“Why do I pregame?” The third year American History student repeated our question with a bit of sarcasm in his voice. He put down his textbook and then delivered his jovial response:
“Why wouldn’t I pregame?! It makes everything better- bars, parties, dances, football, class, work…”
This is the pregaming mentality expressed by a current undergrad at our mid-Western university. This mentality can be summarized: if you have to go to something, why not be buzzed when you do it?
Across the country, on any given weekend night, college students are often consuming four or five, sometimes even 10 drinks, before they even make it out of their dorm room for a night of partying, the dorm dance, or even the latest sports event.
They consume what many medical professionals construe as dangerous, sometimes lethal, amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Then students often find themselves passing out, throwing up and even being taken to the hospital. And that’s before they even make it to the party.
From an outsider’s point of view, this may not sound like a lot of fun. For college students, pregaming is often the best part of the night. Our question as student researchers was, Why?
Due to the recent emergence of pregaming, little is known about the mentality behind it. Working with the university group in charge of helping to prevent and treat alcohol abuse, we aimed to understand the social and cultural bases for high-risk drinking and pregaming. Previous student research on pregaming focused on gender differences, and can be found in the post “College Drinking: Battle of the Sexes?”
The statistics were already clear for the university office in charge of alcohol education and prevention – almost 80% of students who have gotten in trouble for alcohol-related events were pregaming on the night of the incident. Counselors there feared that the high-risk drinking habit of pregaming has become synonymous with students social lives.
Our project aimed at both understanding students’ general attitude towards pregaming as well as why students stop drinking on a given night. These questions could offer insight and clues to effective handling of the problem of pregaming by students and the university alike.
Throughout the Fall 2009 semester, we surveyed over 400 undergraduate students along with conducting student and counselor interviews. The surveys included nine questions regarding students’ drinking and pregaming habits. Ten student interviews of females and males were conducted to focus on attitudes toward pregaming. We also drew on our own insights and experiences as undergraduate students.
A Social Need
The main theme emerging from our research is the intense social aspect of pregaming. We were surprised to find out that many students actually enjoy the pregame over the party itself, simply because they enjoy being with a smaller group of friends.
“Pregames are usually a fun part of the night because you’re just with a few close friends before you go out and meet up with a lot more people and can’t chat and laugh with your close friends as much,” said one student.
Another student talked about how pregaming was a good way to organize your friends before going out. By getting together a group of people before the party, you’re not left with the possibility of going out to party alone.
Additionally, we found that many students pregame to lower their inhibitions, making them more fun, outgoing and less awkward when they’re at a party. Whereas they may feel comfortable showing up to a pregame sober, they are very uncomfortable with the idea of showing up to a party sober.
As several students put it, pregaming “gets rid of potential awkwardness at the beginning of parties.” It gives you a “confidence boost” and makes you “more loose and able to socialize”. As described in previous student research Why Do They Do It? Portrayals of Alcohol on Facebook and MySpace, drinking is a way for students to “portray themselves as social, attractive, and popular.”
In general, students did not feel any need to “pregame” the pregame. This suggests that students do not have the same reservations about being at a pregame sober as they do about being at a party sober. The people they pregame with are oftentimes the same people they study with, eat with and simply hang out with on a regular basis. They are used to being sober with these people and therefore don’t worry about having to carry on what might other times be awkward conservations with them.
However, when students make it to a party, bar, or dance, they are surrounded by students they are not used to interacting with. They may feel self-conscious and uncomfortable talking to people they don’t know, and thus use alcohol as a “social lubricant,” getting them drunk before the party to avoid these potential awkward encounters.
Our surveys also showed that many students admit to pregaming so hard that they never make it to the intended event or “blacking out before the party even starts”. Every student interviewed remembered instances when they or one of their close friends did not make it to the main event they were pregaming for. When students pregame they are oftentimes more concerned about the pregame itself than the event they’re going to afterwards. “Pregaming is the party,” one student noted while laughing nonchalantly.
Drinking to Dance
One particular concern counselors have is the pregaming that goes on before dormitory dances. Throughout the school year different resident halls host both informal and formal dances. These events are intended to be a fun outing for the residents of each hall.
Unfortunately, in recent years these dances have turned into excuses for massive amounts of pregaming. Because alcohol is not typically served at the dances many students feel an added pressure to get drunk prior to attending the dance itself. Moreover, many students, as mentioned earlier, feel awkward and uncomfortable at these events unless they have already been drinking.
To overcome these problems, students will pregame, consuming up to 8-10 drinks in a matter of an hour or two before going to the dance. This inevitably leaves many students vomiting in bathrooms, passing out on the dance floor and sometimes even being rushed to the hospital because of alcohol poisoning. During a recent dorm dance, between 20-23 students were either personally walked home or ejected from the dance for alcohol related incidents.
Why Should I Stop?
Determining why students stop drinking on a given night gave us insight into why students are drinking in the first place. By finding out what students are trying to avoid when they stop drinking, we have gotten better insight on what to educate students on.
Students reported two top reasons for why they stop drinking. The first is because they “reach [their] limit” which involves throwing up, passing out or being hung over the next day. The second was that their friends stopped drinking. Students stop when their friends stop because they didn’t want to look bad in front of their friends or their friends told them to stop. Pregaming would accelerate the occurrence of both reaching one’s limit and of friends drinking ending.
Since “limits” and social reaction are the two most important reasons students quit drinking, these are two areas that should be focused on when creating alcohol education systems.
While a few students admit they “don’t see the appeal of pregaming,” the majority of students do not agree. Counselors must seek to better understand why students want to “get the juices flowing” and “get drunk as early as possible,” before they will be able to help students avoid the penalties, embarrassing events and hospital visits that often accompany this high-risk action.
Unfortunately, many students do not always realize the serious health risks that come with pregaming. Surveys indicate that students are more concerned about getting caught pregaming than they are about any potential health risks.
Counselors fear that the “work hard, play hard” mentality of many students will not disappear after graduation. Counselors worry that upon entering the work force, graduates will continue to turn to alcohol to cope with stress, simply because that is what they have trained themselves to do.
So what do we do about pregaming and the risks it brings? The current modes of educating students about the risks associated with pregaming are very limited. Pregaming is a relatively new phenomenon and many universities are just beginning to assess ways to combat it. Current alcohol education programs focus on abstinence from drinking, which has not been shown as affective.
Since research shows that students do not worry about the health risks associated with pregaming, it would be prudent to focus future education initiatives on the health effects of such practices. College students respond to facts and information. They are past the age of being told that if something is bad they shouldn’t do it. This might help explain why programs that ask students to abstain from drinking because it’s unhealthy do not seem to be working. However, if programs focused on laying out the proven effects of alcohol consumption on an adolescent body, students may respond more favorably.
Based on our research, we believe that a particular focus should be placed on dances, which attract the highest levels of pregaming and its negative consequences. It is believed by group members that dormitory regulations currently in place before and during school sponsored dances need to be rethought. Rules regarding time limits on social gatherings that were originally put into place to keep students safe are becoming more and more detrimental to students’ health.
In the end, counselors’ best hope for cutting down student pregaming and the risks it entails is to address the social issue. Provide options on other social activities for students to take part in. Use students’ social networks to their advantage; use friends to get friends to cut down on their heavy pregaming habits. We know that if our friends told us we were drinking too much, we would most likely stop.
Acknowledgements: A special thanks to the director of our local university alcohol education and prevention program for insight and support.