13 August 2004 Studies Find Social Norms Strategy Reduces Drinking at Colleges

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C.

Section: Students
Volume 50, Issue 49, Page A32

Article: Helping Students Stay Clean and Sober


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 students.

At last months 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 the approach.

Mr. Haines said that Mr. Wechslers 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.