the Alcohol and Other Drugs Harm Reduction Initiative (“Audrey”)

Yale Culture

Alcohol pressure & selection bias

Peer pressure is a well-documented sociological phenomenon: people tend to act how they see all of their peers acting.  This is widely cited as a reason for drinking.  What’s less obvious is that students are often drinking to fit in with social norms that actually don’t exist.  Studies have shown that college students consistently overestimate how many of their peers drink – and how much. 

This may seem odd at first, but there’s actually a pretty clear reason: drinking is a lot more visible than not drinking.  You’ll notice the suite that’s having a loud party, but you won’t notice the one that isn’t.  And at the loud party, you’ll notice any people who are getting drunk, but you won’t think much about how many people aren’t.  It’s classic selection bias: the data you observe is skewed by the factors that make you notice it.

The upshot of all this is that some students end up drinking more than they really want to - and sometimes getting hurt from it - because they feel pressured by imaginary peer behavior.  Which is kind of sad, really.  In the first place, you shouldn’t feel like you have to act like you see your peers acting.  But if you do feel that pressure, then just look a little harder.  Find the people playing games, or music, or capture-the-flag, or just hanging out – and do what you honestly enjoy the most.

Academics & adderall

Yale Students sometimes don’t realize how hard their peers work because studying is not very noticeable (selection bias again).  And to compound the natural inconspicuousness of studying, Yale is also one of the few native habitats of that rare breed, the Closet Studier: the student who claims to be chill/lazy and never do any work, then sneaks away and studies maniacally for 4- or 5-hour chunks of time when no one’s looking (then probably resurfaces claiming to have been watching Netflix).  So it can be easy to think you’re the only one working so hard.  (Hint: you’re not. It’s Yale.)  And that impression can lead to undue academic and social pressure. 

Sometimes, students feel so pressured that they start using stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin (prescription ADHD medications) in hopes of improving their focus and energy.  Now, most students never use Adderall or Ritalin unless they have ADHD.  They’ve got some good reasons.  First, many students feel they’d be sacrificing their academic integrity by taking illegal substances to try to get a leg up.  They also know that these drugs can be addictive and risky when abused (Adderall is an amphetamine after all), and they don’t want to damage their intellect.  And of course, it’s illegal and they could face serious consequences if they get caught.

But the more interesting thing is this: studies have actually shown that these drugs have mixed cognitive results.  They may boost your performance in some aspects, but they can also hurt it in other ways.  To make sense of this, remember that these medications are normally prescribed for patients with a serious disorder (ADHD).  They keep the patient’s mind from boarding every passing train of thought, which otherwise it probably would.  For a non-ADHD mind, the drug will have a similar single-track effect.  The problem is, switching trains of thought is a necessary cognitive maneuver for a lot of important tasks, because it’s the essence of creativity.  So ADHD meds can have a focusing but also a constricting effect, especially on non-ADHD minds, which makes them great for trying to count to a million but terrible for the creative thought functions that high-level academic work requires.

The good news is, if you want to get a boost academically, there are a lot of reliable ways: office hours, free tutors, talking with classmates, department lunches, early bedtimes, and just plain hard work.  Adderall isn’t one of them.

[For more information, see: Farah, Martha J., Caroline Haimm, Geena Sankoorikal, and Anjan Chatterjee.  “When we enhance cognition with Adderall, do we sacrifice creativity?”  Psychopharmacology.  January 2009, Volume 202, Issue 1-3, pp 541-547.  Web.  23 April 2013.]