A psychological perspective on binge drinking during Schoolies

Congratulations class of 2016 on almost finishing high school! You are about to enter a very exciting stage of your life and I understand that this rite of passage for many students will include celebrating at Schoolies. Rejoicing this milestone is completely normal, after all, you have worked very hard get to where you are. However, as many of us are aware, Schoolies week can often be associated with high levels of alcohol consumption, including binge drinking, so I thought I could offer some of my knowledge on the subject which will hopefully give you a few things to think about.  

Partaking in binge drinking increases all sorts of risks, in particular assault, accidental injury, alcohol poisoning and death. These facts are not here to scare you, but rather make you aware of the statistics and point you in the direction of some great resources to help you stay safe.

We will be looking at this from a psychological perspective, more specifically, the role of our thoughts in drinking. To do this, we are going to look at a hypothetical scenario of a young man heading to Schoolies.

The Schoolies Scenario

Stevie is 18 years old and has just graduated from high school. Stevie lives with his parents, his older sister, and his older brother.

 

 

 

Stevie’s sister, Lauren never drinks. She was school captain and is really popular. Stevie wishes he could be as confident as her. Lauren was a good student and plays a lot of sport.

 

 

Stevie’s brother, Ben, drinks at parties. His brother is chilled out and cool.

 

 

 

Stevie hates it when his dad drinks. He gets really loud and embarrasses Stevie in front of his friends. Stevie’s dad drinks a lot, but mostly on the weekend. Stevie’s mum doesn’t really drink. The most he has seen her have is a few glasses of wine, but she usually doesn’t drink more than one glass.

 

 

Overview: 

Stevie is heading to Schoolies at Surfers Paradise with a group of his friends. They have rented out a unit and are planning to bring alcohol. Stevie feels conflicted about drinking at Schoolies

In psychology, we are particularly interested in how a person’s thoughts and emotions impact on how they behave and what actions they take. Pretend that you are Stevie. Try to imagine yourself in his situation.

  • What do you think Stevie is thinking or feeling?
  • What might he think about alcohol because of how his parents and siblings use alcohol?
  • What other factors might be influencing him to drink or not to drink?

After talking to a lot of young people (and from being young myself) I can imagine that Stevie thinks that he has to drink alcohol to fit in and have fun with his friends, otherwise his friends might not think he is cool. It is likely that if we rated his thoughts from zero to 100 percent (100 being that this statement is entirely true), he would probably rate it at about 90 percent. This thought might make him feel quite anxious if he decides not to drink around his friends or lead him to drink a lot of alcohol to try to have fun. So based on these emotions and thoughts, it is likely that Stevie will drink at schoolies, and he will most likely binge drink.

The evidence:

Psychological evidence shows that if we look at our own thoughts and see factual evidence for them we can gain more control over how we act. So let’s put on our judges’ wigs and pretend we are Stevie evaluating the evidence for-and-against what he thinks about alcohol at Schoolies. I have outlined some possible evidence I have found below. See if you agree with it and add your own evidence.

Stevie’s thoughts around alcohol at Schoolies - “I have to drink alcohol to have fun and my friends will not think I am cool if I do not drink”.

Stevie believes this thought to be 90 per cent true.

What tells us that this is true?

  • There will be a lot of people drinking at schoolies.
  • My older brother drinks and people think he is cool.
  • Alcohol could help me to have fun.
  • My friends might be drinking.

What tells us that this is not true?

  • People will be so caught up in their own activities that they will not be checking how much I drink.
  • My older sister does not drink and people think that she is cool.
  • When my dad drinks a lot he embarrasses me – maybe people will think I am embarrassing if I drink a lot.
  • If I drink too much I might hurt myself or do something I regret – not fun.
  • There’s no rule that I have to drink at Schoolies.
  • There are a lot of activities at Schoolies (bands, beach, rides etc.). I can have fun whether I am drinking or not.
  • I see my friends all the time without drinking and they like me. Why would they not like me now?
  • If my friends are good friends, they will respect my decisions.

The conclusions:

Look at the evidence in both sections. After reading through each, what side do you think is more convincing? After going through this process do you think Stevie would still believe that the thought is 90 percent true? What might he be thinking now instead? How would this fresh perspective impact on his behaviour? Even if you think he would still drink, would he drink as much perhaps?

This process of evidence-checking is a common psychological technique and can be applied to many situations, including thoughts around alcohol. Often the thoughts that we have about alcohol are not very evidence-based. For example, experiments have shown that a lot of the effects of alcohol that people seek, such as increased social engagement and enjoyment are actually caused by our expectations rather than the alcohol itself. That is, we act more social when we drink because we think that alcohol makes us more social – but in reality it doesn’t. Further to this, a lot of the social pressure is conjured up in our own heads. Would you stop being friends with someone if they decided not to drink or decided to drink less? Probably not. So why do we think that our friends will judge us?

Things to think about:

  • Our actions are driven by our thoughts and feelings.
  • Young adults are particularly driven by the social or sensation-seeking aspects of alcohol use.
  • Even though our thoughts feel very real, sometimes they can be based on faulty information.
  • If we check the evidence for and against our thoughts we can determine whether they are supported or not.

Once we have figured out the evidence for and against our thoughts we can use this information to have more control over how we choose to act. Once you have evaluated the evidence you might find that you can have a great time with your friends without drinking or without drinking as much. Most importantly have fun and stay safe during a very exciting time of your life.

Useful resources:


Meet the author...

My name is Kiri. I completed a Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours) at the University of Queensland (UQ) in 2012. I’m currently in my third year of the combined Masters of Clinical Psychology and PhD postgraduate program at UQ with the Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research. Even though I’ve taken on a lot with my studies I try to keep my life balanced by spending lots of times with friends and my partner and doing interesting things in my spare time like rock climbing, hiking, cooking, and travelling.

 

Last updated:
1 December 2016