February 27, 2020  Last Update: November 12, 2019, 4:01 pm

The Promise of Social Norming

Social Norming Poster on College Campus

The message is simply — “No, everyone is not doing it.”

Studies show that college students over-estimate how much their peers drink and do drugs.  Incorrect perceptions can lead students to binge drink, due to the social pressures of “being like everyone else.”

The “Social Norms” approach to student communications attempts to change these incorrect perceptions, while promoting healthy behaviors. If students understand the reality of the situation, some administrators argue, binge drinking and drug abuse would not increase due to these erroneous social pressures. Some universities are adopting this model to change perceptions of alcohol and binge drinking. The message is simply — “No, everyone is not doing it.”

Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Sienna College in New York and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, among others, have implemented campaigns and initiatives to tackle the binge drinking issue. Western Washington University recently launched two new social norms campaigns aimed at binge drinking, on the one year anniversary of the accidental drowning death of an inebriated student.

Administrators are very open about the basis for the campaigns; there’s no deception going on. On the contrary, they hope that by revealing the truth, there will be less substance misuse.

Telling students the truth — that binge drinking and drug is not “the norm”,  seems to be working.  Social Norming has seen increased adoption as a communications campaign on college campuses since it first started nearly 10 years ago. Some of the results claimed:

  • Hobart and William Smith Colleges: 40% Reduction over 5 Years
  • Rowan University: 23% Reduction over 5 Semesters
  • University of Missouri-Columbia: 21% Reduction over the first 2 Years
  • University of Arizona: 29% Reduction over 3 Years
  • Western Washington University: 20% Reduction over 3 Years
  • Northern Illinois University: 44% Reduction over 10 Years
  • Florida State University (FSU): 21% reduction over 9 years

It seems like a more powerful tactic than teaching “just say no”.

  • The National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia researches and evaluates the social norms approach in hopes that the methodology may help in other situations.
  • http://www.socialnorms.org/Research/articles11.php
  • http://www.sacredheart.edu/pages/20984_shu_kicks_off_social_norming_program_with_dot_grant.cfm
  • http://smu.edu/healthcenter/alcoholeducation/adp_socialnorms.asp
  • http://www.siena.edu/pages/3264.asp


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