In April 2002, when
the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) issued
its Task Force Report on College Drinking, the NIAAA Panel on Prevention
and Treatment noted that "several institutions that persistently
communicated accurate norms have experienced reductions of up to 20
percent in high-risk drinking over a relatively short period of time.
Together these findings provide strong support for the potential impact
of the social norms approach."1 This is an impressive recommendation
for those of you who may be grappling with the issue of student drinking
on your campus. But just what is the social norms approach, and what
should you know about it?
First, a bit of
history. Until recently, the predominant approach in the field of health
promotion sought to motivate behavior change by highlighting risk. Sometimes
called "the scare tactic approach" or "health terrorism,"
this method essentially hopes to frighten individuals into positive
change by insisting on the negative consequences of certain behaviors.
Think of the image of a crumpled automobile, flashing red lights, and
the tag line "Speed kills!" and you will have a sense of this
kind of public health campaign.
As sociologist H.
Wesley Perkins has pointed out, however, this kind of traditional strategy
"has not changed behavior one percent."2 In 1986,
he and Alan Berkowitz published the findings from their research revealing
that most students on their campus thought that the norms for both the
frequency and the amount of drinking among their peers were higher than
they actually were, and that students generally believed that their
peers were more permissive in their personal attitudes about substance
use than was in fact the case.3 Correcting such misperceptions, these
researchers suggested, might reduce heavy drinking and related harm.
along with concurrent research in the field of Wellness regarding resilience—
and identifying protective factors and protective behaviors—revolutionized
the field of health promotion and spearheaded the development of the
approach now widely known as social norms. For many years, prevention
efforts had focused almost exclusively on the problems and deficits
of particular populations. The work emerging from those employing the
social norms approach, however, began to demonstrate the effectiveness
of promoting the attitudinal and behavioral solutions and assets that
are the actual norms in a given population.
social norms approach uses a variety of methods to correct negative
misperceptions (usually overestimations of use), and to identify, model,
and promote the healthy, protective behaviors that are the actual norm
in a given population. When properly conducted, it is an evidence-based,
data-driven process, and a very cost-effective method of achieving large-scale
most of the positive results documented in the literature to date have
used social norms to address alcohol, a number of universities, high
schools, communities, and organizations are using this approach to address
other issues as well, such as tobacco prevention, seat-belt use, sexual
assault prevention, and academic performance.
Responses to some
of the most frequently asked questions about the social norms approach
can be accessed by selecting the "Questions" link in the navigation bar to the
left of this page.
- NIAAA Final Report
of the Panel on Prevention and Treatment, available at:
[Accessed January 27, 2002]
- See: "A
Closer Look at Alcohol" by Mark Alden Branch, Yale Alumni Magazine,
May 2001. Available at: http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/01_05/alcohol.html
- Perkins, H. W.
& Berkowitz, A. D. (1986). "Perceiving the community norms
of alcohol use among students: Some research implications for campus
alcohol education programming." International Journal of the
Addictions, 21, 961-976.