National Social Norms Resource Center: Press Release September 13, 2005
National Social Norms Institute
  Press Kit
  Press Coverage
  Press Releases


Michael Haines, Director
National Social Norms Resource Center

H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D.
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Phone: 315.781.3437

Largest Nationwide Study to Date Confirms Perception As Strongest Predictor of Personal Alcohol Consumption on College Campuses

Research Further Finds That Students Exposed To Prevention Programs That Decrease Misperceptions Exhibit Less High-Risk Drinking and Negative Consequences

DeKalb, IL (September 13, 2005)—A study of more than 76,000 students attending 130 colleges and universities, published in the current issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, confirms that most college students overestimate peer drinking and that these misperceptions have the strongest impact on personal alcohol consumption and associated negative consequences. The study further finds that students exposed to school prevention programs that decrease misperceptions of peer norms exhibit significantly less high-risk drinking and consequences.

"Given the overwhelming importance of perception, schools whose alcohol misuse prevention information is associated with less misperception of the campus drinking norms should be effective in reducing their students' alcohol-related risk and the empirical evidence in this study strongly suggests this to be the case," stated H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and chief author of the study.

Michael Haines, M.S., Director of the National Social Norms Resource Center and a co-author of the study agreed, adding, "Reinforcing students' attitudinal and behavioral norms of health and safety is the foundation of the social norms approach, which has been used successfully on numerous campuses to dispel the harmful misperception students have that the majority of their peers drink to excess. By communicating accurate information about students' norms, schools can simultaneously celebrate the health of their students and cause it to grow."

The study was undertaken to determine the extent of misperceptions among students about peer drinking and to examine whether more accurate perceptions correlate with reduced alcohol-related risk.

Research showed more than 70% of students overestimate the drinking norms at their school regardless of actual consumption statistics. For example, at schools where abstinence was the norm, only 21% of students accurately perceived that the typical student at their school did not drink. By contrast, almost three out of five (60%) thought it was most common for their peers to consume three or more drinks. Further, at schools in which the norm was four drinks the last time a student partied/socialized, 37% percent overestimated the norm by one or two drinks and an additional 34% overestimated by three or more. Even at the single school with the highest norm, perception far outpaced reality, with 61% overestimating the norm.

Additional analysis showed that students' perception of their campus drinking norm is by far the strongest predictor of the amount of personal alcohol consumption, stronger even than gender and the actual campus drinking norm. Each one-drink increase in a student's perception of the campus norm predicted almost a one-half drink increase in personal consumption. In comparison, a one-drink increase in the actual school norm predicted only a one-third drink increase in personal consumption.

Perhaps most importantly, data revealed that the odds of engaging in risky consumption or experiencing a negative consequence are significantly higher among students at schools where program information does not change perception compared with schools that do. Respondents in the former group were more than one-third as likely to have an estimated peak BAC level of 0.08% or higher and one and one-third more likely to experience a negative consequence compared with students at schools in the latter group. Negative consequences include physical injury to self or others, fighting, forgetting where one was or what one said or having unprotected sex.

The Journal of Studies on Alcohol, a refereed journal concerned with scientific research related to alcohol and drugs, has a worldwide readership and draws from an international array of authors. The Journal is abstracted by 37 services worldwide. The full citation for the article is:

Perkins, H. W., Haines, M. P., and Rice, R. "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(4): 470-478, 2005.