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