Fraternity members who party hard are unlikely to change their boozy behavior any time soon, even with proven methods of reducing alcohol abuse, a new study suggests.
Tried and true interventions have little impact on frat brothers, says the study, published Thursday in Health Psychology. The findings were a surprise, according to the study's lead author.
"It was unexpected," Lori Scott-Sheldon, an associate professor at the Brown University Medical School and a senior scientist at the Miriam Hospital, told NBC News. "We thought they would work as they did in the broader student population. It may just be more challenging to act on your intentions if the environment endorses alcohol use."
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Images in pop culture of free-flowing alcohol in frat houses, depicted in movies from "Animal House" to "Neighbors," are often not too far from the truth. And it's the celebration of heavy consumption that researchers like Scott-Sheldon are most worried about, because it can lead to tragedies like the death of Nicholas Holt, 18, a freshman at Stony Brook University this spring. Holt was brought to a Long Island Hospital from a frat party with a high blood alcohol level and died there.
The new study combined data from 15 earlier, smaller studies, in what is known as a meta-analysis. Those studies examined the success rates of 21 different interventions in fraternity members.
"The interventions included such things as education about alcohol, personalized feedback on alcohol use and strategies to reduce drinking, such as alternating alcohol with water," Scott-Sheldon said.
While there were data from sororities, too, the numbers were too small "for them to be generalizable," Scott-Sheldon said.
The researchers suspect that the situation isn't hopeless and that future interventions that include input from Greek leaders might be more effective.
That might suggest a role for organizations like the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors.
"There is a great need for a more robust infrastructure to assist, support, and hold accountable this growing population of today's campus," Mark Koepsell, the association's executive director/CEO, said in a statement to NBC News. "We have got to move beyond what has largely become a programmatically focused, entry-level position to support these communities within our campuses."
There are already examples out there, such as the University of Pennsylvania, where the committee that developed alcohol policy included members of fraternities and sororities, said Dr. Charles O'Brien, a professor of Psychiatry and the founding Director of the Center for the Studies of Addiction at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
A big component of a successful program is education, O'Brien said.
"Basically kids can be very smart, but ignorant about alcohol as a drug," he told NBC News. "It's really ridiculous. Officials say, 'alcohol and drugs.' Alcohol is a drug just as much as cocaine. I can rattle off a list of students who died from an alcohol overdose, or even worse, who killed other people with their cars."
Since the university instituted its current alcohol policy, "we have not had the same severe problems," O'Brien said.
"Penn is a model for the rest of the country. We have very good alcohol policies and a very good staff of people whose only job is to monitor these things and to intervene when it looks like there are danger signs."
O'Brien was happy to see the new study.
"This kind of science is needed," he said. "Clearly we have to make an effort. So many students are dying and not just overdoses, but from falling out of windows and from auto accidents."