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  A Comment on Social Norms and College Drinking
Michael Haines October 2, 2000

Dr. Keeling's editorial in the most recent edition of the Journal of American College Health (JACH vol. 49 no. 2 Sept. 2000 pp. 53-56) discusses the social norms articles published therein: "Maybe using social norms is the right answer; maybe not. Maybe it is one of the next answers, or a partial answer, or an answer sometimes in some settings, or a contributor to another answer. We need to determine - rigorously - how and when to use social norms strategies." I endorse that sentiment wholeheartedly. Determining rigorously what these articles add to the body of knowledge is why I write.

The articles have two themes: 1) the relationship of perception to behavior; Wechsler et al assert that there is no misperception of heavy alcohol use by college students; while Thombs reports that athletes are more sensitive to perceptions of the whole campus drinking norm than they are to perceptions of athlete specific norms, and 2) examples of unsuccessful social norms experiments; Carter and Kahnweiler, and Werch et al report that social norms approaches failed to change the behaviors of fraternity men and first -year students on their campuses.

Researchers in the alcohol abuse prevention field have consistently reported student misperception of drinking norms for over ten years. (Perkins & Berkowitz 1986, Miller & McFarland 1987, Baer et al 1991, Hansen & Graham 1991, Prentice & Miller 1993, Agonestelli et al 1995, Haines & Spear 1996, Perkins, Meilman et al 1999). In 1996, Dr. Wechsler even co-authored an article with Dr. Perkins that described student misperception and its effect on drinking behavior using Dr. Wechser's data! (Variation in Perceived College Drinking Norms and Its Impact on Alcohol Abuse: A Nationwide Study. Journal of Drug Issues, 26(4): 961-974). The fact that students misperceive alcohol use norms of their peers by overestimating the drinking quantity, frequency is well documented. Thus, it is all the more disturbing that the JACH printed the Wechsler article; an article that creates a new measure and attempts to use this measure to challenge all of the previous research.

In the final analysis, the Wechsler article appears to do nothing more than find different results about perceptions of student drinking when using a measure that is very different from the measure everyone else has been using. (A researcher using a Centigrade thermometer finds a different temperature than those using a Fahrenheit thermometer.) Furthermore, it may be said that he is not even measuring the same thing. He measures student perceptions of an ill-defined "binge". (Using a barometer to measure temperature, not only gives a different result, but the result is also non comparable.)

The Thombs article reports that athletes misperceive drinking norms. They overestimate the prevalence of heavy drinking. In fact, the athletes overestimate the heavy drinking of typical students on campus even more than they overestimate the heavy drinking of typical student athletes. He concludes, " Thus, on this point, the findings support the generalizability of the perceived norms model." This article seems to directly contradict the Wechsler findings.

The other two articles describe social norm interventions designed to change segments of the college population: fraternity men and first-years, without impacting the whole campus. Many in social norms research, most eloquently Wes Perkins, have argued that the social norms approach is contextual. That is, it changes the whole social context and thereby changes the special populations, segments, and individuals within the whole. To do anything less may invite failure. It appears that these two articles merely support this contextual premise (also documented in the Thombs article). In both experiments, smaller segments of the student population were exposed to a social norms intervention while the rest of the student body was left to carry the misperception that heavy drinking was widespread. Additionally, these two experiments may have encountered methodological flaws (improper norm message, poor credibility, inadequate exposure to the message, etc.). However, the developmental flaw, changing the part and not the whole, is more important from a theoretical standpoint.

As part of the conclusion to his opinion piece Dr. Keeling notes,

" These articles do not provide any final statement on the value of social norms interventions, though they raise serious questions that demand increasingly cautious answers. Perhaps the methods used in these studies somehow obscured benefits; maybe flaws in the execution of the research-created biases. None of the studies reported here is perfect*still, the conclusions we draw from it must be regarded as preliminary until confirmed by other studies from other campuses."

It is time for the positive social norm results documented at the University of Arizona, University of Missouri, Western Washington University, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and others to be submitted to the Journal of American College Health.

Michael P. Haines, Director
National Social Norms Resource Center
Northern Illinois University (HS 28)
DeKalb, IL 60115

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