Engs, Ruth C. and David J., Hanson. Reactance Theory: A test with collegiate drinking. Psychological Reports, 64: 1083-1086, 1989
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Ruth C. Engs and David J. Hanson

Indiana University, Bloomington and State University of New YorkCollege at Potsdam

Summary.--Reactance theory suggests that attempting to prevent alcohol consumption among underage college students will create reactance motivation and lead to increased drinking among such students. Since July of 1987, it has been illegal throughout the USA for those under 21 yr. of age to purchase alcohol. In a national sample of 3,375 college students during the 1987-1988 academic year, significantly more underage students were found to drink. This relationship is in marked contrast to the pattern documented by research extending back to the early 1950s and is interpreted as supporting reactance theory.

    Drinking among college students has been traditional for decades regardless of the legal status of their alcohol consumption, and past research has shown that a large proportion of collegians drink (10). Over the past three decades research has also indicated that the proportion of collegiate drinkers increases with age (2, 8, 9, 12, 14, 18, 21, 22). However, in July of 1987 the minimum purchase age became 21 in ad states. In attempting to prevent alcohol consumption among those under age 21, this public policy provides an excellent opportunity to test reactance theory.

    Researchers have found that telling persons not to do something often produces the opposite reaction. People value their sense of freedom and autonomy and like to project an image of self-control (1). Reactance theory suggests that, whenever people believe their freedom either has or will be unjustly threatened, they enter into a reactance motivational state and act to regain control by not complying (3). Coercion, in particular, leads to the arousal of reactance, which in turn tends to reduce compliance (6). The theory has been tested in a variety of ways, including restroom graffiti (17), petition signing (13), group coercion (11), reading speeches aloud (24), evaluation of illegal detergents (15), attraction to members of the opposite sex (16), attitude change (23), and impression formation (5).

    Because drinking has traditionally been part of the college experience and because it is now illegal for students under age 21 to purchase alcohol in any state, it was hypothesized that reactance motivation has increased among underage students leading them to exhibit greater alcohol consumption more frequently compared to collegians who are of legal age to purchase alcohol. Because it is well-established that younger students are less likely to drink than are older students, it is assumed that any change in that pattern would be a result of the recent legislation.




    An anonymous preceded instrument, The Student Alcohol Questionnaire,2 was used. The internal consistency reliability is .79. Included are demographic items, questions regarding the consumption of various alcoholic beverages, and 17 items concerning possible negative consequences of drinking. Instrument instructions explained voluntary participation as approved by the authors' respective Institutional Review Boards.


    During the 1987-1988 academic year, a quota sample of 56 colleges in the USA was selected to reflect   the population of college students in terms of region of country, support of the college (public or private), and demographic characteristics. Instructors at those institutions who taught surveytype sociology, health or physical education classes with a high probability of containing students from every academic major and class year were asked to administer up to 75 questionnaires in class. The students' response rate exceeded 98% and the composition of the resulting sample of 3,375 approximated that of individuals attending baccalaureate institutions in the USA except for an over-representation of women and of those attending public institutions. Specifically, 60% of the sample were women compared to 53% in the population, and 94% were public college students compared to 78% in the population. Otherwise, it was similar. For example, the sample contained 7% blacks compared to 9% in the population. Regionally, the comparisons were: North East, 29% in the sample compared to 27%; North Central, 21% compared to 24%; South, 22% compared to 24%; and West, 28% compared to 25% in the population (20).

Data Analysis

    Data were tested by chi-squared analysis, using the SPSS crosstabulation method. The power of such analysis for a sample of the size obtained approaches one (7). To rule out Type I errors, the .01 level of significance was selected.


    There was a significant difference between the drinking patterns of underage students compared to those of legal age. Of underage students, 81.2% were drinkers compared to 75.3% of students of legal age. Also, a higher proportion of underage students were heavy drinkers (24.09%) compared to those of legal see (15.39%). See Table 1.
2A copy of this questionnaire may be obtained at no charge by writing Dr. Ruth C. Engs IIPER 116, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405 or from Microfiche Publications, POB 3513, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10017. For Document NAPS-04698 remit $9.85 for photocopy or $4.00 for fiche.


Table 1: Drinking Patterns of all Students by Age Group in Percent

      Under 21 years 
          21 Years + 
       Abstainer                18.8                24.7
       Infrequent Drinker                  9.6                11.0
       Light Drinker                  9.5                11.1
       Moderate Drinker                17.8                18.2
               20.4                19.8
       Heavy Drinker                24.0                 15.3*
         *  X2 = 47.5, p < .001
Note: HEAVY DRINKER: drinks 5 or more drinks once a week or more; MODERATE HEAVY: drinks 3 to 4 drinks more than once a week
or drinks 5 or more drinks no more that once a month at any one sitting; MODERATE: drinks at least once a month with no more than 3
to 4 drinks, drinks two or three times a week with no more than 2 to 3 drinks, or drinks daily with no more than 1 or 2 drinks; LIGHT:
drinks at least once a month but not more than 1 to 3 drinks; INFREQUENT: drinks more than once a year but less than once a month:
ABSTAINER: drinks less than once a year or not at all.
    One possible explanation for such negative reaction among underage students is their unfavorable evaluation of the influencing agent (19). However, the authors can find no evidence that collegians negatively evaluate legislators or legislatures. Another possible explanation is an inadvertent communication of information or messages counter to the one intended by the legislators (19). Again, the authors can find no evidence that the legislation sends any such counter information or messages. Of course, sampling error always remains a possible explanation for the findings.
    However, other evidence supports the reactance explanation. The more important or salient an eliminated freedom, the greater will be the reactance (25). Drinking is traditionally seen as important to college life; many activities are focused around drinking. Also, more reactance is aroused when people expect to enjoy a freedom which is subsequently eliminated (25). Many students, even while still in high school, presumably expected to be able to purchase alcohol when they were in college. Finally, students who could legally purchase alcohol before the legislation lost that right (i.e., were not "grandfathered") after the law changed. This would be expected to generate high reactance.

    In summary, it appears that raising the minimum legal purchase age did not reduce underage drinking. In fact, the legislation may actually have contributed to increased drinking among underage students through the arousal of reactance motivation.


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(c) Psychological Reports 1989