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Julia Carlstad

Honors 391 A
Final Essay
Due: March 15, 2014
Alcohol Use/Abuse analyzed with respect to the Social Learning Theory
Social Learning Theory can be used to analyze Charlotte Simmonss use of alcohol in the
novel I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Social Learning Theory describes a persons
progression of behavior moving through predisposition, enabling, and reinforcement. For
Charlottes case it is also important to consider her upbringing, which provides the mindset with
which she arrives at Dupont, as well as the implications of the alcohol abuse on her mental and
physical health. Through analysis of Charlottes progression within the construct of the Social
Learning Theory it can be seen how her disposition, as someone who greatly values the opinions
of her peers, as well as the people with whom she interacts, at the university, influence her to
consume alcohol. In the absence of anyone to hold her accountable to her values she turns to
those around her, and they change her image of herself and what is considered normal.
Charlottes upbringing sets the foundation for her views regarding alcohol use. She was
raised in a very conservative home where her mother kept her very sheltered from the realities
outside of her small town. She grew up in what is considered the Bible Belt of the United
States, and her mother encouraged Christian values in Charlotte. She feels pressured to be her
mothers good girl, and to Charlotte this means that she must dress conservatively, cannot
abuse substances, cannot swear, and definitely cannot fraternize with men. When leaving
Charlotte at Dupont and telling her to stay true to her values her mother says, And if anybody
dont like that, you dont have to explain a thang tom. All you got to say is, Im Charlotte
Simmons, and I dont hold with thangs like at. And theyll respect you for thatI love you,
little darling, and your daddy loves you, and no matter whirr youre at in the whole wide world,

youll always be our good, good girl (Wolfe 81). This conservative mindset has been taught to
Charlotte her whole life and is integral to the culture she brings to Dupont. Social Learning
Theory places a strong emphasis on the importance of role models influencing ones behavior and
at home Charlottes looks to her family and the other adults in her town as role models. We see
this in her relationship with her parents and with Miss Pennington as well as the way she looks
more to the adults for reassurance than her peers at her graduation speech. She describes the
crowd at graduation by saying, the look on the faces of the adults was rapt and adoring! They
looked up in awe, thirsted for whatever she cared to give them! (Wolfe 16). Having the adults as
role models helps her make it to Dupont, but leaves her isolated when she gets there. It has been
found that the mindset of Charlottes parents, that their daughter would never do anything bad
is dangerous because they are less likely to discuss the risks associated with the behaviors. One
study says that consistent with the predictions of social learning theory, parental awareness of
adolescent use of alcohol appears to protect adolescents from negative consequences
(Bogenschneider 369). On the other hand, there are more risks associated with alcohol
consumption when the parent is in denial and holds the mindset that other kids drink, but not
my kid (Bogenschneider 356). This applies to Charlottes upbringing because she feels so much
pressure to be perfect in her mothers eyes that she cannot speak openly with her family about
the realities of life at Dupont. The role models in Charlottes life send the consistent message that
Charlotte should maintain the image of a good girl and that she should focus only on
academics, not on social relationships, but this mindset backfires and leave her without a healthy
support network in the event that she does abuse alcohol.
Charlottes predisposition towards alcohol abuse begins shortly after her arrival at
Dupont College as a result of the people with whom she surrounds herself. Her roommate,

Beverly, is the first person that Charlotte meets upon her arrival and she soon learns that Beverly
regularly binge drinks. Other interactions that Charlotte has with residents of her residence hall
also make it seem as if everyone at Dupont drinks alcohol. There are the boys in the bathroom
who are drinking beer and her friends Bettina and Mimi who encourage her to attend parties with
alcohol. All of these people feed Charlottes image that in order to be liked and make friends she
must consume alcohol. Since Charlotte is away from her family at Dupont she is looking for a
new role model who can help guide her behavior, but no one seems to be aligned with the values
of her upbringing. It is known that, the first 6 weeks on a college campus are critical to first
year student success and Charlotte does not feel like Dupont is her home (LaBrie 344). She
looks to her old high school friend Laurie for guidance, but she does not find the affirmation that
she should stay true to the values learned in Sparta; rather Laurie encourages her to try new
things in college. Laurie tells Charlotte that College is like this four-year period you have
when you can try anything-and everything-and if it goes wrong, theres no consequences (Wolfe
168). Charlotte is very taken aback by Lauries adaptation to the university environment, and the
conversation causes her to feel as though she truly is the only one to not have given in to the
pressures. Charlotte is predisposed to consuming alcohol because of the group of peers that she
has been placed with at Dupont, her overwhelming desire to be cool, and her utter isolation from
peers who share her values.
The peer group that Charlotte joins enables her abuse of alcohol because they insist on
going to events that involve alcohol. Bettina and Mimi pressure Charlotte into attending the frat
party at the Saint Ray house where she first consumes alcohol and where she meets Hoyt. The
party environment makes one feel out of place without a drink in hand which pushes Charlotte to
consume alcohol. As Charlotte is lead upstairs by Hoyt at the Saint Ray frat party with a glass of

