Social Norms and the Prevention of Alcohol Misuse in Collegiate Contexts
H. WESLEY PERKINS, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges,
Geneva, New York 14456
ABSTRACT. Objective: This article provides a review of conceptual
and empirical studies on the role of social norms in college student alcohol
use and in prevention strategies to counter misuse. The normative
influences of various constituencies serving as reference groups for
students are examined as possible factors influencing students' drinking
behavior. Method: A review of English language studies was conducted.
Results: Parental norms have only modest impact on students
once they enter college beyond the residual effects of previously instilled
drinking attitudes and religious traditions. Faculty could theoretically
provide a positive influence on student drinking behavior, but there is
little evidence in the literature that faculty norms and expectations about
avoiding alcohol misuse are effectively communicated to students. Although
the norms of resident advisers (RAs) should ideally provide a
restraint on student alcohol misuse, the positive influence of RAs is limited
by their negotiated compromises with students whom they oversee
and by their misperceptions of student norms. Research reveals student
peer norms to be the strongest influence on students' personal drinking
behavior, with the more socially integrated students typically drinking
most heavily. The widespread prevalence among students of dramatic
misperceptions of peer norms regarding drinking attitudes and behaviors
is also a consistent finding. Permissiveness and problem behaviors
among peers are overestimated, even in environments where problem
drinking rates are relatively high in actuality. These misperceived norms,
in turn, have a significant negative effect promoting and exacerbating
problem drinking. Conclusions: Interventions to reduce these misperceptions
have revealed a substantial positive effect in several pilot studies
and campus experiments. (J. Stud. Alcohol, Supplement No. 14: 164-
NORMS ARE fundamental to understanding social order as well as variation in
human behavior (Campbell, 1964; Durkheim, 1951). Group norms reflected in the
dominant or most typical attitudes, expectations and behaviors not only characterize
these groups but also regulate group members' actions to perpetuate the collective
norm. Indeed, norms can be powerful agents of control as "choices"
of behavior are framed by these norms and as the course of behavior most commonly
taken is typically in accordance with normative directives of "reference
groups" that are most important to the individual. Although many persons
think of themselves as individuals, the strong tendency of people to conform
to group patterns and expectations is consistently documented in laboratory
experiments, social surveys and participant observation of cultural contexts.
Social psychologists have long argued that people tend to adopt group attitudes
and act in accordance with group expectations and behaviors based on affiliation
needs and social comparison processes (Festinger, 1954), social pressures toward
group conformity (Asch, 1951, 1952) and the formation and acquisition of reference
group norms (Newcomb, 1943; Newcomb and Wilson, 1966; Sherif, 1936, 1972). Thus
one can think of a group norm in this sense as the cause of much belief and
action in addition to a descriptive characterization of the status quo, as a
powerful independent variable accounting for or determining individual behavior.
Studies of norms influencing drinking among adolescents have produced a large
research literature documenting the influence of social group norms (e.g., those
of family, friends, schools, neighborhoods and religious/ethnic groups). Although
not as prevalent as studies of normative influence among adolescents in general,
studies among college students in late adolescence and young adulthood have
also produced a sizable literature on norms. Such studies date back to the 1950s
with Gusfield's (1961) research on drinking among college men in a 1955 sample
where parental norms, religious traditions and fraternity affiliation were all
found to be important normative influences. Classic comprehensive studies of
drinking in college (Maddox, 1970; Straus and Bacon, 1953), likewise, reflected
This article first provides an updated review of theoretical
and empirical studies on college student adherence to
social norms about alcohol use. It draws most evidence
from empirical studies conducted within the last two decades.
The second purpose of this article is to recast the
discussion about norms as a determinant of student drinking
into a prevention framework by considering how and
to what extent certain norms can potentially function or be
more effectively invoked to reduce alcohol misuse in college
It is important that two different but related types of
norms are both considered. One type, attitudinal norms,
refers to widely shared beliefs or expectations in a social
group about how people in general or members of the group
ought to behave in various circumstances. This notion focuses
on what the majority of group members typically
think is morally correct or conventionally acceptable behavior.
