Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Mar 03, 2020

Students with Low Self-esteem Drink More When They Don’t Feel Socially Accepted

by Tracy DeHart
Teen girl suffering from a hangover while sitting on the floor near the bed in a student dormitory.

Our typical idea of college student drinking is a group of students intentionally drinking to get buzzed or drunk.  However, spending time with other students who are drinking may lead some students to unintentionally drink more themselves. And this is especially true if two things are true at the same time:  the students don’t feel like they’ve been adequately accepted by other people, and they possess low implicit self-esteem.

Unlike explicit self-esteem, which is measured by having people rate themselves on statements such as “I am a person of worth” and  “I am able to do things as well as most other people,” implicit self-esteem refers to people’s unconscious “gut feelings” about themselves.  In one study, Julie Peterson and I found that people’s level of implicit self-esteem was related to their tendency to seek social connections with others after their need for belonging was threatened. In other research, I found that one negative consequence of seeking social connections among college students seemed to be greater alcohol consumption.

So, my colleagues and I examined how implicit self-esteem is related to college students’ drinking behavior in response to low social acceptance.  Every day for 30 days, our research participants rated how socially accepted they felt and reported their nightly alcohol consumption and how much time they spent drinking with friends.

We found that students who were low in implicit self-esteem not only reported drinking more alcohol but also indicated that they were more likely to drink with friends on nights when they had experienced lower social acceptance earlier that same day.  This finding suggests that college students who feel less accepted may be more likely to seek interactions with other people. Due to the prevalence of alcohol use in the college environment, these students may be more likely to consume alcohol because they seek out interactions with other students who just happen to be drinking alcohol.

In another study, Hannah Hamilton and I examined the effects of thinking about friendship problems on alcohol consumption as well as the impact of spending time with other people who are drinking on these effects. We had college students come into our research lab on Fridays and Saturdays.  All participants were asked to think of  aspects of themselves that they keep hidden from their best friend at college.  Some of the participants then read an essay that explained  how these hidden aspects may become known and then threaten the friendship.  In contrast, other participants read an essay that explained that hiding aspects of oneself  has no influence on people’s friendships.  The next day, participants filled out an on-line questionnaire asking them how much alcohol they had consumed the night before – which was the night right after they read one of these two essays.   

Not surprisingly, students reported drinking more when they had spent more time with other students who were drinking. However, this effect was stronger for students with low implicit self-esteem who had also experienced a threat to belonging by being told that hiding aspects of themselves might damage their relationship with their best friend. To say this differently, students who were low in implicit self-esteem drank more when they experienced a friendship threat and then spent time with others who were drinking.  

These results suggest that spending time with other college students who are drinking results in students drinking more themselves, perhaps unintentionally. But this pattern is stronger for students with low implicit self-esteem who have had their social acceptance threatened. So, low implicit self-esteem may be a risk factor for increased alcohol consumption and the negative consequences associated with college student drinking, such as assault, injury, unsafe sex, and academic and relationship problems. We hope that future studies will suggest ways to prevent or reduce drinking as a way of coping with not feeling socially accepted.    

For Further Reading

DeHart, T., Tennen, H., Armeli, S., Todd, M., & Mohr, C. (2009).  A diary study of implicit self- esteem, interpersonal interactions, and alcohol consumption in college students.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 720 – 730.   

Hamilton, H. R. & DeHart, T. (2017). Drinking to belong: The effects of friendship threat and self-esteem on college student drinking. Self and Identity, 16, 1-15.

Peterson, J., & DeHart, T. (2013).  Regulating connection: Implicit self-esteem predicts positive non-verbal behavior during romantic relationship-threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 99-105.


Tracy DeHart is a social psychologist who studies self-esteem, close relationships, and health behaviors.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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