretty scene. Students stagger off into the night, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, sometimes fighting or falling down.

Thomas Vander Ven took it all in, soberly, and concluded this feels a little like "Night of the Living Dead." Of course, not all college students binge-drink. Some don't drink at all. But Vander Ven says drinking to excess has become part and parcel of the college experience for many young people, and schools around the country have launched countless programs to try to counter it.

Now you can read how one student describes a wild night in an excerpt from his book, "Getting Wasted," at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you regularly partied hard in college, call and tell us why, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And this email is from Jennifer(ph): I graduated from college in 2007 and definitely noticed this idiotic trend when I observed and engaged in this behavior. I think it was part of the college package. It was sold to us as part of the experience. It seemed people believe this behavior is supposed to happen because we're in college.

When parents or other college grads spoke of college, there were always stories about this behavior, and a lot of movies set in college years idealize this behavior. And Thomas Vander Ven, you write in your book obviously "Animal House" comes to mind.

VEN: Yeah, well, I mean, that was the first film I saw that depicted college life. And I just think that college students are smarter than that and have more personal agency than that. I mean, college may be, you know, presented to them as a place where you do a lot of heavy drinking and you shouldn't take school seriously. But students, there are many students who don't drink.

There are many abstainers out there. There are many minor to moderate drinkers. They're not all heavy, out-of-control drinkers. And students make decisions for themselves.

I don't think they do it because it's a cultural mandate. I think they do it because they're getting something out of it. They're - I mean, make no mistake about it, horrible things happen in the drinking scene, but they're having fun. They're having adventures. They're creating war stories. So I just - I don't think they're, you know, they're pressured or sort of, you know, they feel like they have to do this. They're getting something out of it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Nicole(ph) and Nicole on the line from Anchorage.

NICOLE: Yes, hello.


NICOLE: I'm one of those non-drinkers you were talking about, and I know in high school and in college, you had all those campaigns telling you, oh, don't bow to peer pressure, but nobody really said just how hard that pressure is.

It's constant. It's unrelenting. Through all of college, you're always pressured to drink. And I made it all the way through not drinking, but I just saw my friends who also had that same kind of, oh, I'm just a social drinker, or I'm a light drinker, I watched them fall by the wayside one by one that's this constant pressure: drink, drink, drink.

And nobody really prepares you for just how hard that pressure is.

CONAN: So there is - people not making decisions on their own? I mean, you did, Nicole.

NICOLE: I did, yes, but it took a lot of commitment. It takes standing by your choice, and I watched as people just - that pressure to drink is pretty, pretty strong, and it's - I watched people who had no desire to drink, and they just did it because everybody else does. It's one of those peer-pressure classic things.

CONAN: Do you still experience this pressure? You're not in school anymore?

NICOLE: I'm not in school anymore, and yeah, that's actually - when I finished college, I thought, well, thank goodness this is done. And I watched as that binge drinking actually continued, I'd noticed in my circle of friends. I watched it continue into early adulthood. The first couple years out of college, when people would get together, it wouldn't be a beer or two in the backyard, it would be, again, that massive amount of alcohol, people passed out on couches and just like back in college again.

CONAN: Just like back in college, extended adolescence in a way.

NICOLE: It did. I noticed it continue on past college.

CONAN: All right, Nicole, thanks very much for the call.

NICOLE: Thank you.

CONAN: We have a couple of tweets, this from Ivan(ph): The reasons are freedom and deep desire to be cool in the eyes of your peers. While Leah(ph) tweeted: We are getting wasted in college because we were getting wasted in high school, brought the habit with us.

So I wonder, Thomas Vander Ven, did your data support that, that the same people who binge-drank in college were those who did it in high school?

VEN: Yes, well, not my data because I did - you know, I asked people, my response: When did you first drink alcohol? So I knew a little bit about that. But there is a literature on that, and that is a fact: Heavy drinkers in college are more likely to have been heavy drinkers before. Yeah, so their habits started - not habit, maybe that's not the right word - their interest in intoxication is something that started before they got to college. So she's right about that.

CONAN: Here's an email from Chris(ph) in Pocatello: In 1998, I enrolled at the University of Idaho. I joined a fraternity, and soon partying became a regular occurrence. After two years I effectively partied my way out of school. The university asked me to take a semester off to grow up.

I have come to believe that the reason I partied so hard was due to my own immaturity at the time, and the fault lies solely with me. When I re-enrolled in school, I met my future wife, and while I don't regret my partying days, since it was the path that led me to my wife, I do wish I had a higher love of maturity when I started school and didn't do some of the stupid things that I did.

Did you encounter regrets?

