Do Misperceptions of Peer Drinking Influence Personal Drinking Behavior? Results From a Complete Social Network of First-Year College Students


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Abstract

This study considered the influence of misperceptions of typical versus self-identified important peers’ heavy drinking on personal heavy drinking intentions and frequency utilizing data from a complete social network of college students. The study sample included data from 1,313 students (44% male, 57% White, 15% Hispanic/Latinx) collected during the fall and spring semesters of their freshman year. Students provided perceived heavy drinking frequency for a typical student peer and up to 10 identified important peers. Personal past-month heavy drinking frequency was assessed for all participants at both time points. By comparing actual with perceived heavy drinking frequencies, measures of misperceptions of heavy drinking (accurately estimate, overestimate, underestimate) were constructed for both general and important peers. These misperceptions were then used as predictors of concurrent and prospective personal heavy drinking frequency and intentions using network autocorrelation analyses. The majority of students (84.8%) overestimated, 11.3% accurately estimated, and 3.9% underestimated heavy drinking among their general peers, whereas 42.0% accurately estimated, 36.9% overestimated, and 21.1% underestimated important peers’ heavy drinking. For both referents, overestimation of peer heavy drinking was associated with more frequent heavy drinking and higher drinking intentions at both time points. Importantly, the effects of underestimating and overestimating close peers’ drinking on personal alcohol use were significant after controlling for the influence of misperceptions of general peers’ heavy drinking. Close peers are a critical referent group in assessments related to social norms for young adult alcohol use. Implications for prevention and intervention are discussed.

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