wine she thinks to herself, Take a good look, Mimi! Mimis condescending attitude would never
survive seeing her with his boy in tow (Wolfe 234). This shows how Charlotte has been driven
to drink alcohol and fraternize with men because of the image that it portrays. This passive
encouragement to consume alcohol shows how students learn and subsequently make decisions
about drinking from their peers who model drinking behavior (LaBrie 345). Bettina and Mimi
also enable her by giving her a fake ID to get into the popular dive bar, The I.M. and providing
her with more risqu clothing for the frat formal. These situations put Charlotte in an
environment where she feels that she must drink alcohol in order to belong. This effect is
pronounced with Charlottes spotlight effect, where she consistently believes that everyone
around her is noticing her and all of her social slip-ups. Charlottes desire to find friends forces
her into a peer group that enables her to begin to consume alcohol.
Hoyt becomes a role model for Charlotte because he is attractive, popular, wealthy, and
seems to exude confidence, which drives her to drink to gain his approval. Growing closer to
Hoyt desensitizes Charlotte to his extreme abuse of alcohol. She believes that alcohol is part of
what is normal for those who are cool at a university, even though it is hard to imagine that
everyone at Dupont binge drinks to the extent of Hoyt and the fraternity men. It is known that
Greek-affiliated students drink more heavily and more frequently than other students so
Charlottes relationship with Hoyt places her closer to this substance-abusing community
(LaBrie 346). Hoyt then invites Charlotte to the frat formal where she is away from Dupont and
has physically separated from the values with which she came to college. Everyone around her is
drinking in excess and no one is there to remind her otherwise, which creates a situation where
she succumbs to consuming as well. Charlottes reverence for Hoyt makes her more likely to
mirror his actions, and overlook his flaws, including his alcohol consumption.

After Charlottes first experience with alcohol, the behavior is reinforced by the people
she associates with, making her feel more like she is part of the cool crowd. Getting
recognition from Hoyt at the frat party, where she first drinks alcohol encourages her to continue
the behavior because of the social status. She enjoys that she has now become associated with
Hoyt, even if it means compromising the values that she brought to Dupont. When she attends
the frat formal in Washington, DC she believes that people find her more attractive when she
consumes alcohol and is more willing to dress provocatively. She enjoys the way the men admire
her body at the frat formal, noting that Harrison wasnt looking at them the way he had looked
at her. He had looked her up and down! (Wolfe 492). Charlottes behavior is less inhibited when
she is under the influence of alcohol and this allows her to enjoy the attention that she is getting,
whether it is truly positive attention or not. Hoyt becomes Charlottes mentor and guide, as he is
one of the only characters who Charlotte thinks is not beneath her. Studies show that
peers are the major means of support and guidance for most college student exerting greater
impact on behavioral decisions than biological, familial, or cultural influences (LaBrie 345346). This is very clear for Charlotte, who has abandoned many of the values of the good girl
placed upon her by her mother, in order to gain approval from her peers. The sense of belonging
that she has gained reinforces her decision to abuse alcohol.
The implications of Charlottes alcohol abuse are extremely detrimental to her health,
particularly her mental and social health. Her intoxication increases the likelihood of rape, and
when this occurs it causes Charlotte to fall into a deep depression. Her depression negatively
impacts her grades and causes her to withdraw from family and friends. College students who
regularly binge drink are known to have poorer academic performance, a greater chance of being
sexually assaulted, or even ending up dead. (LaBrie 344). Many of these failings can cause

students to not return for a second year at the university. Even if the consequences are not this
drastic they still have detrimental impacts on the course of the students future, as is seen in
Charlottes case.
Social Learning Theory describes Charlottes transition in values regarding alcohol use
when she moves Dupont. She changes from being a small-town nave girl to someone who is
associated with fraternity boys and gets drunk, moving through the stages of predisposition,
enabling, and reinforcement. Many of Charlottes decisions to consume alcohol are driven by her
desire to belong and the pressures of her peers. Being so far from home she is seeking a new
mentor in her life, and her desire to be popular pushes her into the Saint Ray Fraternity crowd.
The implications of Charlottes transition are drastic, resulting in depression and poor academic
performance. The understanding of Charlottes behavior and how it is similar to students in the
real-world should encourage universities to create a deeper support system for incoming
freshman so that they can be guided through a safer transition.

Works Cited
Bogenschneider, K., Wu, M., Raffaelli, M., & Tsay, J. C. (1998). "Other Teens Drink, but Not
My Kid": Does Parental Awareness of Adolescent Alcohol Use Protect Adolescents from Risky
Consequences?. The Journal of Marriage and Family, 60, 356-373. Retrieved from the JSTOR
database.

LaBrie, J., Huchting, K., Pedersen, E., Hummer, J., Shelesky, K., & Tawalbeh, S. (2007). Female
College Drinking and the Social Learning Theory: An Examination of the Developmental
Transition Period from High School to College. Journal of College Student Developmetn, 48,
344-356. Retrieved from JSTOR database.

Wolfe, T. (2004). I am Charlotte Simmons. New York: Picador.