By Taylor Shook
“What percentage of Denison students do you think engaged in binge drinking in the last week?” We asked, and Denison answered: about half. But we know that only one in three students chooses to binge drink. Why the 20% gap between reality and perception? Self-justification and racial segregation may be to blame.
When we take a look at how different groups perceive the campus, two patterns stand out. First, binge-drinkers perceive that 10% more students binge drink, compared to non-binge-drinkers. On the other hand, White students perceive 5% fewer students to be binge drinking, compared to students of Color (who answered Hispanic, Black, Asian, or other, when asked about their race). Taken at face value, these two points seem contradictory: White students binge drink at rates twice as high as students of Color, so how can Whites and binge-drinkers have such different perceptions of campus binge drinking?
Students of Color binge drink at a rate of 16%, less than half as much as Whites, who clock in at almost 35%. Cultural norms and risk-aversion may play a part, but social control by White, Greek-affiliated students means lesser access to party culture for students of Color, and would seem to explain the racial disparity in binge drinking behavior. So, students of Color may feel that everyone is binge drinking except for them.
Is this evidence of racial segregation of campus social life? Maybe. We know that non-affiliated Whites binge drink at a rate of 23%, which is twice as high as non-affiliated students of Color (11%), which could point to more access to party culture for Whites, even if they aren’t affiliated. Similarly, non-affiliated students of Color estimate 61% of campus to binge drink, while non-affiliated Whites guess just 49%, on average. So, because students of Color are excluded, they both drink less, and perceive others to drink more.
However, binge-drinking status has a correlation to binge-drinking perceptions that may trump Greek affiliation, and even race. Binge-drinkers of Color, affiliated or not, estimate 55% of students to binge drink, on average. But, non-binge drinkers of Color have much higher perceptions, at 68% for non-affiliated, and 76% for affiliated students.  That’s really high—1.5 times the average perception, and 2.5 times higher than reality. But it makes sense, as binge-drinking and non-Whiteness are both linked to higher perceptions of campus binge drinking.
On the contrary, the most accurate perception lies with White, Greek non-binge-drinkers, who perceive 36% of students to binge drink. And it makes sense—White Greeks are privy to binge-drinking culture, so they know who is binge-drinking and who is not. But, they don’t binge drink, and thus, don’t feel the need to justify their behavior by telling themselves “everyone is doing it.” In other words, nobody wants to feel like the odd one out. If you binge drink, you believe that a majority of your peers do, as well.
If you’ve read the other posts by Libby Beach and Jeffrey Alder, you’ll know that we also ran an experiment where we pretended like 127 was partnering with the “I’m Shmacked” web empire – half learned this in the survey, half did not. The response to this information among Whites and non-Whites is telling. There is no gap between racial groups in the control condition , but there is when we provided them with the I’m Shmacked information: non-Whites increased their perception of campus binge drinking.
All in all, if you’re wondering how many students binge drink, it depends on who you ask. Race, which may be a measure of proximity to party culture, and binge-drinking status, seem to determine student perception. But does that really matter? I say it does. But even more troubling is that the racial disparity in binge drinking perceptions is most likely indicative of a larger racial divide on campus— one where Whites use their social control to insulate themselves from non-White peers. Is it intentional, or a function of Greek institutions? Or both?
Taylor Shook is a kombucha connoisseur, podcast junkie, and okay-ish poet from Hilliard, Ohio. She’s on a quest to make the perfect pesto and watch every documentary, but studies politics in her free time. Tweet her your favorite memes @shook_factor.
2. According to the same survey, 30.5% of students engaged in binge drinking in the last week. In a few ways, the response is not representative of Denison, however. It had 5 percent too many women, and a few percent too few seniors. When we reweighted the data to be representative of students by class, race, sex, and greek status, the proportion reporting that they binged in the prior week rose to 31.7.
3. According to a regression model of survey results, which controls for survey priming, Greek affiliation, gender, race, sports participation, class year, and sexual orientation, students who said they do binge drink perceive 16% more of their peers to binge drink than students who don’t, on average.