When fraternities mix poorly with copious amounts of booze, the results can run the gamut from the bizarre — the student who loses a testicle while gagged with limburger cheese, or the young man who fails to launch a bottle rocket from below the belt — to the less singular but no less tragic: assaults, rapes, deaths.
In 2014, some 1,800 college students died from drinking-related causes, drunk students perpetrated 696,000 assaults and close to 100,000 students were sexually assaulted or raped in incidents involving alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s rough estimate. Not all events involved college fraternities, but because brothers are more likely to drink more heavily than their peers, the fraternal enthusiasm for drinking is a prime target for intervention.
By and large, these interventions are not successful, new research indicates, particularly when members of so-called Greek letter organizations are compared with students living non-Greek lives. According to a review representing more than 20 years of research recently published in the American Psychological Association’s Health Psychology journal, frat brothers seem to resist alcohol education and lessons from peer-mediated groups.
“Stronger interventions may need to be developed for student members of Greek letter organizations,” said Lori A. J. Scott-Sheldon, a Brown University psychologist and author of the new report, in a news release.
Scott-Sheldon and her colleagues at Brown University and the Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island analyzed 15 studies including data for 6,000 members of fraternities and sororities. Most interventions consisted of a single session, averaging about 50 minutes, which focused on high-risk scenarios (think parties) coupled with alcohol education — how to estimate blood alcohol concentration, for instance. Less frequent were attempts aimed at correcting misplaced norms about alcohol culture, or trying to have Greek members understand what motivates their drinking.
Going into the study, Scott-Sheldon predicted that “thoughtfully designed and carefully administered” interventions were likely to be effective. Among the student body at large, previous research indicates that alcohol education can work (though the effects, like a hangover, seem to wear off over time). And because students who drink the heaviest would benefit the most, the researchers expected to see signs of alcohol reduction among the Greek organizations post-intervention.
But their initial hypotheses did not bear out. “Current intervention methods appear to have limited effectiveness in reducing alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems among fraternity and possibly sorority members,” said Scott-Sheldon. (Because only 18 percent of the 6,000 students were women, the researchers say it is trickier to apply their findings to sororities.)
In many cases, frequency of heavy drinking did not change any more than could be attributed to happenstance. In others — in the four studies for which students recorded weekly or monthly alcohol consumption — the authors write that “Greek members who received the alcohol intervention were more likely to report consuming alcohol relative to the control participants.”
Greek culture, the scientists say, is a likely barrier to intervention. If fraternity members “view alcohol use as a means to achieve their social and sexual goals,” the researchers wrote, “attempts to manage drinking may be ineffective.” Longer interventions did not necessarily mean better results; in fact, some of the more effective attempts were shorter in length. Brevity, the psychologists posit, may encourage wider attendance.
They found a large difference between the approach to sororities and fraternities: Two-thirds of the studies focused explicitly on frats, whereas none took a sorority members-only approach. This is a notable absence, the scientists wrote, citing one study of nearly 800 women that found four sexual assaults against sorority members (29 percent reported an assault) for every one sexual assault against a non-sorority student (7 percent).
It is possible that interventions do have effects not captured in the review, thanks to a phenomenon psychologists call the sleeper effect– in which an argument does not lead to immediate change, but proves to be persuasive in the long run. What did show promise, the researchers conclude, were the few interventions that challenged students’ social expectations when drinking, which led to fewer drinks on specific occasions and reduced the days of heavy drinking.
The research comes at a time when schools across the country are publicly wrestling with drinking on campus.
“Basically kids can be very smart, but ignorant about alcohol as a drug,” University of Pennsylvania addiction expert Charles O’Brien told NBC News in a recent interview. “It’s really ridiculous. Officials say, ‘alcohol and drugs.’ Alcohol is a drug just as much as cocaine.” O’Brien said that the University of Pennsylvania now has full-time staff who monitor alcohol consumption on campus, which has helped curb heavy drinking at the school.
And last January, Dartmouth College, in one of the more restrictive measures taken by a private school without a religious affiliation, announced it was completely banning hard alcohol — even for students who are of legal drinking age.