Social Norms National Research & Resources
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  Frequently Asked Questions about the Social Norms Approach

1. What are social norms?

2. When did the concept of social norms originate?

3. Where was the social norms marketing approach first implemented?

4. Have other universities or colleges used the social norms approach?

5. Can the social norms approach be used in other than university or college settings?

6. Can the social norms approach be used to address other than alcohol-related issues?

7. What measurements are used to determine if a social norms intervention has been successful?

8. What accounts for the effectiveness of the social norms approach?

9. Is it necessary to use mass media in order to conduct a successful social norms intervention?

10. Is there a difference between social norms and social marketing?

11. What are the essential elements of a well designed social norms intervention?

12. What is the timeline of a well designed social norms marketing intervention?

13. Is it true that the social norms approach actually promotes the behavior it seeks to moderate, so that abstainers feel encouraged to start, while those who moderately indulge feel pressured to do it more?

14. How have most schools funded their social norms interventions?

15. What articles or publications should I read in order to gain a better understanding of the social norms approach?


1. What are social norms?

There are two different but related kinds of norms.

One type, behavioral norms (also known as descriptive norms), refers to the most common actions or behaviors actually exhibited in a social group. Thus, the behavioral norm is what most individuals of a social group actually do.

The other type, attitudinal norms (also know as injunctive norms), refers to the most widely shared beliefs or expectations in a social group about how people in general or members of the group ought to behave in various circumstances.

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2. When did the concept of social norms originate?

The study of the powerful impact that norms have on both thought and behavior is a well-established area of research in the social sciences, especially in the fields of sociology and social psychology.

The specific application of the social norms approach to college drinking behavior was first suggested by H. Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz in 1986. Their research yielded two important findings. First, that most students on their campus thought that the norms for both the frequency and the amount of drinking among their peers were higher than they actually were. Second, that students generally believed that their peers were more permissive in their personal attitudes about substance use than was in fact the case. Correcting such misperceptions, these researchers suggested, might reduce heavy drinking and related harm.

Note: The study referred to above is:
Perkins, H. W. & Berkowitz, A. D. "Perceiving the community norms of alcohol use among students: Some research implications for campus alcohol education programming." International Journal of the Addictions, 1986, 21, 961-976

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3. Where was the social norms marketing approach first implemented?

In the 1989-90 academic year, the health promotion staff at Northern Illinois University (NIU) became the first to use social marketing methods to inform students that—contrary to what they believed—the majority of their peers were in fact moderate and safe drinkers.

Annual self-report health assessment surveys and other data gathered at NIU over a multi-year period showed dramatic increases in the percentage of students who correctly perceived the moderate campus norm, along with significant concurrent increases in safer drinking and abstaining, as well as decreases in alcohol-related injuries.

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4. Have other universities and colleges used the social norms approach?

Yes, in addition to the results achieved at Northern Illinois University, positive results have been documented using the social norms approach at a number of colleges and universities. They include: the University of Arizona, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Western Washington University, the University of Missouri at Columbia, and Rowan University.

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5. Can the social norms approach be used in other than university or college settings?

Yes. In Illinois, a DeKalb County Partnership (DCP/SAFE) intervention, begun in 1998, continues to deliver positive normative alcohol and tobacco messages targeted to local high school students with documented success. Most notably, in two years it has achieved a 14% reduction in the incidence of heavy episodic alcohol consumption.

This project is currently being replicated in the Evanston (Illinois) Township High School, which has reported significant reductions in both alcohol and cigarette use.

Community and statewide interventions have been undertaken as well. Among the most notable of these is the Montana Social Norms Project's MOST of Us Are Tobacco Free social norms marketing campaign that targeted youth between the ages of 12 and 17 in seven western Montana counties. Post-test data in this campaign revealed that only 10% of teens in the campaign area reported first time cigarette use as compared to 17% of teens in a control sample from the 49 counties in the rest of the state. This represents a 41% difference in the proportion of teens that reported that they initiated smoking in the counties targeted in the intervention as compared to those in the rest of the state.

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6. Can the social norms approach be used to address other than alcohol-related issues?

Yes. The social norms approach has been employed in interventions targeting a number of other issues. They include: tobacco prevention, seat-belt usage, DUI prevention, tax compliance, intimate partner violence, and the improvement of academic performance.

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7. What measurements are used to determine if a social norms intervention has been successful?

