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Are Social Norms the Best Predictor of Outcomes Among Heavy-Drinking College Students?

Clayton Neighbors, Christine M. Lee, Melissa A. Lewis, Nicole Fossos, Mary E. Larimer

Objective: This research was designed to evaluate the relative contribution of social norms, demographics, drinking motives, and alcohol expectancies in predicting alcohol consumption and related problems among heavy-drinking college students. Method: Participants included 818 (57.6% women) first-year undergraduates who reported at least one heavy-drinking episode in the previous month. In addition to providing demographic information (gender and fraternity/sorority membership) participants completed Web-based assessments of social norms (perceived descriptive norms regarding typical student drinking, injunctive norms regarding friends' and parents' approval), motives (social, enhancement, coping, and conformity), and expectancies and evaluations of positive and negative alcohol effects. Results: Regression results indicated that descriptive and injunctive norms were among the best predictors of college student drinking. With respect to alcohol problems, results indicated that coping motives accounted for the largest proportion of unique variance. Finally, results revealed that alcohol consumption mediated the relationships between predictors and problems for social norms, whereas coping motives, negative expectancies, and evaluation of negative effects were directly associated with alcohol problems despite having relatively weak or null unique associations with consumption. Conclusions: The results of this study substantiate social norms as being among the best predictors of alcohol consumption in this population and suggest that drinking to cope is a better predictor of problems. The findings are discussed in terms of practical prevention and treatment implications. (J. Stud. Alcohol Drugs 68: 556-565, 2007)