Genes, Roommates, and Residence Halls: A Multidimensional Study of the Role of Peer Alcohol Consumption on College Students’ Alcohol Use
Peer alcohol consumption is one of the most robust predictors of college students’ alcohol use and can moderate students’ genetic risk for alcohol use. Peer effect research generally suffers from 2 problems: selection into peer groups and relying more on perceptions of peer alcohol use than peers’ self‐report.
The goal of the present study was to overcome those limitations by capitalizing on a genetically informed sample of randomly assigned college roommates to examine multiple dimensions of peer influence and the interplay between peer effects and genetic predisposition on alcohol use, in the form of polygenic scores.
The study used a subsample (n = 755) of participants from a university‐wide, longitudinal study at a large, diverse, urban university. Participants reported their own alcohol use during fall and spring and their perceptions of college peers’ alcohol use in spring. Participants were matched into their rooms and residence halls to create a composite score of peer‐reported alcohol use for each of those levels.
The study examined multiple dimensions of peer influence and whether peer influence moderated genetic predisposition to predict college students’ alcohol use, using multilevel models to account for clustering at the room and residence hall level.
The researchers found that polygenic scores (β = 0.12), perceptions of peer alcohol use (β = 0.37), and roommates’ self‐reported alcohol (β = 0.10) predicted alcohol use (all ps < 0.001), while average alcohol use across residence hall did not (β = −0.01, p = 0.86).
There was no evidence for interactions between peer influence and genome‐wide polygenic scores for alcohol use.
The study’s findings underscore the importance of genetic predisposition on individual alcohol use and support the potentially causal nature of the association between peer influence and alcohol use.
Implications of the study
According to the researchers of the study both how much alcohol friends are perceived to be having and how much roommates report using alcohol affect how much alcohol a college student will use over time. The perceived amount of alcohol friends consume specifically affects alcohol use.
Interestingly, we found that perceptions – how much you think your friends are drinking [alcohol] – matters most. That was more important than how much your roommate is actually drinking [alcohol],” said lead researcher Rebecca Smith, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology.
The study stands as an example of the influence peers have on college students and their behaviors and attitudes to alcohol.