There’s a new approach to reducing student drinking that’s based on the finding that most students think all their mates drink loads more than they do, which encourages them to drink more themselves.
‘Social norms’ campaigns aim to reduce student drinking by spreading the word that, actually, the majority of students don’t drink that much. With the jury still out on how effective these campaigns are, Kelly Broadwater and colleagues wanted to investigate the premise behind the approach – the idea that students want to drink more when they believe their peers drink more than they do.
The researchers asked 171 first year students to report how much they drank over the last month; how much they wished they had drunk over the last month; and to estimate how much they thought their peers drank.
Consistent with the social norms approach, 91 per cent of the sample thought their peers drank more than they did. But contrary to the approach, when it came to how much the students wished they had drunk, there was no difference between the students who thought their peers drank more than them, and the students who thought their peers drank less than them.
Moreover, when they were followed up a month later, those students who said earlier that they wished they drank more, actually reported they didn’t drink any more than usual over the following month. It was only the students who said they wanted to drink less, who reported a change, saying that they had indeed drunk less than usual over the ensuing month.
The researchers said more work was needed to clarify the mechanisms behind social norms campaigns, and acknowledged the limitations of their own findings: “Although we found no evidence that our college student participants who perceived their peers were heavier drinkers than themselves desired to increase their drinking, the fact that 91 per cent of participants believed their close friends were heavier drinkers than themselves left us with limited power to detect differences”.
Broadwater, K., Curtin, L., Martz, D.M. & Zrull, M.C. (2006). College student drinking: Perception of the norm and behavioural intentions. Addictive Behaviours, 31, 632-640.