21 September 2004 Reduce high risk behavior by using social norms

The Pilot-Independent, Walker, Minn.

by Val Farmer

What can we do to stop underage drinking? How can we reduce frequent heavy drinking on college campuses? How can we promote healthy choices among youth and young adults?

Teaching the pharmacological effects of substance abuse on the human body through health education hasnt worked. Using dramatic negative consequences of poor choices doesnt scare young people into conformity. They perceive these events as improbable and not a part of their reality. Having heavy-handed rules, draconian monitoring and certain punishments isnt consistent with our values of freedom in our society.

Social norms approach
Sociologist H. Wesley Perkins and his associate David H. Craig, biochemist, of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, N.Y. have developed a social norm approach that unleashes the power of peers, teachers and technology to combat the rising tide of behavioral problems by youths and young adults.

Within two years they have reduced heavy drinking by 21 percent at their own campus and similar reductions at the University of Arizona, Western Washington University, Rowan University and Northern Illinois University. In a statewide effort to reduce smoking among 12-17 year olds in Montana, they cut the initiation rate to 10 percent in the western third of the state while the initiation rate was 17 percent for the rest of the state that didnt receive their intervention. They have research data showing the effectiveness of their work with participating high schools and middle schools throughout the United States.

What are social norms?
Perkins explains that humans are group oriented. We are highly influenced by the values and norms of our peers. We think we are highly individualistic but in reality we are much more conforming to what we believe to be the standards of our reference group than we understand. The behavior of our immediate peers is the strongest influence on our personal behavior.

Not only are peers influential but the perception of what we think everyone else is doing has a direct impact on our choices. We as human beings are fairly accurate in judging our own behavior and the impact of the situations we are in. However, we can be quite inaccurate about other people, their behavior, motives and situational influences in their lives.

We also remember and discuss with others exceptional or unusual events that have emotional impact. Finally we are bombarded with messages from news, entertainment, advertising and advocacy groups about problems or behavior that are out of the ordinary. Example: Courtney Love says every woman in America is on Xanex. Really? The perception has been created that it is more prevalent than it is.

Whatever misperceptions we dont conjure up ourselves, the media nails the coffin shut. Layers of misperceptions compound. We can believe something is the norm when it is not.

How do misperceptions cause problems?
The inaccurate perception of use and abuse of substances by peers creates more personal willingness to take risks. It also lowers the willingness of others to stand up and oppose problem behaviors. People become bystanders and dont intervene if they think the behavior they are viewing is normal.

This translates into Perkins and Craigs simple but effective prevention strategy tell the people the truth and let it have a positive effect. They assess and develop fact-based statements about the actual norms and intensively expose young people to them over time. Sometimes it can have an immediate effect. More likely it takes time to change attitudes and behavior. The first time Columbus came back and said the world was round didnt prompt fleets of people going out to see if it was true.

The perception of how peers use and abuse alcohol, tobacco, drugs and engage in other high risk behavior is grossly exaggerated compared to actual use and behavior. Too much MTV, too much locker room braggadocio, too many lurid stories, too much teen mythology, too much pop culture, too many reality TV shows all suggest that there is a wild and crazy world going on out there. The threshold to engage in these activities is lowered by these misperceptions.
The misperceptions are most powerful when it comes to their own subgroup or immediate peers. Knowing what your own peers are actually doing is a powerful antidote to engaging in high risk behaviors.

Not only are young people influenced by the misperceptions of their immediate peers norms but also by the misperceptions of the norms of the group they are hoping to join or become like. The closer they get to a transition, the more they start acting like what they think the older group is doing.

Getting the actual norms out
Perkins and Craig have developed a program consisting of a print media campaign, public service announcements, peer education programs, workshops for targeted high risk groups, new student orientations, counseling interventions, curriculum infusion, and use of electronic media and multimedia messages. They gather and use local data relevant to the target group. They also help parents gather information on the attitudes and behavior of other parents.

The success of their program is dosage, dosage, dosage an ongoing and intensive social marketing of actual norms. The real world is a lot more conservative than the one teens and young adults imagine it to be. Armed with that information, they make better choices.

For more information on the social norms approach, you can visit alcohol.hws.edu. For more information on teen drinking, you can visit Val Farmers Web site at www.valfarmer.com

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist with MeritCare in Fargo, N.D. He specializes in rural mental health and family business consultation. Farmers column is sponsored by Cass County Social Services. For Farmers past columns, visit his Web site at www.valfarmer.com.