VEN: Oh, a lot. In fact, Chapter 5 is all about post-intoxication processes, so hangovers and how people, you know, felt embarrassed about the things that they did and said and, you know, juniors and seniors who said my GPA would be much higher and I would have done much better in school had I not hit it so hard.

But, you know, one of the things that's happened, and I talk about this in formal social support, is that if somebody does something embarrassing in the drinking scene, makes a fool of themselves, they have a lot of support. The next morning, they'll say oh my God, I was an idiot last night, I can't believe what I did. And their roommate or friend will say don't worry about it, you were hilarious.

So there's that positive reflected appraisal. So even when people, you know, do embarrassing things, people pick them up.

CONAN: Let's go next to Douglas(ph) and Douglas with us from Jacksonville.


CONAN: Hi, Douglas.

DOUGLAS: Hi, thank you for taking my call, Neal. This brings back a lot of memories. I'm now 40, and I've had some time to digest some of the antics and war stories, as you say. And I think the reason, maybe even an unconscious reason, why we were so into it, it just helped us feel confident and carefree in the face of adulthood and a lot of strange new things.

CONAN: A lot of strange new things. Yet it has consequences.

DOUGLAS: Yeah, yeah, adult expectations. Who are we going to be? What are we going to do? You know, we have a sexual identity now. And the drugs and the alcohol helped quiet all that, and you just say damn the torpedoes, man, let's move forward.

CONAN: Well, here's an email on that point from Gerald(ph): I'm a student at the moment, so take all this with a grain of salt, but I think you hit the nail on the head when you said because it's college. I would expand that to say because it's fun.

Most kids get to college without any experience in drinking, and it's genuinely a fun thing to do. I think binge drinking is just an example of what all college students do, which is to learn their limits. Those that don't are the ones who make the news - learning limits, I suspect. And Douglas, would you endorse the - it's fun?

DOUGLAS: Yes, it is fun, but sadly, there are people like myself that have a predisposition toward alcoholism, and I developed basically this obsession with alcohol and drugs during my college years that resulted in a very powerful craving that I could not control. And it really caused some major damage.

And I'm now happy to say that I'm in my 14th year of recovery, but the damage from this period of time and the consequences of my behavior live with me to this day. So even though it is a rite of passage, and it is fun, there are these hidden dangers, and oftentimes once somebody suspects that they may have a problem, it's already too late.

And I really see now that a lot of people are inadvertently damaging their brains and developing this horrible craving.

CONAN: Well, congratulations on staying clean for so long.

DOUGLAS: Well, I hit a bottom.


CONAN: Most people do. Thanks very much for the call, Douglas, stay with it.

DOUGLAS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. What is the relationship between alcohol and drugs?

VEN: Well, you know, I can just say in my data, I don't have a lot of rich detail on drug use. It's certainly in there, but I did not ask my respondents about drug use. But yeah, heavy drinkers are more likely to be drug users as well.

And you know, and I've had respondents that said, you know, I will smoke marijuana periodically, and it's always when I'm drunk. And that's not to say that, you know, drinking causes marijuana use, but that's at least what a couple of my respondents said.

CONAN: Let's go next to Brian(ph), Brian with us from Johnson City, Tennessee.

BRIAN: Oh, hi, Neal.


BRIAN: And hi, Thomas.

VEN: Hi.

BRIAN: I wanted to maybe speak a little bit to my experience attending a dry public university in Tennessee. I grew up here, and when I got here, it really became a cat-and-mouse sort of game where me and another friend, who would take the initiative to try to find a source of alcohol, would - we would find that source, and then we would stuff as much beer, as much liquor as possible into our bags.

We'd sneak past the resident advisors in the dorm, and when we returned to our room, we would be heroes. And I wondered maybe if your guest had any comparative data between drinking habits at dry campuses and wet campuses.

VEN: I don't, and that would make great future research. But, you know, that process you describe, that sneaking in alcohol, trying to avoid the tentacles of social control on campus, that happens on wet campuses, too, because, of course, they're underage. They're not supposed to have alcohol in the dorm. So, you know, I have stories about them using duffle bags and guitar cases and all different kinds of things sneaking into the dorm.

BRIAN: It's certainly an art form. I'm sorry, go ahead.

VEN: No, that's fine. But, you know, that's part of the fun, too, is getting away with it and working together. And you call it a cat and mouse game, and I think that's exactly right.

BRIAN: It was our small form of teen rebellion.

VEN: Yeah.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much for the call.

BRIAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Let's try Allison next. And Allison is on the line with us from Auburn, Indiana.