The other type, behavioral norms, refers to the most
common actions actually exhibited in a social group, be it
the modal category or statistical average representing what
is most typical behavior of group members. Both types of
norms are relevant for the prevention field in higher education
in that both can be independent variables having an
impact on the individual. How most other community members
believe everyone should behave and what behavior is
most common may be correlated, of course, but each component
may also be somewhat distinct and play a part in
Reference Group Normative Influences on Students
Several constituencies have relationships and sufficient
contact with college students so that they may act as reference
groups establishing and communicating norms. The
extent and results of research vary considerably, however,
with regard to impact of these normative groups.
Parents may serve as one reference group for students
making the transition to adulthood as they enter college
and begin to take on adult roles. Certainly parents can, and
sometimes do, communicate their expectations for their sons
and daughters going off to college. These moral/behavioral
guidelines may range from expected abstinence to expectations
of consumption facilitated by parents playing the role
of alcohol suppliers to underage students. Parental norms
may be communicated directly in discussions with offspring
or assimilated through observation of parents' styles or levels
of drinking behavior.
Studies of the power (or lack thereof) of parental norms
on student drinking in college are limited. Research to date,
however, has demonstrated relatively little direct impact of
parental values and behavior on college students. There is
some evidence of a connection between problematic drinking
behavior of students and problematic parental drinking
(see Bradley et al., 1992; Karwacki and Bradley, 1996;
Perkins and Berkowitz, 1991). This may be viewed to some
degree as the impact of family norms or collective parental
values and expectations, but in the cases of children of
alcoholics (which can represent about one-fifth of students
on most campuses), it is also likely to reflect a combination
of biological influence and modeled behavior from an
individual alcoholic parent (Sher, 1991). Most research on
parental influence in general, however, typically shows a
declining impact of parents as youth grow older and as
peers become more important determinants of their behavior.
Indeed, as demonstrated in research on high school
students (Beck and Treiman, 1996), only a relatively small
normative influence of parents has been noted in years immediately
preceding college. Thus, by the time most students
go to college, parents' ability to directly influence
students' drinking style may have waned considerably, especially
if students have moved out to attend a residential
Even with reduced contact, however, parental norms may
remain as a residual influence on students' drinking through
internalized parental attitudes and modeled behavior. In a
nationwide survey of college students (Wechsler et al.,
1995), whether or not a parent was an abstainer and if the
family approved or disapproved of alcohol use each had a
modest impact on reducing the chances of the student being
a high-risk drinker. Family view of alcohol was dropped
out of the final equation for most efficient predictors in
this study, however, leaving only parents' abstention as a
contributing factor. In a survey of first-year students in a
southern university, Lo (1995) found a modest effect of
parental norms, which was stronger for female than male
students. Parents' normative influence on drinking may be
primarily exerted through the effect of religious beliefs and
traditions passed down from parents to the offspring that
influence drinking (Perkins, 1985, 1987). Among students
attending a northeastern college, Perkins (1985) found very
little influence of parental attitudes on student drinking once
the student's religious tradition and strength of religious
commitment were controlled.
Most discussion and research on faculty contributions to
misuse of alcohol have come under the rubric of "curriculum
infusion" and have largely concentrated on educational
strategies that impart pharmacological and risk knowledge
to students. Evaluation studies of this approach suggest that
the strategy, while making students more knowledgeable
about characteristics of alcohol, rarely produces any notable
benefit in terms of reductions in problem drinking
(Duitsman and Cychosz, 1997; Robinson et al., 1993b). Furthermore,
voluntary education offered specifically on risks
and dangers of drinking, whether delivered by faculty or
health/peer counseling staff, is likely to reach only the least
problematic students due to self-selection into these programs
(Scott et al., 1997). Nevertheless, in their roles as
teachers and mentors, faculty are presumed to be an important
reference group for students. Very little scientific research
has been conducted to examine faculty impact on
student alcohol use in this capacity, but there is a good
deal of speculation about the positive or negative influence
of faculty norms in terms of course instruction, role model
behavior and personal values communicated to students.
