MyStudentBody - A Social Norms Approach to College Drinking with H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D. (Pt. 2)

A Social Norms Approach to College Drinking with H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D. (Pt. 2)

A man leaning against a basketball against a wall giving a thumbs up

This is part two of this interview. To view the first part, click here.

If a school reports a large percentage of students involved in heavy episodic drinking (for example, over 48% of the student population reports heavy episodic drinking), how do you create a positive social norms campaign? 

The first thing you need to do is find out the source of the data. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy episodic drinking as five or more drinks for males or four or more drinks for females in under two hours. A lot of traditional surveys do not use the measure that includes time span in their reports, which can make college drinking look significantly worse than it actually is. For example, a student that has four or five drinks over a five or six-hour period can be within low blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limits. Without considering timeframe, a traditional report will show the student as a binge drinker.

Also, look at the larger timeframe of the survey measure. Chances are if you ask students about their drinking habits over the entire year, you're going to get a higher percentage of binge drinking. However, if you ask students about their drinking habits over the past couple of weeks or the past month, a smaller percentage report binge drinking. You'll never find the majority of students being binge drinkers in a typical week-long timeframe. In any of these timeframes, most students will overestimate how much binge drinking is taking place. Why not emphasize what's normal in a typical week among peers?

In a social norms campaign, schools can measure other behaviors aside from heavy episodic drinking. For example, in the past when we've asked students about their attitudes towards drinking, we typically find that 75–90% of the students believe that they shouldn't drink to a level where it interferes with academics or other responsibilities. Sometimes students don't behave in accordance with their attitude, but this is often due to misperceptions of peer drinking attitudes. A campaign can highlight the real injunctive (attitudinal) norms on campus.

What are some good data sources to use for an alcohol or drug social norms campaign? 

I would strongly encourage schools to use their own local data because it's easy for students to say "that may be the norm somewhere else, but not at my school." Providing information about the local norms, if at all possible, is the best thing to do. If you don't have data from your campus, then use regional data sources.

There are also a variety of data types that are used for social norms. Commonly used surveys include the CORE survey from Southern Illinois University. The CORE Institute also has another survey called the Campus Survey of Alcohol and Other Drug Norms that was designed for schools specifically interested in social norms and behavior. The National Collegiate Health Association Survey from the American College Health Association is another tool that provides useful data for a social norms campaign. In addition, our online Survey of Student-Athlete Norms provided by Alcohol Education Project at Hobart and William Smith Colleges has been used for student athletes at many schools around the country.

There are other ways to get data, too, such as anonymous random breathalyzer testing to analyze the BAC levels of students coming home late at night. Studies show the majority of students do not drink to a level of risky intoxication even on the most high-risk drinking campuses in the U.S. Multiple studies have collected data from students returning to their resident halls late night between 10 PM to 3 AM – the time when most alcohol is consumed – and the findings were still conclusive. This could be a very positive message for students.

Another way to get data is by conducting surveys from incoming students. Find out about their beliefs and attitudes regarding alcohol, then conduct a senior exit survey before students graduate and analyze their attitudes and behaviors at that point. You can get a lot of useful information from these surveys that you can use in your social norms campaign as well in your assessments of impact.

Can you discuss a successful case study you feel is a good social norm model? 

There are several schools that have had great success with a social norms campaign. I go into more detail about many case studies in my book, The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse, including other areas where social norms can be applied.

I'll just mention four schools that are very different demographically, and yet each one has had great success over several years using the social norms approach.

