Situational Motives: Reasons for Forgoing Drinking or Cannabis Use Among College Students

A study has revealed college students’ reasons for abstaining from alcohol or cannabis, including on days when they had initially planned to use one or both substances. The analysis, reported in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, extends research into the so-called “intention-behavior gap” by being the first study to examine reasons for non-use following an intention to drink or to use cannabis. The findings could inform strategies for alcohol and substance use prevention and intervention on college campuses.

Data were from 341 full-time college students aged 18 to 24 years, from three US universities, who reported having used alcohol and cannabis simultaneously within the month before the study. Participants were asked to complete daily surveys (five per day) over a total of 54 days. In the first survey of the day (at 9 am), students indicated whether they planned to use alcohol or cannabis that day. At subsequent surveys, participants reported any drinking or cannabis use by tapping in the timeline at each specific time that alcohol or cannabis was used. The morning after any day where alcohol and cannabis were not consumed (“non-use day”), regardless of previous intention to use, students were asked to select one or more of the following reasons for non-use on the previous day: “working”, “schoolwork to do”, “nobody to use with”, “could not get”, “no desire”, “to feel in control”, “did not want to get high”, and “playing sports”. Students reported their reasons for alcohol and cannabis non-use separately. The researchers examined the reasons for not drinking or not using cannabis on non-use days, and their associations with whether alcohol or cannabis use had been planned for that day.

Around half of all days for which data were obtained (across all students) were non-use days, and every participant had at least one non-use day during the study period. Around half of participants reported that they had plans for alcohol or cannabis use on at least one non-use day. Planning to use but not following through was relatively uncommon, accounting for less than 10% of all abstention days. The most common reason for non-use of both alcohol and cannabis was lack of desire to use, followed by school responsibilities, not wanting to get high, and having work responsibilities.

To examine associations between reasons for non-use and intentions for use (or non-use), the researchers looked at differences in individuals’ responses across days (“within-person” analysis), as well as differences between individuals (“between-person” analysis). In the within-person analysis, both “working” and “schoolwork” were associated with not having plans for alcohol use on a given non-use day, and “to feel in control” was linked to having no plans for cannabis use. “Did not want to get high” was related to forgoing existing plans to use alcohol. In the between-person analysis, “no desire” was associated with no plans for alcohol use or for cannabis use, and “did not want to get high” was related to no plans for cannabis use. “School” was related to forgoing drinking plans, and “could not obtain” to forgoing plans for cannabis use.

The findings enhance understanding of which reasons may lead to planned abstinence versus those that may interfere with an initial plan to use. They will inform both large-scale prevention efforts against problematic alcohol and cannabis consumption and brief interventions tailored to individual students.

Forgoing plans for alcohol and cannabis use in daily life: Examining reasons for non-use when use was planned in a predominantly white college student sample. K. Stevens, B. E. Blanchard, A. W. Sokolovsky, R. L. Gunn, H. R. White, K. M. Jackson (pages xxx).