Impulsivity, Sensation Seeking, and Alcohol Consumption on Students’ 21st Birthday

drunk college student

How much alcohol do students tend to drink on their 21st birthday? How much alcohol do those under 21 anticipate they will drink? How much alcohol do students believe others drink on their 21st? How is this effected by personality?

These questions were the focus of a study conducted by Jennifer M. Day-Cameron, Lauren Muse, Jennifer Hauenstein, Lisa Simmons, and Christopher J. Correia. It was published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors in 2009.

The study investigated the relationship of two personality traits, impulsivity and sensation-seeking, to the “actual amount consumed for those who had turned 21, anticipated amount consumed for those under the age of 21, and normative beliefs regarding the amount other students consume on their 21st birthday.”

Day-Cameron and her colleagues administered questionnaires to 282 undergraduate students to assess variables related to alcohol consumption, impulsivity, and sensation-seeking.

The questionnaire used to assess the students levels of alcohol consumption measured such variables as the number of days an alcohol beverage was consumed and the typical number of drinks consumed. Those over 21 were also asked to report their level of alcohol consumption on their 21st birthday, while those under 21 were asked to report how much they anticipated drinking on their 21st birthday. In addition, the students were also asked “to estimate the amount of alcohol they believed a typical student at their university consumed on their 21st birthday.”

According to Day-Cameron and her colleagues, those who scored high on measures of impulsivity and sensation-seeking were more likely to report drinking more on their 21st birthday or anticipating to drink more than those who scored lower on these personality measures.

“The fact that both sensation seeking and impulsivity were related to alcohol use variables underscores the complex nature of the celebrations and suggest that the role alcohol plays during 21st birthday celebrations is related to tendencies towards a desire to optimize positive affect (sensation seeking) and a propensity to take risks and act rashly (impulsivity). Depending on these more enduring traits, students can view 21st birthday celebrations as an opportunity to enjoy an evening with family and friends, a chance to experience alcohol in a novel fashion (i.e., as a legal purchaser and consumer), or an opportunity to engage in disinhibited and risky behavior.”

Although those who scored higher on levels of impulsivity and sensation-seeking were more likely to drink more on their 21st birthday, these students also tended to drink more in general.They also tended to believe that other students consumed a greater amount of alcohol on their 21st birthday than those who scored lower on impulsivity and sensation-seeking.

Day-Cameron and her colleagues believe this to be an important preliminary study, but note that, “Additional research is needed to determine the degree to which information about personality traits can aid in predictions of alcohol use during 21st birthday celebrations, and how this information can be used to bolster prevention efforts.”


Day-Cameron, J.M., Muse, L., Hauenstein, J., Simmons, L. & Correia, C.J. (2009). Alcohol use by by undergraduate students on their 21st birthday: predictors of actual consumption, anticipated consumption, and normative beliefs. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Vol. 23, No. 4: 695–701