  • Hobart and William Smith Colleges (small-sized, Northeast): Hobart and William Smith introduced social norms messages through the use of electronic media, print media, orientation programs, RA training, and throughout the regular curriculum. The response to these messages was dramatic. . In the first two years of the program, frequent heavy drinking decreased 20%, and negative consequences related to drinking—including physical injury, fighting, damage to property, missing class and other academic problems, unprotected sexual activity, and impaired driving—were cut by 30%. We subsequently targeted student athletes and observed reductions in their problem drinking rates as well.
  • University of Virginia (Large-sized, Mid-Atlantic): The University spearheaded a social media campaign in first-year resident halls only. They later expanded a print media campaign for all students in on-campus resident halls. Next, they presented messages to the incoming students and their parents at orientation; the messages specifically targeted members of the University's athletic teams and fraternities/sororities. Over a six-year period, the university steadily and dramatically decreased the rate of negative consequences of drinking among students.
  • Northern Illinois University (mid-sized, Midwest): This university was the first institution that tried the social norms approach. They used print media, interactive skits, workshops, and programs. The campaign ran for 10 years. The University experienced a steady decline in student misperceptions about drinking, in high-risk drinking, and in injuries.
  • University of Arizona (Large-sized, Southwest): They conducted one of the early print media campaigns, saturating the campus with messages and documenting reductions in high-risk drinking.

Can you suggest some tips for conducting successful social norms campaigns on a small budget? 

One of the biggest expenses people often think about when implementing a social norms approach is hiring designated personnel. But if you don't have a lot of money coming into the institution, then I strongly encourage using staff already on-hand such as health educators, counselors, and student life personnel. Shift their focus from traditional programming to a social norms strategy.

Other things you can do on a shoe-string budget:

  • Get faculty on board to help out with conducting surveys, analyzing survey data, presenting topics in the classroom, and involving students in peer education programs to distribute social norms messages.
  • Apply for a grant through the U.S. Department of Education and other state-wide and regional programs that encourage the use of social norms campaigns.
  • Start small with a print media campaign. You can get a lot of media coverage inexpensively through campus programming or campus newspapers. Simply start with basic images and text messages that do not cost a lot to produce. Getting the message out is the most critical starting point.
  • Produce an inexpensive electronic and social media campaign where the infrastructure is already in place. Include tag lines in email signatures, on the school websites, and Twitter.
  • Present the social norms message at orientation programs and other programs that already exist on campus.

My point is this: A social norms approach to campus drinking doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, it's probably much less expensive than traditional programming, which requires one-on-one workshops or counseling.

Are there any resources (websites, books, videos, presentations) that you recommend for more information about this topic? 


Alcohol Education Project: Hobart and William Smith Colleges' model program site with extensive resources to address student alcohol misuse 

Social Norms Surveys Online: Hobart and William Smith Colleges' survey resources for social norms data collection 

National Social Norms Institute: Established by the University of Virginia in 2006 with a mission to conduct ongoing research into the effectiveness of social norms methodology to combat high-risk drinking among students 

Social Norms National Research and Resources: Hobart and William Smith Colleges' collection of research and resources to support the application of the social norms approach in a variety of settings and health issues 

The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention: Website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education includes resources for creating a healthy normative environment 

The CORE Institute at Southern Illinois University: Provides online surveys 

The American College Health Association National College Health Assessment: Provides online survey 

Books and Monographs:

Haines MP, Perkins HW, Rice RM, Barker G. (2005). A guide to marketing social norms for health promotion in schools and communities. National Social Norms Resource Center. Northern Illinois University, DeKalb IL. 

Perkins HW. (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. 

Perkins HW, Craig DW. (2002). A multifaceted social norms approach to reduce high-risk drinking: Lessons from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education. 

Recent articles:

Perkins HW, Linkenbach JW, Lewis MA, Neighbors C. (2010). Effectiveness of social norms media marketing in reducing drinking and driving: A statewide campaign. Addictive Behaviors, Volume 35, Issue 10, October 2010, 866-874.

Turner J, Perkins HW, Bauerle J. (2008). Declining negative consequences related to alcohol misuse among students exposed to a social norms marketing intervention on a college campus. Journal of American College Health, 57(1), 85-93.

Perkins HW. (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.

Perkins HW,  Craig D. (2006). A successful social norms campaign to reduce alcohol misuse among college student-athletes. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 67, 880-888.

Perkins HW, Haines M, Rice R. (2005). Misperceiving the college drinking norm and related problems: A nationwide study of exposure to prevention information, perceived norms and student alcohol misuse. Journal of Studies on Alcohol,66, 470-478.