Dispelling misperceptions using the social norms approach
Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 28-29
The Student Life Education Company promotes healthy decisions on the use or non-use of alcohol and on other health issues. We do this by increasing awareness, challenging unhealthy attitudes and providing students and student advisors with training and resources. These resources include access to staff directors, educational materials, referrals to other organizations and newsletters.
A number of campuses across the United States have used a social norms marketing strategy, based on a theory developed in the US,1 to effectively change unsafe drinking behaviour. These campuses have seen decreases of as much as a 20% in rates of high-risk drinking.
After hearing about the success of the social norms approach on US campuses, we decided to create our own research and pilot project to test their results.
What is the social norms approach?
Social norms theory states that much of people’s behaviour is influenced by how they think other members of their social group behave. All too often, these ideas are not accurate because people tend to exaggerate the unhealthy behaviour of others. If people think an unhealthy behaviour is the standard in their social group, they are more likely to engage in that type of behaviour. So, if people learn that the true norms of their peers are healthier than they thought they were, their behaviour can be affected in a positive way.2
Applied to the issue of student alcohol consumption, the social norms approach works to eliminate false perceptions that post-secondary students have about alcohol. Students tend to think that everyone else is drinking more and going out more often than they are.
Surveys show, however, that college students greatly overestimate the amount of high-risk drinking that happens on their campus.3 Because of these misconceptions, students believe that high-risk drinking is a social norm, which in turn may lead them to increase their intake of alcohol.
If misperceived norms are leading to an increase in drinking, it makes sense that informing students of actual drinking norms may reduce student drinking.
The Canadian pilot project
We gathered two top experts in the social norms field to be our principle researchers for the project. Dr. Jeff Linkenbach is a faculty member in Health and Human Development at Montana State University and director of the Montana Social Norms Project. Dr. H. Wesley Perkins is a professor of Sociology and director of the Alcohol Education Project at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York State.
Ten post-secondary campuses, in both rural and urban centres across Canada (including one in BC), participated in our multi-year research project. Random samples of students were surveyed in the fall of 2003, 2004 and 2005. The survey, developed by Dr. Perkins, included questions about what students were doing and what they thought everyone else on campus was doing. This survey gave us a great picture of how much, and how often, students were actually drinking. It also provided us with an idea of what misperceptions students had about their peers on campus.
As was found on the US campuses, Canadian students grossly overestimated how much and how often their peers drank alcohol. Here is what we found across the 10 participating campuses in the 2003 data:2
Misperception: 80% of students surveyed believed everyone else drank once per week or more often
Actual: the majority of students (63%) drank twice per month or less often
Following each survey period, a social norms marketing campaign was created from the data we collected. Posters, fortune cookies, coasters, postcards and pens were distributed all over campus—at booths, in residences, in campus service offices, cafeterias, campus pubs and student union buildings. The materials were used to spread the facts of what was actually happening, specific to each campus. For example, we informed students about how often they actually went out to bars, how much they actually drank when they went out, and how many of them really missed classes because of drinking.
The first step in the social norms approach is challenging the campus community’s misperceptions. According to feedback from our campus contacts, students, faculty and staff were surprised with what the actual norms were on their campus.
Perkins, H.W. (2007). Misperceptions of peer drinking norms in Canada: Another look at the “reign of error” and its consequences among college students. Addictive Behaviors, 32(11), 2645-2656.
Celebrating responsible choices
All materials and programs through our post-secondary division (known as BACCHUS Canada) follow the social norms approach. We use this approach because the majority of students make healthy choices daily and it is important for our organization not to perpetuate the misperceptions.
And, all our programs try to dispel myths and celebrate the majority of students who make responsible choices with respect to alcohol and other health-related issues. Current programs include:
St. Patrick’s Day Campaign – safe partying
Orientation Week – check out the 2007 orientation campaign at www.herestomychoice.com to see the ‘celebrating choices’ approach in action
Alcohol Awareness Days – in October annually
If you, your campus or your organization would like more information on the social norms approach, contact Maria Locacciato at 416-243-1338 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about BACCHUS Canada, visit www.studentlifeeducation.com.
About the authorMaria is Director of the Canadian Centre for Social Norms Research, established in 2002 as a division of the Student Life Education Company, a charitable organization since 1986.
Perkins, H.W. (Ed). (2003). The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians.. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Linkenbach, J. (2002). The main frame: Strategies for generating social norms news. www.mostofus.org/pub/tools/TheMainFrame.pdf.
Results from the Canadian social norms research project have not yet been analyzed completely. The Student Life Education Company hopes to release their findings later this year.