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Existing alcohol-intervention programs are ineffective with students in fraternities and sororities, study suggests

Some of the studies showed that alcohol consumption of Greek-affiliated students actually increased after an intervention.

Research has consistently shown that students who are affiliated with Greek organizations, particularly men, consume alcohol in higher amounts and more frequently than their non-Greek peers.

University students who are members of fraternities and sororities — particularly fraternities — appear to be immune to interventions designed to reduce their alcohol use and related problems, according to a new study.

This finding surprised the study’s authors, for the interventions whose effectiveness they examined are ones that have been shown to reduce risky drinking behaviors among university students who are not members of fraternities or sororities.

“Stronger interventions may need to be developed for student members of Greek letter organizations,” said Lori Scott-Sheldon, the study’s lead researcher and a psychologist at Brown University, in a released statement.

The study appeared last week in the journal Health Psychology, which is published by the American Psychological Association.

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Thousands harmed each year

High-risk drinking is a major problem on college campuses across the country. Each year, about 1,800 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related causes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

In addition, about 700,000 college students are assaulted each year by another student who has been drinking, and more than 97,000 students are the victims of an alcohol-related sexual assault or rape.

Of course, not all those assaults and deaths involve members of college fraternities and sororities.  Still, as background information in this study points out, research has consistently shown that students who are affiliated with Greek organizations, particularly men, consume alcohol in higher amounts and more frequently than their non-Greek peers.

They also tend to experience more negative consequences from the misuse of alcohol than students who live in dormitories or with their parents.

Study details

For the study, Scott-Sheldon and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 15 previous studies that had examined the effectiveness of 21 different alcohol-reduction interventions on more than 6,000 students in fraternities and sororities at large public universities across the country. Most of the students (82 percent) were members of fraternities. Most (89 percent) were also white. All of the studies, which were published between the years 1987 and 2014, had a control or comparison group.

After crunching the data, Scott-Sheldon and her co-authors found no significant difference between the alcohol-related habits of Greek-affiliated students who received an intervention and those who did not (the ones in the control groups).

Specifically, the interventions did not change how much the Greek-affiliated students drank per week or month, how many days they spent drinking, how frequently they engaged in heavy drinking, or how many alcohol-related harmful consequences (injuries, assaults, health problems) they experienced.

Some of the studies showed that alcohol consumption of Greek-affiliated students actually increased after an intervention.

These findings were unexpected. Other meta-analyses of the effects of similar alcohol interventions on college students in general have found such programs to be successful at reducing risky drinking behavior.

‘A means to achieve social and sexual goals’

The interventions that were found to be particularly counterproductive with Greek-affiliated students were those that focused on developing strategies and goals for moderating alcohol consumption, particularly the avoidance of scenarios (such as parties) where high-risk drinking is likely to occur.

“This finding highlights the complexities of intervening with Greek-affiliated students,” write Scott-Sheldon and her colleagues. “Fraternity and sorority members often drink in situations (e.g. house parties) where they may feel comfortable and in control. Furthermore, members often report drinking for extrinsic reasons such as perceptions of greater opportunities for friendship, social engagement, and sexual activity.”

“Thus,” they add, “attempts to manage drinking may be ineffective for fraternity and sorority members if they view alcohol use as a means to achieve their social and sexual goals.”

Limitations and implications

The meta-analysis has several limitations. For example, in the analyzed studies the college students filled out questionnaires about their alcohol-related behaviors. Such self-reported data is subject to bias. (The students may have either over- or underestimated how much and how frequently they consume alcohol.) Also, students in these studies tended to be followed for only a brief period of time. As a result, the studies may not have detected a psychological phenomenon known as the “sleeper effect” — in which people, when presented with a persuasive message, make changes in beliefs or behaviors, but not immediately.

In addition, since only 18 percent of the Greek-affiliated students in the analyzed studies were women and because no single study focused an intervention exclusively aimed at sororities, Scott-Sheldon and her colleagues say that their findings may or may not be applicable to members of sororities.

Still, the findings from the meta-analysis are troubling and suggest, write Scott-Sheldon and her co-authors, that “more robust interventions are needed for use with student members of Greek letter organizations.”

As Scott-Sheldon told Tech Times reporter Katherine Deria: “What is working for the broader college student population has been less effective for fraternity and sorority members, and we need to refine or create new interventions that work better for these students.”

FMI: You can read the meta-analysis in full online.