Find 'Social Norms' Strategy Reduces Drinking at Colleges
August 13, 2004
By Eric Hoover, The Chronicle of Higher Education
One reason Johnny quaffs all those beers on Friday nights is that he
thinks most of his fellow students are drinking a lot, too. Prove to
him that, in fact, many of his peers drink in moderation, and Johnny
will pound fewer brews.
That is the thinking behind
"social norms" marketing campaigns, which a growing number
of colleges are using in an effort to curb high-risk drinking among
At last month's National
Social Norms Conference, in Chicago, researchers presented a handful
of new studies suggesting that the controversial strategy can be an
effective tool for prevention.
In a report on the largest
national assessment of the approach to date, two leaders in the field,
Michael P. Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center,
at Northern Illinois University, and H. Wesley Perkins, a professor
of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, found evidence that
students' perceptions of drinking norms on their campuses do indeed
affect their drinking habits.
Using data collected from
130 colleges, the researchers concluded that a large percentage of students
overestimated the level of their peers' alcohol consumption, and that
those misperceptions contributed to high-risk drinking.
They also found that colleges
that emphasize the prevalence of moderate drinking, through posters
and fliers, succeed in reducing high-risk drinking among their students,
as well as the frequency of its secondhand effects.
Conversely, the researchers
determined that at about a quarter of the 130 colleges they studied,
students' perceptions of drinking norms were inflated, which, they said,
exacerbated drinking problems.
College officials had assumed
that a campus drinking rate "either stays the same or gets better"
as a result of prevention efforts, Mr. Haines said. "This [report]
proves that you can actually do worse."
In another study, researchers
at Florida State University reported a 14-percent decline in high-risk
drinking among students since 2002, when the university received a $457,000
grant from the social-norms center to bolster its social norms-programs.
Two other campaigns, for
athletes at six colleges, resulted in a 32-percent reduction in the
number who drank more than once per week.
Not everyone in the drinking-prevention
field is convinced. The most prominent critic of social norms, Henry
Wechsler, director of the College Alcohol Studies Program at the Harvard
School of Public Health, has dubbed it a "feel good" strategy
that fails to address the complexity of alcohol abuse. Mr. Wechsler
and some health educators are also suspicious of the millions of dollars
the alcohol industry has poured into social-norms programs and research.
In a study published last
summer in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Mr. Wechsler found no decline
in the frequency or volume of student drinking at colleges that used
Mr. Haines said that Mr.
Wechsler's methodology was flawed, and that students responded better
to information about healthy practices than they did to scare tactics
or threats of punishment.
But Johnny is probably not
thinking about any of that when he reaches for another cold one.
Volume 50, Issue 49, Page