Research has demonstrated not only large differences
between faculty and student consumption patterns, but also
differences in what is thought to be indicative of problem
drinking where faculty are more conservative in their judgments
about consumption levels, frequency of intoxication
and inappropriate drinking times, even after controlling for
the differences in personal consumption levels (Leavy and
Dunlosky, 1989). Indeed, many faculty view student alcohol
misuse as a significant problem, are quite interested in
the welfare of their students and are concerned about the
impact of drinking on academic work; yet relatively few
are actively involved in prevention efforts or speaking out
on campus (Ryan and DeJong, 1998). Thus faculty teaching
an expanded array of topics and issues about drinking
across the curriculum (Gonzalez, 1988) and incorporating
discussions of both student and faculty values, attitudes and
behaviors in this type of broader curriculum infusion may
be key to effectiveness as faculty norms are given greater
visibility. This type of curriculum infusion might be promoted
in first-year general education, sociology, psychology,
ethics, philosophy and gender-related courses, for
example. In addition to achieving a more comprehensive
exposure to issues of alcohol use, this kind of teaching
might help make students more aware of faculty norms
(and vice versa) as an additional normative influence on
Faculty norms concerning academic class expectations in general may be an important
component of prevention, if collectively acknowledged and practiced in teaching.
Maintaining deadlines and standards and giving concrete and immediate feedback
to students about academic performance will help reveal (and possibly curtail)
emerging drinking problems among specific students more quickly as these problems
often take a toll on academic work (Perkins, this supplement; Ryan and DeJong,
1998). Faculty may also be important normative agents if willing to compassionately
confront and refer students who are perceived to have a drinking problem (Margolis,
1992). Although one study suggests that faculty are more likely to take action
to assist or confront a student than to do so with a colleague, they are still
hesitant or ambivalent in many cases about intervening individually (Scott and
Stevens, 1998). Thus the contribution of faculty in deterring student alcohol
misuse might be strengthened if they collectively encourage each other
to intervene, making the practice a community standard. Faculty initiatives
as well as research data to assess this approach are woefully lacking, however.
In colleges and universities with residential living facilities,
the residential advisers (RAs) are another potential reference
group providing normative standards for students.
Indeed, for beginning first-year students, these older undergraduates
or graduate students are often the first students
representing both institutional and student culture that are
encountered. Thus RAs may be watched and listened to
closely and may be very important in communicating norms
through their initial verbal contacts and personal behavior
when interacting with new students. What little research
there is on RA norms suggests they are quite similar to
average student characteristics with regard to alcohol use
(Andrews, 1987; Berkowitz and Perkins, 1986), although
variation among RAs as individuals may tend to be less
extreme and thus more representative of relative moderation
(Berkowitz and Perkins, 1986).
Dealing with student alcohol misuse is among the most
frequent issues RAs note they must face, a consistent finding
over decades (Schuh et al., 1988). Over the course of
the academic year, RAs may compromise to some degree
with the normative standards of their student residents as
they come to informal mutual agreements about how, when
and to what degree rules will be enforced. They may even
teach residents how to break drinking rules by talking to
them about using discretion and showing them how to break
these rules under circumstances of social control. Based on
interview research with RAs, Rubington (1990) concluded
that they promoted a norm in their words and actions that
had less to do with moderating or limiting amounts of alcohol
than with residents drinking behind closed doors,
minding their own business and keeping their noise levels
down, so that they would not disturb their neighbors and
force the RA to act as an official rule enforcer.
Most research in general has found that by late adolescence
peers are typically the strongest influence on personal
behavior, especially with regard to alcohol and
substance use (Kandel, 1980, 1985), and traditional-age college
students appear to be no exception in this regard. For
example, Lo's (1995) study of first-year students at a southern
university found that peer norms were stronger predictors
of level of intoxication than were parental norms, with
peer influence being greatest for men. Likewise, Perkins'
(1985) study of a cross-section of undergraduates at a northeastern
college found peer influences (perceived friends'
drinking norm and fraternity membership) to be much stronger
predictors of alcohol consumption than other background
factors including religion, gender and parents' attitudes. The
strength of peer influence may be key to understanding
findings where students will exhibit drinking behaviors on
occasion that they oppose in terms of their personal attitudes
(Robinson et al., 1993a). Furthermore, peer norms
may be of particular importance in "peer-intensive" college
contexts, for example, undergraduate and residential institutions
where students lack frequent contact with parents,
siblings and other reference groups such as religious communities
and full-time employment.
