A Social Norms Approach to College Drinking with H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D. (Pt. 1)

H. Wesley Perkins received his Ph.D. from Yale University and is Professor of Sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Perkins is also Project Director of the Alcohol Education Project at Hobart and William Smith, an initiative providing research, educational resources, and strategies to reduce alcohol and other drug abuse throughout the U.S. and internationally. This project has received multiple national awards from the U.S. Department of Education as a model prevention program. Perkins has published extensive research on risk behavior and health and well-being among youth and young adults in professional journals. He has also been a pioneer in uncovering how youth misperceive peer norms about substance abuse, bullying, other violence, and sexual risk-taking. He developed the theory underlying the social norms approach to preventing risk behavior, and is editor of The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse.  Perkins has delivered over 400 guest lectures, keynote addresses, workshops, and research presentations in the United States and internationally. He has received the Outstanding Service Award by the Network of Colleges and Universities Committed to the Elimination of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse for his significant career contribution to prevention work. His work has been frequently cited by U.S. news outlets including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and Time Magazine.

Can you explain the theory and/or research behind the social norms theory? 

Humans are group animals; we look to the group for guidance about what we should do, how we should act, and what we should believe. Norms are the predominant characteristics of the group – either attitudes or behaviors – that influence us all and heavily shape our actions.

The perceptions of these norms are strong predictors of [college] student behaviors, especially with regard to alcohol use. Social norms are actually more influential than other factors such as social background, demographic characteristics, or even the particular school one attends.

The social norms theory and prevention approach raise a critical question: do we accurately perceive surrounding norms? 

What research shows is that students tend to grossly misperceive their peer norms when it comes to alcohol use. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with alcohol use on campus. There are a number of students who drink at high-risk levels, but the majority doesn’t; binge drinking is not the norm, even though it’s overwhelmingly perceived as being the norm. What becomes important are the factors driving risk behaviors and problem drinking in college populations. Are the actual norms influencing behavior, or is it just students’ perceptions of the norms that affect behavior?

Research shows that the perception of the norms is the most influential factor, yet the norm is so terribly misperceived. What’s driving the risk behavior is the erroneous perception that most others out there are engaging in high-risk behavior.

Students may tune out messages about alcohol and other drugs. How do you reach them? 

Campuses that don’t use social norms typically use one of two types of messages: pharmacological messages or scare tactics. Pharmacological messages (that is, how alcohol affects the body) are important, but those stand-alone messages are not going to change risk behavior. And we know scare tactics just don’t work.

The social norms approach, on the other hand, dispels any misperceptions about what students think of as normative. Initially, students will likely react with disbelief, which is what we would expect. Our goal is to get students to notice the message, think about it, and argue with it. The message is based on credible, local data. The more that students see the evidence-based message, the more effective the message becomes.

When putting together a marketing campaign, do you feel that some media work is better than others? (posters, electronic media, workshops) 

The most common strategy of a social norms approach is some type of media campaign, which usually entails putting up posters about the actual norms. This can be a cost-effective strategy. Print campaigns reach many students and get a lot of exposure by having posters visible throughout the campus.

Here are a few things to consider when you create your print campaign:

  • Make sure that the image associated with the message goes together. For example, don’t show a negative picture with a positive norm message because people will remember the picture and not the message.
  • Provide information about where the data in the message comes from. Students need to know that the data are about them, for them, and taken from their campus population. Source information needs to be a big and visible part of the print campaign.
  • Make the message stand out as opposed to the logo or the organization promoting the information.

Now, if you get the campaign right, there are a couple of things to be aware of:

  • You can’t just put the posters up during Alcohol Awareness week and forget about them. The forces behind the misperceptions are always there, so we have to counteract them constantly.
  • You can have one message, but over time people will cease to pay attention to it. It’s a good idea to create multiple messages with new information to dispel misperceptions.

The good thing about a print campaign is that you can take that same information and put it into electronic media, such as on the school’s website, in interactive programs, and on computer screen-savers located in computer labs, libraries, and other locations around campus.

Other ways you can get the message out:

  • Orientation programs: New students need to find out what the actual norms are regarding high-risk drinking; they shouldn’t learn about “norms” just by casually speaking to fellow students who are carriers of misperceptions.
  • Workshops: Peer educators can discuss norms with student athletes, Greek-letter organizations, and students in residence halls.
  • Courses: Talk about social norms and perceptions in academic courses such as psychology, sociology, first year seminars, and gender studies.
  • Theatrics: There are a number of creative ways to broadcast social norms, such as skits, action groups, and informal stage stunts.
  • Counseling: Counselors can provide normative feedback to students who may have received an alcohol infraction. Basically, it’s just another way of talking to students about the truth of social norms.

How often would you suggest changing the social norms message? 

When students say they are tired of seeing a message, that’s not necessarily a reason to get rid of it. If students are still reacting to a message then they are still paying attention to it. However, if students don’t recall or talk about the poster anymore, that’s more problematic.

Changing a message depends upon:

  • How much coverage the message had throughout campus.
  • How many posters were put up.
  • Where the posters were placed.
  • How visible the posters were.

What I often suggest is to put up the posters and then rotate them throughout campus in different places that are highly visible. You may have different messages going up every week or two, but because the messages are being rotated, they don’t disappear -they just move to a different location.

How can schools involve students in a social norms campaign? 

We involved student athletes in a social norms campaign at our school, and also trained them to be peer educators. They helped organize, schedule, and monitor other student-athletes in taking an anonymous survey. It worked out great because the student-athlete peers could also see how the majority of athletes were participating in the survey and how seriously everyone was taking it.

When data came back, we sat down with all the peer educators and looked at the information together. We talked about the results and the misperceived norms. Then we allowed the peer educators to provide this information to the other athletes in a social norms workshop program for teams. The results were very positive.

This type of involvement worked well with student athletes, but it would be a great process for Greek organizations as well.

*This interview continues in A Social Norms Approach to College Drinking with H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D. (Pt. 2) 

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