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Six Universities Say Social Norms Approach
Helps to Combat High-Risk Drinking

Friday, August 2, 2005
By Eric Hoover, The Chronicle of Higher Education (Today's News)

Proponents of social-norms strategies to reduce high-risk drinking have new data to support their approach.

During a teleconference on Thursday that was sponsored by the National Social Norms Resource Center, officials of six colleges discussed the findings of multiyear social-norms campaigns. All said the programs were helping them change students' perceptions of drinking on their campuses in an effort to reduce alcohol abuse and its negative effects.

Social-norms alcohol campaigns are based on the theory that students overestimate how much their peers drink, and that giving them accurate information about campus norms will prompt them to drink less.

A growing number of colleges are using social-norms marketing, including informational posters and newspaper advertisements, to promote healthy behaviors among students.

Officials at Michigan State University, one of the participants in Thursday's discussion, found that, from 2002 to 2005, students' perception of their peers' alcohol consumption dropped to 4.2 drinks from 5.4 drinks per sitting. Students reported a decline in their own consumption as well, to 3.4 drinks from 4.2.

In 2005, for the first time, a majority of students surveyed at Michigan State, 57 percent, said they drank no more than four drinks at parties. The proportion who engaged in "extreme drinking," defined as consuming eight or more drinks, fell to 19 percent from 31 percent.

Other colleges reported increases in what is known as "protective behavior."

During an 18-month period, the University of Missouri at Columbia found a 25-percent increase in the number of students who used a designated driver, a 37-percent increase in the number who did not drink from Sunday to Thursday nights, and a 44-percent increase in the number who alternated alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks.

Officials at several colleges said that the positive vibes of social-norms campaigns had helped them reach students who were wary of finger-wagging, anti-alcohol messages.

Florida State University invited students to help design social-norms advertisements. At Georgetown University, a group of students helped run giveaways of prizes, such as giant stuffed dog bones featuring social-norms messages.

"Social norms respects the students," said Michael P. Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center, at Northern Illinois University. "It celebrates their goodness rather than catching them being bad. "

Some alcohol experts are not sold on the idea, however. Henry Wechsler, director of the College Alcohol Studies Program at the Harvard School of Public Health, has dubbed social norms a "feel good" strategy that fails to deal with the complexity of alcohol abuse.

Findings on social norms campaigns at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University were also presented Thursday.

Information about social norms is available on the resource center's web site.