Given the relative strength of peer influence and assuming that students' drinking
norms are more permissive than the norms of other constituencies that may influence
an individual student's behavior in most colleges, then findings showing the
more socially integrated students as heavier drinkers make sense. For example,
in a nationwide college survey (Wechsler et al., 1995), measures reflecting
intensive peer exposurehaving five or more close student friends, socializing
with friends more than 2 hours per day and living in a fraternity or sororitypredicted
significantly higher levels of heavy drinking after controlling for demographic
factors and other student activities. In another study of college students nationwide
(Leichliter et al., 1998), athletes consumed significantly more alcohol and
experienced more drinking problems than nonathletes. Leaders among these athletes
were not more responsible with regard to drinking. In fact, male athletic leaders
consumed more alcohol and suffered more consequences than did the other male
team members. In research on undergraduates at one state university, Orcutt
(1991) found that although students who were generally light drinkers did not
increase their drinking in the presence of close friends, students disposed
to drink heavily did so among friends. The latter type of student may have viewed
the presence of peers, presumably perceived to be of like mind, as encouragement
or normative support for them to act on their drinking preferences. Martin and
Hoffman (1993), studying undergraduates at an eastern university, found that
peer influence in terms of the number of college and noncollege friends who
drank was a significant predictor of personal consumption even after controlling
for the individual's living environment and positive expectancies associated
with alcohol use.
Misperceptions of Peer Norms
Although peer norms, which are typically more permissive
than other group norms, appear quite influential, research
has also clearly documented pervasive differences
between what students believe to be their peer norms and
what are the actual norms. This finding applies to both
types of norms (commonly held attitudes about correct behavior
and the most commonly exhibited behaviors concerning
alcohol use). Most students tend to think that their
peers are, on average, more permissive in personal drinking
attitudes than is the case, and likewise that peers consume
more frequently and more heavily, on average, than
is really the norm. In an initial study identifying and examining
this phenomenon in one undergraduate college population,
Perkins and Berkowitz (1986) found that more than
three-quarters of students believed that one should never
drink to intoxication or that intoxication was acceptable
only in limited circumstances. Yet almost two-thirds of these
same students thought their peers believed that frequent
intoxication or intoxication that did interfere with academics
and other responsibilities was acceptable. This gross
misperception of peer attitudes was not simply the result of
a particular historical situation momentarily distorting students'
perceptions. Surveys conducted over several years
consistently demonstrated misperceptions of similar magnitude
(Berkowitz and Perkins, 1986; Perkins, 1994).
Subsequent research on this phenomenon identified
misperceptions of peer norms at other schools as well. For
example, students at a New England state university (Burrell,
1990) described their friends as heavier drinkers than
themselves. Among students attending a large western university
(Baer and Carney, 1993; Baer et al., 1991), misperceptions
of peer drinking norms were found to persist across
gender and housing types. Prentice and Miller (1993) found
misperceptions of peers' attitudinal norms about drinking
among students at an Ivy League university. In research
that included faculty and staff as well as students on two
southwestern university campuses, heavy drinking and drunk
driving in the university population as a whole was substantially
overestimated compared with actual rates at both
schools (Agostinelli and Miller, 1994). Among students attending
a university in the Northwest, Page et al. (1999)
found that both males and females overestimated the extent
of heavy episodic drinking among their peers of the same
and opposite gender.
In research conducted on nationwide data from institutions
that have participated in the Core Institute Survey on
Alcohol and Drugs (Perkins et al., 1999), it was found that
at every one of the 100 colleges and universities in the
study, most students perceived much more frequent use of
alcohol among their peers than actually occurred at their
school. This pattern was the result at each particular institution,
regardless of the actual norm for the frequency of
use. Thus exaggerated misperceptions of alcohol norms are
commonly entrenched at schools across the country, in private
and public schools of every size and in every region.
These patterns of exaggerated perceptions have been found
to appear consistently for all other types of drugs too in
substance use research (Perkins, 1994; Perkins et al., 1999).
Misperceived norms also exist across subpopulations categorized
by gender, ethnic group, residential circumstances
and Greek affiliation (see Baer and Carney, 1993; Baer et
al., 1991; Borsari and Carey, 1999). They may have different
levels of actual use but the misperceptions are widely
held across most subpopulations in college. Furthermore,
these misperceived norms are not unique to college populations;
they can also be found in high school contexts (Beck
and Treiman, 1996) and in statewide populations of young
adults (Linkenbach, 1999).
