09/26/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

'Frontloading' Among College Students: Motivations and Consequences

'Frontloading,' 'Pre-partying' and 'Pre-gaming'

The above terms all refer to the same behavior among college students, namely drinking in advance of a social occasion in order to get a "head start" on becoming intoxicated. It turns out that this is not such an uncommon behavior on college and university campuses. The question of interest is why do college men and women do this, and what if anything are the consequences?

Research Sheds a Light

In a study of Swiss students published in the journal Addiction, researchers report on their study of college men and women. They used a scale that measures four different reasons why college students engage in frontloading:

• Social Facilitation: Because frontloading will make a social event more enjoyable
• Coping: Because frontloading relieves social anxiety or improves self-confidence
• Enhancement: Because you like the feeling of intoxication and enjoy pursuing it
• Conformity: Because your friends do it and/or so you won't feel left out

The researchers also surveyed the study participants regarding what sorts of negative consequences they may have experienced as a result of frontloading. These include:

• Blackouts: When a person cannot recall what he or she did when drunk
• Injuries (including fights)
• Unintended or unprotected sexual intercourse
• Property damage or vandalism
• Medical emergencies: Caused by toxic levels of alcohol in the blood

The Psychology of Frontloading

What these researchers found in Switzerland is succinctly summarized in their conclusion: "Enhancement motives among men and coping motives among women predicted both pre-drinking ('frontloading'), continued heavy drinking, as well as alcohol-related negative consequences."

This study has significant implications for the prevention of many of the negative drinking-related consequences that college counselors and administrators are faced with. It suggests that college men are drawn to frontloading (and continued drinking afterward) primarily because they see it as a doorway to a better time. Moreover, they seem to look at frontloading this way despite the negative consequences it can be associated with. Not so for women.

College women, in contrast to their male peers, seem drawn to frontloading mainly as a means of coping with an interpersonal problem. Specifically, women who frontload often do so because it helps them forget their worries, reduces their social anxiety, and/or makes them feel more self-confident. Not all college women engage in frontloading or excessive drinking for these reasons, but the data clearly suggest that a significant number of those who frontload do. Needless to say many more college women than men are likely to experience sexual assault and unprotected sex that are college men, particularly when they are passed out or in a blackout.

What to Do?

Virtually all college and universities are concerned with the negative consequences to their students that are associated with excessive drinking. This study, however, points in some directions that would appear to be well worth including in any prevention program. They include:

• Recognizing frontloading (or any of its other names) as a real phenomenon that needs to be talked about
• Making the connection between frontloading as an added risk factor for negative consequences
• Recognizing and educating both students and counselors regarding the different motives that underlie frontloading for women and men
• Creating outreach, through pamphlets, articles in college newspapers, etc. to engage college women who may be frontloading for emotional/psychological reasons, and to encourage them to pursue counseling (as opposed to frontloading) as a remedy for those personal issues

The college environment -- especially the freshman year, which for many students represents their first experience with sustained independence -- is in many ways conducive to experimentation, which may include excess in many areas, including drinking. Many colleges and universities have successfully implemented policies that contain that excess, for example on homecoming weekends and spring break. By venturing deeper than that, into the psychology of drinking behavior, it may be possible to further reduce the negative consequences associated with that youthful tendency toward excess.

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist. His most recent book is Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One's) Drinking a Problem? For a free personal drinking assessment visit and click on Resources.