ALLISON: Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. I went to one of those big Western schools that's really, really big on drinking. And I was also on the track team there. And I never had any intention of drinking, but it went almost excessive especially because it's a co-ed team. We drink a lot. From the first weekend after the first practice, we partied hard, Friday and Saturday night. We used to joke that our drinking team had a track problem. You know, it was just kind of excessive, and that's how you became more accepted - (unintelligible) for more, so you had to drink.

CONAN: It can't have helped your time.

ALLISON: Yeah. No, I - luckily I didn't run. I was a thrower, so...


ALLISON: Far way more throwing ability.

CONAN: I suspect it didn't help your throwing ability either.

ALLISON: No, not very much.

CONAN: And it's interesting, there is a relationship, Thomas Vander Ven, you write about in the book between drinking and sports.

VEN: Yeah. Well, related to her comment, we do know based on the survey data that college athletes are more likely to be high-risk drinkers. But, yeah, I mean, there's - it's also part of the culture, so that tailgating, for example, connects drinking directly to football games. They will - pre-games, students will pre-game, before they watch their favorite college football team on TV, they will connect - they will integrate drinking into the watching of the game, for example. So they're celebrating, you know, touchdowns and commiserating over their team, you know, underperforming by doing shots together. I've seen this happen on my field work. I've seen this play out. So, yeah, drinking and college sports certainly are connected too.

CONAN: Allison, thanks very much for the call.

ALLISON: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Thomas Vander Ven about his book, "Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And there is a question that you also raise in the book: What can colleges do? I know they are trying any number of things, but what is effective in mitigating the amount of drinking that's going on?

VEN: Well, you know, this - the programming, prevention programming college administrations attempt to reduce drinking has been, you know, increased pretty dramatically in recent years, but the level of binge drinking has remained pretty constant. There are different programs that work out - what I would want to - what I would say to college administrators that programs must be tailored to individual campus settings. So college administrators need to say - need to ask the question, what is unique about the drinking scene, the drinking culture on my campus?

It was a variety of things that have been done, wider implementation of alcohol screening, educational programs like AlcoholEdu, where incoming first year students have to take an online course to understand, you know, some of the consequences of alcohol. And it teaches them effective strategies to avoid being overly intoxicated. There's motivational interviewing treatment programs, substance-free housing. A lot of these things have had some success. For me, because of my data and because of what I've learned about all this informal social support, I would encourage more bystander intervention programs on campus where students are taught to take care of each other.

They are all ready taking care of each other in the drinking scene. And I think there are programs out there like Red Watch Band and the Green Team at Dartmouth, where they're trying to get their students instrumentally involved in taking care of one another and trying to avoid tragedy and trying to, you know, keep their cohorts from drinking too much.

CONAN: And you also note in your book your daughter is going off to college.

VEN: Yes, she is. She will be a first year student here at Ohio University in Athens this fall. And, you know, as I say in the book, I'm a sociologist but I'm also a parent, and I do worry about these things. And, you know, I hope that she and everybody who's entering college this year goes there and finds an academic discipline that, you know, is exciting and inspiring to them and takes advantage of college in that way as well. But parents need to talk to their kids before they go to college about the dangers of alcohol. And we know there's recent research suggests that it does help when parents talk to their kids about these things beforehand.

CONAN: Has she read your book?

VEN: She had read the acknowledgment section, so she could see her name, I think, but I don't think she's read too deeply yet. But she plans on it. She promises.

CONAN: She promises. In a way, this is a - this book is a letter to her, isn't it?

VEN: It felt that way. It felt that way after I finished the book and I was writing the acknowledgment section in the preface and preparing for her to go away to school. It really did feel that way. And, you know, you read that quote at the beginning about, you know, the anti-college sentiment and all that, you know? And that's me interpreting the anti-college sentiment. That's not me saying the sentiment. I think they are having a lot of fun, and some beautiful friendships emerge out of college, and some of that is connected to the drinking scene. And I - you know, I think that they are having a lot of fun out there, but I also, you know, hope that they take care of each other and be careful about it and not go overboard. And so I want her to be careful, to look out for her friends and to find a group of people who will look out for her.

CONAN: And I just wanted to end with this warning from Joann(ph) in St. Paul: My ex-boyfriend died two years ago from the side effects of alcoholism at the age of 38. During college when we were dating, he was in a fraternity. His drinking habits were formed. His heavy drinking was legendary, expected and destructive. He punched his fist through windows, got in fights, fought with me publicly. Our abusive relationship continued for five years. He never graduated, but was carried along by college buddies who gave him work. When I heard news of his death, I was saddened but relieved that I had gotten out when I did. At his funeral, all of his fraternity buddies were there, but with vague memories about how it all started and their roles in it.

Thomas Vander Ven, thanks very much. Good luck with the book.

VEN: Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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