Theoretical explanation of the causes of these misperceptions
(Perkins, 1997) points to phenomena operating at
the psychological, social and cultural levels. At a cognitive
level, psychologists have demonstrated that humans are
prone to error in overly attributing actions of other people
to their dispositions rather than to environmental contexts
in which the behaviors occur because the observers lack
the information to make accurate attributions about the cause
of other people's behavior. Thus, when students observe a
peer in an intoxicated state, they tend to attribute the drunken
state to that student's typical lifestyle or disposition in order
to account for it if the behavior cannot be contextualized
as an unfortunate and atypical occurrence. Without the information
needed to contextualize occasional problem drinking
behavior by other students, this behavior becomes
perceived as more common or typical of them than is actually
the case as the observer's mind continually attempts to
account for peer behavior. Added to this phenomenon is
the fact that public intoxicated behavior is often quite vivid
as observed by others in social situations. When a student
does gets drunk, it may be quite entertaining as he or she
acts out in a comical way. It may be sad or disgusting
when a student gets sick or vomits in front of other students
or passes out in a public setting. It may be frightening
if a student belligerently attacks others in an intoxicated
state. Yet no matter whether the affective experience is
positive or negative for the observer, these occurrences involving
student drinking are easily remembered and frequently
talked about in subsequent social conversations with
peers. Students, like most people, do not undertake an assessment
to get an accurate accounting of all behavior in
social situations. They simply retain what is most memorable
and give it disproportionate weight in subsequent estimates
of what is typical and in social conversations, which
further exaggerate the perceived drinking norm among students.
Lastly, at the cultural level, the popular entertainment
media contribute heavily to the production and
reinforcement of misperceptions through films, television
shows and advertisements that disproportionately and unrealistically
emphasize heavy drinking as part of youth
Once established in the minds of most students, these
exaggerated perceptions of student drinking norms are likely
to have substantial consequences on personal use as students
wish to or feel pressured to conform to erroneously
perceived expectations of peers (Perkins, 1997). Several
studies on college students at large and small schools in
various regions support this claim by showing that perceived
social norms are significantly correlated with students'
personal drinking behavior (Clapp and McDonnell,
2000; Nagoshi, 1999; Page et al., 1999; Perkins and
Berkowitz, 1986; Perkins and Wechsler, 1996; Wood et
al., 1992). It is a sociological dictum that if situations are
perceived as real, they are real in their consequences; perceptions
of reality can ultimately produce behaviors leading
to a "self-fulfilling prophecy" (Merton, 1957). Alcohol
use and misuse may actually increase as students behave,
at least in part, in accordance with their misperceptions of
peer expectations regarding drinking, thus producing at least
a partially self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, actual drinking
norms are pulled higher by these misperceptions than would
otherwise be the case, which, in turn, helps to extend the
exaggerated perceptions even more in a vicious cycle. The
process is limited only by the fact that a large number of
students enter and leave the college community each year.
Furthermore, misperceptions of the norm discourage the
more responsible students from publicly expressing opposition
to heavy drinking and from intervening in potential
situations of peer alcohol misuse (Perkins, 1997). Prentice
and Miller (1993) demonstrated that when students with
moderate or more conservative attitudes about alcohol use
mistakenly believed their position was quite discrepant from
the norm, they felt more alienated from the university and
student peers. What appears then to be a lack of opposition
to heavy drinking further extends and reinforces the
misperceived peer norm about what is acceptable behavior.
Thus students with the most permissive personal attitudes
and who exhibit the most extreme drinking behavior
are bolstered by the misperceptions they (and others) hold
and articulate, which make them believe they are in a comfortable,
albeit fictitious, majority. In contrast, students who
are at the highest risk in terms of their own permissive
attitudes and yet happen to have a more moderate (i.e.,
more realistic) perception of their peers' norm for alcohol
use are in a more cognitively dissonant circumstance, which
makes it more difficult for them to act on their attitudes
and drink heavily (Perkins and Berkowitz, 1986). Perkins
and Wechsler's (1996) research based on nationwide data
from 17,592 students attending 140 institutions found that,
even after controlling for the actual norm on the student's
campus and his or her personal attitude, differing personal
perceptions of the local campus drinking culture as more
or less permissive had a significant impact on students'
own use and drinking problems. Moreover, the effect of
these perceptions was strongest in accentuating or constraining
alcohol misuse by those students with the most
permissive personal attitudes. This study, furthermore, demonstrated
a stronger influence of perceived norms in comparison
with sociodemographic and contextual variables that
are often found to correlate with alcohol misuse such as
gender, race, fraternity/sorority membership and type of
Some groups such as fraternities and sororities may actually
have a stake in maintaining a normative perception
among students of high alcohol use as it may also connect
to other perceived norms and beliefs about social group
popularity (Larimer et al., 1997). RAs, although typically
moderate or responsible in their own drinking behavior,
have been found to hold misperceptions of student norms
that were distorted as much in an exaggerated direction as
those of student peers (Berkowitz and Perkins, 1986). Thus
RAs as "carriers" of these misperceived peer norms may
have a negative impact on new students as the RAs pass
along in conversation the common notions about student
drinking, thereby inadvertently encouraging moderate students
to drink more and giving erroneous normative license
to students with the most permissive personal dispositions
about drinking. Likewise, faculty and staff who are also
"carriers" of the misperception may inadvertently add to
the problem by reinforcing students' notions that most students
drink much more heavily than is the case as they
communicate this misperception in casual conversation or
in traditional prevention programs on campus.
