"Social Norms" Seen to Keep Students on Right Track
Posted on Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Eye on Research
by Debra Viadero
Volume 26, Issue 2
Researchers find promise in countering perceptions that 'everybody is doing it'
Colorado educator Scoot Crandall once measured his success in persuading young
people to avoid smoking, drinking, or drugs by his ability to make girls cry.
Mr. Crandall, at the time a guidance counselor in the Poudre school district
just north of Denver, would go into classrooms, tell nightmarish tales of the
dangers of substance abuse, and watch the tears roll.
Then a district administrator convinced Mr. Crandall that, as heart-wrenching as
his talks were, they were not having much of an impact on students' behavior.
"You're making 'em cry, my friend," Mr. Crandall recalls his colleague saying,
"but they get to high school and junior high school, and they're doing what they
That's when Mr. Crandall turned to the "social norms" approach to intervention.
Rather than scare students out of misbehaving, social-norms educators use survey
data on students' actual behavior to underscore that, when it comes to avoiding
risky habits, many students are already doing the right thing.
The catch is that young people tend to believe the opposite: They think
"everyone" is smoking, drinking, and engaging in all sorts of under-the-radar
activities. The idea is that if students know the truth, they will feel less
pressured to engage in dangerous practices themselves.
"We've always talked about peer pressure," said H. Wesley Perkins, a sociology
professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. "Now, we've
realized that a lot of that peer influence comes out of perceptions which are
Educators at a growing number of colleges and, more recently, high schools and
middle schools seem to think that's an approach worth trying. A handful of case
studies-some more scientific than others-suggest that social-norms proponents
are on to something.
Colleges and high schools that have tried the approach report experiencing
reductions of 20 percent to 30 percent in students' self-reports of problem
behaviors such as drinking and smoking.
And a randomized study due to be published this year in the Journal of Studies
on Alcohol points the same way. It tracked 18 colleges and found that students
on campuses with social-norms-based campaigns against alcohol were less likely
to drink than their peers at comparison schools.
"It's in the category of something that looks like it could be effective," said
Vivian B. Faden, the deputy director of the division of epidemiology and
prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism,
in Bethesda, Md. "But it could be most effective when used in combination with a
more comprehensive approach."
Though psychologists have long known that people are influenced by their ideas
of what most others do, U.S. researchers did not see perceptions of social norms
as a potential force for curbing problem behaviors in young people until the
The interest came after Mr. Perkins and fellow researcher Alan D. Berkowitz
surveyed students at Hobart and William Smith and found wide disparities
between'students' self-reported alcohol consumption and their perceptions of
their friends' and classmates' drinking habits. What's more, Mr. Perkins' later
studies found, the students whose misperceptions were most extreme tended to be
the heaviest drinkers.
What would happen, the pair of researchers wondered, if colleges used marketing
techniques to get the message to students that alcohol use was not as common as
they thought? Would more students just say no? Most of the case studies
conducted at the postsecondary schools that tried out the approach suggested it
So proponents of social-norms interventions began moving their approach into
high schools and middle schools in the 1990s. Precollegiate educators also began
using the strategy to address a wider range of problem behaviors, including
gossiping, bullying, and poor attendance.
"Kids actually come up to us and say thank you, thank you for recognizing me,"
said Mr. Crandall, who is now the executive director of TEAM Fort Collins, a
nonprofit agency that works to prevent illegal use and abuse of cigarettes and
drugs in the Fort Collins, CoIo., area.
Students, he said, are "tired of sitting in classes and hearing terrible things
being said about them." Mr. Crandall shared his experiences with the prevention
approach at the eighth National Conference on the Social Norms Model, which was
held in Denver, July 26-28.
At Fort Collins' Rocky Mountain High School, one of the schools in which Mr.
Crandall's group has worked, the percentage of students who reported not
drinking and driving grew from 83 percent in 2003 to 89 percent in 2005. The
changes followed an intensive social-marketing campaign, called "Live Large.
Don't Drink and Drive," that was launched at the 1,800-student school in 2002.
The campaign included student surveys, posters, banners, focus groups, and
T-shirt and water-bottle giveaways-aimed at conveying the campaign's positive
Precollegiate interest in the approach also grew as research reviews began to
suggest that interventions relying on traditional scare tactics, such as the
original Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program that Los Angeles
police started in 1983, were getting nowhere. Indeed, Scared Straight, a program
that arranges for prison inmates to talk with juvenile offenders and teenagers
deemed at risk of becoming offenders, has been shown to cause young participants
to commit more crimes.
But the social-norms approach has its critics, too. One is Henry Wechsler, the
director of college-alcohol studies at Harvard University's school of public
"Focusing on students-whether it's education or social-norms marketing or
attitudinal messages-is only a small part of the job, because the level of
drinking in colleges is sustained flot simply by students' attitudes but also by
the environment," he said. "You have to change the environment to get at the
root of the problem."
Mr. Wechsler also faults the social-norms movement because of its financial ties
to Anheuser-Busch, which helps underwrite a national center and some of the
campus-based campaigns. Mr. Perkins said the St. Louis-based beer brewer has not
financed any of the key studies in the literature on social norms.
Mr. Wechsler's own study of the approach, published in 2003 in the Journal of
Studies on Alcohol, concluded that social-norms campaigns failed to reduce
college drinking. He based that finding on survey results from 37 colleges that
used the approach and 61 colleges that did not. But Mr. Wechsler's study was
also criticized for relying on simple responses from one administrator at each
school to determine whether colleges had waged a social-norms marketing
In comparison, the report due out later this year uses several indicators to
document the credibility, duration, and intensity of a college's social-norms
campaign. The study, led by William DeJong, a professor of social and behavioral
sciences at Boston University's school of public health, did not find dramatic
reauctions in levels of alcohol consumption in most schools, with or without the
It did find, though, that on social-norms campuses, alcohol-consumption rates
increased less and students were less likely to drink than peers at nine control
schools. What's more, it concludes, the greater the intensity of the marketing
campaign, the larger the effect on campus drinking levels.
Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer
SOURCE: Presentation by H. Wesley Perkins and David W. Craig at the 2006 National Conference on the Social Norms Model.