Most colleges evaluating their social norms efforts are using self-report survey data to pre-test and post-test representative cross section samples. Some campuses also track selected markers (emergency room admits, local alcohol sales receipts, arrest records, beer cans in trash, etc.) to augment the survey data. A few universities have gathered data at a comparable school that is not using the social norms approach. This "control" site provides greater confidence that the social norms intervention caused the positive impact. At a minimum, social norms projects should collect baseline and post intervention measures of:

  • Typical behaviors and attitudes
  • Perceptions of peers' typical behaviors and attitudes
  • Protective behaviors
  • Negatives consequences
  • Exposure to social norms messages

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8. What accounts for the effectiveness of the social norms approach?

For many years, prevention efforts had focused almost exclusively on the problems and deficits of particular populations. The work that continues to emerge from those using the social norms approach demonstrates the effectiveness of promoting the attitudinal and behavioral solutions and assets that are the actual norms in various populations.

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9. Is it necessary to use mass media in order to conduct a successful social norms intervention?

If your goal is to positively impact the behavior of a large number of people and your resources are limited, the only projects that have been seen to succeed have used mass media and social marketing techniques. However, there are interventions with documented positive outcome data that have focused on small groups using interpersonal strategies, peer-based methods and curriculum infusion.

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10. Is there a difference between "social norms" and "social marketing"?

Yes. Social norms are the perceived standards of acceptable attitudes and behaviors prevalent among the members of a community. As defined by Alan Andreason, social marketing "is the application of commercial marketing technologies to the analysis, planning, execution, and evaluation of programs designed to influence the voluntary behavior of target audiences in order to improve their personal welfare and that of their society." (Andreason, Marketing Social Change, 1995) What is frequently referred to as social norms marketing is the use of the methods of social marketing to correct a target population's misperception of the norm, thereby positively influencing its behavior.

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11. What are the essential elements of a well designed social norms intervention?

The essential elements of a well-designed social norms marketing intervention can be divided into five stages:

I. Initial Planning Stage

Define the issue, establish measurable goals and outcomes, research the issues of data collection and analysis, inform stakeholders about the social norms approach, assess staff and funding.

II. Data Collection Stage

Use relevant data-gathering methodologies to collect data about the target population. The essential measures are: Typical behaviors and attitudes; perceptions of peers' typical behaviors and attitudes; protective behaviors; negative consequences; and exposure to social norms messages.

Analyze data to identify protective, healthy behaviors already prevalent in the target population.

Prepare for process evaluation of project implementation. Key measures include: message dosage delivered, message dosage received, target audience comprehension of the message(s), contamination by competing and contradictory messages.

II. Strategy Development Stage

Conduct market research to determine what media channels are currently used, which are credible, where information is accessed, etc.

Select various media to be used for message delivery and develop a marketing plan that addresses the basics of implementation: what, when, where, how many, who, and cost.

Develop prototype messages that are simple, positive, truthful and consistent.

Develop sample media to deliver the normative messages. Refine and revise based on pilot test results.

III. Implementation Stage

Implement a marketing campaign that delivers the message frequently and consistently during the project.

Assess the extent to which each normative message actually reaches, is reacted to and recalled by the target population. Monitoring of the project: project documentation, ongoing market research.

Outreach and press relations.

IV. Evaluation Stage

Collect and analyze outcome data to assess effectiveness and impact. Key questions: Has there been any change in perception? Has there been any change in attitudes and/or behaviors? Has there been a reduction in negative consequences?

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12. What is the timeline of a well designed social norms marketing intervention?

Clearly, given all of the essential elements outlined above (see question 11), a well designed social norms marketing intervention represents a serious commitment in terms of staff and time. It is important to remember that the social norms approach is a data-driven, integrated process. What this means is that the data you gather informs how you proceed from stage to stage, and that the stages are dependent upon one another. Therefore, adequate time must be allowed for each of the various tasks to be performed and sufficiently evaluated. While there is no immutable rule, it would not be unreasonable to expect some 18 months to elapse from the collection of your baseline data to the collection and analysis of your first outcome data.

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13. Is it true that the social norms approach actually promotes the behavior that it seeks to moderate, so that abstainers feel encouraged to start, while those who moderately indulge feel pressured to do it more?

This question sometimes arises in response to university and college-based social norms projects designed to address the consumption of alcohol. Here, the data show that this is not the case.

