Beer-Swilling Frat Boys May Just Be Products of Their Environment

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
From the WebMD Archives

March 12, 2001 -- "From Sayre Park to Tally Ho, we're gonna get drunk tonight. The campus cops are after us ... ."

Many fraternities and sororities have drinking songs such as this that members and pledges belt out on their way to parties, at bars, and really just about anyplace on college campuses across the country.

No doubt about it, drinking is -- or at least was -- an ingrained part of the Greek experience. How could it not be, with parties just about every night and drinking games accounting for the most frequently practiced extracurricular activities of most members.

And now a new study looks at whether the drinking habits picked up in fraternities and sororities persist in the years after college. The findings, which appear in the March issue of the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, suggest that Greek status does not necessarily lead to heavy drinking after graduation.

As people enter the workforce, get married, and have children, alcohol consumption tends to wane even among the most ardent of Greeks, the new study suggests.

"It's a pretty well-established finding that Greeks drink more than non-Greeks [during college]. There's no surprise there," lead researcher Kenneth J. Sher, PhD, the Curator's professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri at Columbia, tells WebMD.

"What we didn't know is what happens after these individuals leave campus," says Sher, who attended a college without a Greek system. In other words, he asks, "Does the 'Greek effect' persist?"

He found that, alas, it does not.

"It's largely a situational effect," says Sher, also a faculty member at the Missouri Alcoholism Research Center in Columbia. "This is not to say that some Greeks won't later become alcohol-dependent, but there is no additional risk associated with being Greek."

To arrive at these findings, Sher and Bruce D. Bartholow, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, looked at the drinking habits and personality traits of 319 college students during their four years of college and then again three years later.

He cautions that these findings do not suggest that drinking during the college years has no ill effects. For example, alcohol consumption can lead to aggression and date rape, he says.

"If you do drink, there are ways of minimizing the harm associated with it, such as avoiding situations with a high risk for injury like drinking and driving or drinking while camping, where people go and try to find a site in the dark and fall off a cliff," he says.

Certain kinds of drinking situations are high risk for sexual assault and date rape. Often in these cases, "both the perpetrator and the victim are drinking, and often both individuals have some difficulty sending and decoding subtle nonverbal messages," he explains.

The take-home message for Greek and non-Greek college students and alumni is to be aware of these traps -- and avoid them. Exactly why Greeks drink more than non-Greeks is not 100% clear, Sher says. There may be a predisposition to alcohol use among people who join the Greek system or a stronger norm for drinking in these settings.

"People who live in Greek houses tend to perceive peers as drinking more heavily and approving of drinking more heavily," he says.

This makes sense to Gregg B. Golub, a 35-year-old executive at a New York City-based garment firm who was a member of a fraternity when he attended Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. "To put it bluntly, I did not drink before Greek life," he tells WebMD. "In school, I drank heavily every day. Now, I still drink heavily, but only on occasions."

Golub says he does not blame fraternity membership for any of his habits. "If anything, it was a facilitator for the activation of behaviors that were inherently part of my nature, as opposed to the root cause," he says.

In recent years, due to hazing incidents and alcohol-related problems, there has been a crackdown on the Greek system.

"There have been changes on campuses with alcohol bans, and we have not been tracking that. But a local newspaper did a study showing that arrests for drinking and driving are up, suggesting that alcohol bans on campus are encouraging people to leave the campus to drink," Sher says.

Calling the new report an "important study of a frequently asked question," Henry Wechsler, PhD, principal investigator of the Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Study, says that it's too early to make generalizations from the new findings. The College Alcohol Study looks at the drinking habits of more than 14,000 college students at 119 colleges in 39 states.

Wechsler's findings suggest that people who join Greek organizations are more often binge drinkers in high school than those college students who do not choose Greek life.

"Our findings have consistently shown that people who live in Greek houses drink much more than even those fraternity members who don't live in the house," he says. About four in five people who live in their fraternity or sorority house are binge drinkers, he says.

"If you take a slice of life from fraternity members, more were binge drinkers in high school; in addition, both high school binge drinkers and non-bingers increased their drinking while in a fraternity and drink heavier than non-Greeks," Wechsler says. "So it's both the chicken and the egg."