The Way to Reduce Alcohol Abuse (It’s Proven Effective)

There’s a proven way to reduce alcohol abuse. What’s more, its results occur quickly and it’s inexpensive to do.

Dr. H. Wesley Perkins developed the technique. In this interview with David Hanson he explains how and why it works.

Hanson —

Dr. Perkins, your research and insights form the basis of a unique, even revolutionary, way to reduce alcohol abuse among students. Could you please explain your approach.

Dr. Perkins —

way to reduce alcohol abuse
H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D.

I’d be happy to. Students typically believe that their peers drink much more than they actually do. They also believe that their peers have much more permissive attitudes toward alcohol abuse than they really have.

The importance of this general misperception is that it fuels problem behaviors. That’s because students try to live up to a distorted image of what their peers believe and do. They therefore end up engaging in abusive drinking behaviors that they would not otherwise do.

This leads to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Problem use actually becomes more widespread. That’s because students drink at higher levels in order to conform to what they imagine to be the norm.

Hanson —

That makes sense. But how can we break this “viscious cycle”?

Dr. Perkins —

Basically, we need to correct misperceptions. The logic is simple. When students discover that fewer students than they believe are drinking, for example, then they’re less likely to drink.

To do this, campus surveys discover actual levels of alcohol abuse. Then extensive and widespread publicity makes students aware of that information. When that occurs, the actual abuse of alcohol drops greatly and quickly.

Hanson —

That’s impressive. Have your very positive results at Hobart and William Smith Colleges been duplicated elsewhere?

Dr. Perkins —

Yes, this approach has been used successfully at institutions all over the country. They’re large and small, urban and rural, public and private.

Hanson —

Well, so-called binge drinking is a problem on campuses. The press is full of alarming reports about how serious and common alcohol abuse is among young people.

Isn’t it important to spread the word and warn students of what to expect at college. That way they can avoid abusing alcohol when they get there?

Dr. Perkins —

It’s true alcohol abuse is a very serious problem. But we need to be careful about how we present these problems. We don’t want to increase them.

Consider “binge drinking” as an example. Reports might indicate that 25% of the students on a campus are frequent “binge” drinkers. Yet simply announcing this also adds to a belief that alcohol abuse and students go hand in hand. It helps reinforce the false notion that most students view frequent intoxication as acceptable.

We could report, on the other hand, that 75% of the student body does NOT engage in frequent “binge” drinking. This reinforces the attitudes and behaviors of those who do not engage in such behaviors. In essence, it helps empower them to avoid such behaviors.

Emphasizing pervasive drinking problems on campus may end up being counterproductive. Thus, students’ highly excessive misperceptions of the actual behaviors and attitudes on campus become even more inflated.

An alternative is to report the same information a bit differently. Focusing on the majority behavior creates a more positive mindset about acceptable social norms.

Of course, the the actual data remain the same, whether presented negatively or positively. Concern about the abuse of alcohol must not be neglected. However, we must always carefully consider the impact of the message on those who receive it.

Hanson —

So this approach involves correcting the distorted misperceptions of students. It does so by giving the actual, positive facts regarding alcohol consumption among their peers?

Dr. Perkins —

That’s it in a nutshell. Much of our research is now directed toward learning the most effective ways of correcting false beliefs about drinking. Unfortunately, the development of programs to address these misperceptions still has a long way to go. A variety of reliable techniques are emerging now to collect and communicate data on norms and misperceptions.

To reduce misperceptions, colleges use such methods as newspaper articles, ads, posters, and media events. These have notable success.

At my own institution we are also challenging misperceptions with accurate data by using campus computing and email. We also introduce this perspective in the classroom. We need more techniques, however, and more studies about their relative effectiveness.

Hanson —

I think more educators, parents, and news people should be aware of this effective new approach. Thank you for describing it.

Sr. Perkins —

You’re welcome.

Resources: the Way to Reduce Alcohol Abuse

Web Pages

Reduce Underage Alcohol Abuse In Creative Ways: Here are Seven.

Underage Drinking Problems and Solutions: What Works.

Rethinking Alcohol Use By The Emerging Adult.

Underage Drinking Problem Prevention.  

It’s Better to Teach Safe Use of Alcohol.

Teach Your Children Alcohol Moderation


Perkins, H. and Perkins, J. Using the Social Norms Approach to Promote Health and Reduce Risk among College Students. In Cimini, M. and Rivero, E. (eds.), Promoting Behavioral Health and Reducing Risk among College Students, NY: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 127-144

Perkins, H. and Craig, D. Student-Athletes’ Misperceptions of Male and Female Peer Drinking Norms, J Coll Studt Dev, 2012, 53(3), pp. 367-382. 

Perkins, H. et al. Misperceiving the College Drinking Norm and Related Problems. J Stud Alco, 2005, 66(4), pp. 470-478.