How can this be? Numerous longitudinal studies show that a clear majority of college students regularly consume alcohol. In fact, fully 75-80% of college students do so regardless of their age or legal drinking status. Given these facts, students who practice an anormative behavior— such as those who completely abstain from alcohol—have already demonstrated immunity to the social norm, which is to consume. In addition, the data consistently show that a significant percentage of abstainers overestimate the extent to which their peers consume alcohol. Thus, informing them (via a social norms project) that students actually drink less than they believe should theoretically lessen any pressure they might feel to consume.

As for those who moderately indulge, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that correcting the misperception of the norm actually results in an increase in the prevalence of healthy, protective behaviors.

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14. How have most schools funded their social norms interventions?

Historically, all of the initial funding in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s in support of social norm interventions at institutions of higher learning came from the federal government. Specifically, federal support for social norms included:

Replication studies funded by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE)

Demonstration grants funded by the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP)

Research grants to test social norms from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA)

Risk-reduction funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

As the number of social norm interventions grew throughout the country, additional funding sources were identified. Among them have been:

The California State University System has supported the adoption of social norms by its 26 campuses

The Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control has funded 10 colleges to implement social norms

The New Jersey Department of Health has funded 6 colleges to implement social norms

Some of the additional funding sources thus far identified include:

The National Science Foundation

Illinois Department of Human Services

Montana Department of Transportation

Lastly, the Anheuser-Busch Foundation is currently providing funding to seven universities for the prevention and reduction of alcohol abuse problems among college students through the implementation of the social norms approach.

For a more extensive examination of the funding of social norms programs, including a discussion of the level and impact of the support provided by the alcohol beverage industry to a small number of universities, see: Social Norms: A Publicly Funded, Cost-Effective Approach.(Note: This is a pdf file.)

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15. What publications or articles should I read in order to gain a better understanding of the social norms approach?

Here are six key publications in the field of social norms. This selected, chronological listing of articles and books should provide the reader with a solid understanding of the theoretical framework of the social norms approach and its practical application to the field of health promotion.

H. Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz. (1986). "Perceiving the community norms of alcohol use among students: Some research implications for campus alcohol education programming." International Journal of the Addictions, 21, 961-976.
A seminal article in the field of social norms. These researchers found that most students on their campus overestimated their fellow students' support of permissive drinking practices and that this overestimation correlated with drinking behavior. They suggested that correcting this misperceived social norm might reduce heavy drinking and related harm.

Michael P. Haines. (1996). A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, Education Development Center, Inc.
A complete description of the first social norms marketing campaign conducted at Northern Illinois University (NIU). Annual self-report health assessment surveys and other data gathered at NIU over a multi-year period have shown significant subsequent increases in safe drinking and abstaining, as well as decreases in alcohol-related injuries.

Koreen Johannessen, et. al. (1999). A Practical Guide to Alcohol Abuse Prevention: A Campus Case Study in Implementing Social Norms and Environmental Management Approaches. Tucson, AZ: Campus Health Service, The University of Arizona.
A detailed examination of the first four years of the University of Arizona's social norm campaign, which achieved a 29% reduction in heavy drinking.

H. Wesley Perkins and David Craig (2002). A Multifaceted Social Norms Approach to Reduce High-Risk Drinking. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, Education Development Center, Inc.
A comprehensive presentation of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges' Social Norms Project, which achieved a 30% reduction in high-risk drinking over 5 years. Contents include a complete description of program components, including data collection, print media campaigns, electronic media campaigns, curriculum development, and campus presentations.

H. Wesley Perkins, (2002). "Social Norms and the Prevention of Alcohol Misuse in College Contexts." Journal of Studies on Alcohol/Supplement No. 14, 2002.
An excellent review of conceptual and empirical studies on the role of social norms in college student alcohol use and in prevention strategies to counter misuse. The normative influences of various constituencies serving as reference groups for students are examined as possible factors influencing students' drinking behavior.

H. Wesley Perkins, Editor (2003). The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
An essential resource book of evidence supporting the social norms strategy and a user-friendly exposition of how model interventions have been conducted. Contents include numerous case studies of campus experiments to reduce alcohol abuse, expanding social norms to other campus applications (such as tobacco use), and using the social norms approach with adolescents and young adults in community settings. Information about this volume is available on the Jossey-Bass web site:

http://www.alcoholeducationproject.org/socialnorms_approach_handbook.html

The contents of this page include a description of this 336-page volume, the table of contents, an extended excerpt from the book available in PDF format, and ordering information.

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