Social Norms Marketing is Highly Effective
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
The largest nationwide study of college students to date shows that reducing misperceptions of peer behavior significantly reduces high-risk (so-called “binge”) drinking and its negative consequences. The National College Health Assessment Survey was administered between 2000 and 2003 and included more than 76,000 students at 130 colleges and universities.
"The study clearly demonstrates that students' perceptions of the drinking norms on their campus is by far the strongest predictor of the amount of alcohol personally consumed," said Michael Haines, Director of the National Social Norms Resource Center. "Furthermore, colleges whose prevention efforts reduce students' misperceptions of peer drinking reduce high-risk drinking and negative consequences. That is what social norms campaigns are designed to do."
Social norms methodology is the widely discussed method of public health promotion based on communicating accurate information about the prevalence of healthy behavior in order to produce more healthy behavior.
"It was particularly interesting to note that at over 90% of schools, prevention program information is not associated with reducing misperceptions," said H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and co-presenter of the study. "In fact, many prevention programs actually inflate misperceptions, leading to increases in drinking behaviors."
Social Norms College Case Studies
Florida State University (FSU) is a large public institution with 37,000 students that has used an integrated approach to reducing high-risk drinking. Its social norms efforts were integrated across the FSU campus, encompassing everything from administrative offices to residence halls and student governments. The campaign has resulted in a 15% reduction in high-risk drinking among male students and a 5% reduction among female students since 2002.
Another highly successful implementation was used to promote health among college-student athletes. Two projects, one at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, and one at five Division III schools that are members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), were launched in 2001 to test the possibility of reducing misperceptions of high student-athlete alcohol and tobacco use in order to increase positive behaviors.
The campaigns, which included anonymous web-based surveys, print and electronic marketing materials, and peer education seminars, resulted in an average 32% reduction in the proportion of student-athletes drinking more than once per week, as well as an average 29.5% reduction in the proportion of student- athletes experiencing frequent negative consequences due to drinking during the academic term.
"Health practitioners are increasingly understanding the potent influence of the peer group on individual behaviors and as such, are using social norms theory with greater frequency," remarked Perkins. "Another example of an effective use of the social norms approach is Montana's “Most of Us Campaign,” which has curbed impaired driving among young adults. With this and other campaigns, evidence continues to accumulate supporting the theory and its effectiveness across a wide range of social issues."
The National Social Norms Resource Center is an independent center that supports, promotes and provides technical assistance in the application of the social norms approach to a broad range of health, safety and social justice issues, including alcohol-related risk-reduction and the prevention of tobacco use. It is the only national center devoted exclusively to the understanding and use of the social norms approach. Opened on July 1, 2000, the Center is directed by Michael Haines, a nationally recognized proponent and pioneering practitioner of the social norms approach. For more information, visit "http://www.socialnorm.org".
- National Social Norms Resource Center; The Bacchus and Gamma Peer Education Network.