Heavy drinking is an issue across college campuses in America. Occasionally, when students drink, they will experience blackouts, periods of time after consuming alcohol, in which they cannot remember some of what occurred. Researchers at Brown University, lead by Dr. Jennifer E. Merrill, an assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences at the Brown University School of Public Health and including alumnus Ms. Samyukta Singh (MPH 18), wanted to know more about how college students subjectively evaluate their experiences of blacking out. They found that while most students perceived most of their blackout experiences as being negative, some had mixed or neutral reactions and a minority of blackouts were described positively.
Fifty participants were recruited from four-year colleges across the Northeastern United States. Eight focus groups were conducted, with 5-8 participants per group, and groups were divided by gender, to allow participants to feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics. Each group session lasted anywhere from 48-70 minutes. Students were asked questions about what a blackout is, how people generally react to blackouts and whether they are positive, negative or neutral experiences. Across both genders, participants were consistent in ranking blackouts as being negative, using words like “annoying” and “disgusting” to describe their experiences. Often what happened before and after the blackout influenced how participants described the experience. Researchers found that if participants said they heard afterwards that something negative occurred during the blackout, they would be more likely to describe the blackout as a negative experience.
On the other hand, if participants remembered the evening as being enjoyable as a whole, they were less likely to recall the blackout as being negative. Prior experience to blackouts also influenced participants’ perception of them. Participants, especially women, reported that after the first blackout – recall of which can be quite negative – the experience of subsequent blackouts are less negative. One participant noted that these experiences can be continuously evaluated as negative, if they are perceived to be happening more frequently than what might be expected. The length and severity of the blackout also influenced a participant’s evaluation of the blackout. With longer blackouts and more severe memory loss, participants are more likely to rate the blackout negatively.