Norms Research Implications for Prevention Programs
Reducing student misperceptions of peer norms
Given the pervasiveness of exaggerated perceptions of peer drinking norms and
the research suggesting that these misperceptions facilitate alcohol misuse,
some prevention researchers and program specialists have introduced a variety
of interventions to reduce these misperceptions. The strategy of communicating
actual student norms to dispel myths, increasingly referred to as the "social
norms approach," has begun to receive significant attention for its simplicity,
cost efficiency and effect (Berkowitz, 1997; Haines, 1996; Johannessen et al.,
1999; Perkins, 1997). The basic idea is simply to communicate the truth about
peer norms in terms of what the majority of students actually think and do concerning
alcohol consumption. Thus the message to students is a positive onethat
the norm is one of safety, responsibility and moderation because that is what
the majority of students think and do in most student populations. In some instances,
the actual norms in terms of average consumption levels or the predominant attitude
about drinking on a campus or within a particular student constituency may be
far from ideal, but the actual norms are substantially less problematic than
what students believe the norms to be. Therefore, communicating the truth about
student norms becomes a constraining intervention on problem drinking no matter
what the actual norms are. As students begin to adhere to more accurately perceived
norms that are relatively moderate, the actual norms become even more moderate
as the process of misperception leading to misuse is reversed.
Interventions can publicize data about actual drinking
norms in orientation programs, student newspaper ads and
articles, radio programs, lectures, campus poster campaigns
and other public venues to address high-risk students'
misperceptions as well as those of students at large
(Berkowitz and Perkins, 1987; Haines, 1996; Johannessen
et al., 1999; Perkins, 1997; Perkins and Craig, forthcoming).
Such publicity can help reduce students' false impressions
about alcohol and other drug use. Disseminating
information as widely as possible is especially important
because, as previously noted, all types of students may be
"carriers" of the misperceptions even if they themselves do
not misuse alcohol. Although most prevention programs on
campuses have not employed electronic media to supplement
interpersonal and print communications (Werch et al.,
1996), the opportunities for using such media with a social
norms approach are clear (Perkins and Craig, forthcoming).
Initial results of program interventions that have adopted
an intensive social norms approach are quite promising.
Several institutions with programs that have intensively and
persistently communicated accurate norms about healthy
majorities of students have experienced significant reductions
in high-risk or heavy episodic drinking rates (as much
as 20% declines) in relatively short time periods (see
Berkowitz, 1997; Haines, 1996, 1998; Haines and Spear,
1996; Jeffrey, 2000; Johannessen et al., 1999; Perkins and
Craig, forthcoming). Taken together, these findings provide
remarkably strong support for the potential impact of
the social norms approach. Although any of the case studies
in this literature might be challenged or criticized as
imperfect on some methodological criterion, each study with
different strengths and weaknesses conducted at different
times produces remarkably similar results with sizable declines
in high-risk drinking (DeJong and Linkenbach, 1999).
These findings revealing reductions in heavy drinking from
schools employing a social norms approach are further
strengthened by the fact that the same or similar measures
of high-risk drinking among college students nationwide
have not shown any decline over the last decade (Johnston
et al., 1997; Wechsler et al., 2000). Moreover, the positive
impact of social norms interventions is noted at demographically
diverse institutions from across the country. The findings
of these programs are also particularly valuable because
they are longitudinal studies using equivalent pre- and
postintervention measures in student samples, some with
multiple follow-ups across several years.
Programs can also target specific problem-prone groups
(e.g., first-year students, fraternity or sorority members, particular
residential units, athletes or individuals identified as
high-risk or heavy drinkers) for special attention. Workshops
or brief counseling interventions can help these students
confront their own misperceptions of peer use and
can facilitate discussion about student norms identified in
group assessments and campus-wide studies (Barnett et al.,
1996; Berkowitz and Perkins, 1987; Borsari and Carey,
2000; Steffian, 1999). Marlatt et al. (1995), for example,
targeted entire fraternities and sororities for programming
and included accurate group feedback regarding drinking
practices within a larger framework of motivational enhancement
strategies. Using a sample of college students identified
as heavy drinkers at a southwestern university,
Agostinelli et al. (1995) reported an experiment that randomly
assigned these students to two groups, one receiving
mail feedback about personal use compared with actual
population norms and a control group receiving no feedback.
The results of this experiment demonstrated a significant
reduction in alcohol consumption in the group that
received normative feedback and no change in the control
group after 6 weeks. In another applied experiment at an
eastern university (Schroeder and Prentice, 1998), first-year
students were invited to participate in alcohol education
discussions in small residential groupings as part of their
initial orientation program. Half of the groups that agreed
to participate were randomly assigned to a presentation of
data revealing students' misperceptions of their peers' comfort
with campus drinking practices, while the other (control)
group participated in a discussion of how to make
responsible personal drinking decisions. Students in the experimental
groups that had been introduced to actual and
perceived norms at the beginning of the year consumed
significantly less alcohol on a weekly basis in the followup
data collected 4 to 6 months later.
Prospects for other normative influences
Research to date does not suggest that families will play
a large role as normative forces beyond what they have
instilled in students through modeling drinking behavior
and through religious traditions handed down to offspring.
Although they may be able to take a more active role in
organizations or in punitive control of sons or daughters
who have been identified as a problem, it does not appear
likely that they will be able to significantly change student
behavior by simply continuing to articulate or make more
evident their family norms about drinking. Anecdotal comment
and news reports have appeared in recent years on
the normative influences of graduates, including discussions
of the potential negative impact of drunken behavior among
alumni and alumnae at athletic events and reunion weekends
and the potential positive effects of graduate norms in
communicating opposition to alcohol misuse. The value of
graduate norms in prevention initiatives remains an open
question, however, without any research evidence.
Research about faculty contributions to prevention is
quite limited, but what evidence exists clearly suggests the
need to move beyond specialized teaching about pharmacological
effects and risks of drinking if faculty are to make
a contribution. Given the extent of interaction many faculty
have with students at some schools, the opportunity exists
for faculty to exert a stronger collective voice about their
norms and standards regarding drinking. This may take place
by raising issues of social values and concerns about consumption
and by highlighting positive normative values that
already exist among students and faculty both in a variety
of course contexts and in informal interaction (Leavy and
RAs as a normative influence exist in an inherent position
of role conflict as they simultaneously play the part of
friend, counselor and older sibling to new students as well
as official institutional representative in living environments.
Limited research suggests that they personally model reasonable
behavior and informally negotiate compromises of
drinking violations on the part of residents, if drinking is
done with discretion to minimize problems with relationships
both inside and outside the residence. The potential
for improving prevention through RAs from a normative
vantage point may lie in two areas related to misperceived
norms. First, RAs can be trained not to be "carriers" of the
misperception by talking about accurate norms rather than
false stereotypes with new students. Second, they can work
with residents to identify the actual levels of student support
for residential policies regarding alcohol because the
residence hall community is likely to perceive that there is
less support for policies than is actually the case. By raising
student consciousness of the actual normative support
that does exist for limitations on drinking, policies may be
easier to enforce. If RAs and student residents can more
accurately perceive less opposition to drinking regulations
than they initially thought, then both RAs and student residents
can more easily demand adherence to the policies.
Then, strengthened by a growing realization of support for
policies that promote healthy environments, students and
RAs, along with administrators, can more effectively call
for further policy reforms on campus (DeJong and
To conclude, there is significant potential for engaging
norms to serve in prevention efforts to reduce problem drinking
among students. Work on correcting misperceived student
norms to constrain problem drinkers and empower
responsible students, in particular, holds great promise based
on theory and research to date. Although the normative
power of constituencies other than student peers appears to
be more limited, much more research is needed to explore
these domains and suggest ways in which positive social
norms provided by faculty, graduates and residence life staff
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Last reviewed: 9/23/2005