In recent years, college campuses (and other community settings) have increasingly been adopting the social norms marketing approach to reducing things like binge drinking, drug use and smoking by their students. The idea behind this approach is that people will avoid unhealthy activities if they think that most other people around them are doing it too. So, if college students think it’s normal for people to each drink a six-pack of beer at a party, they will be more likely to engage in unhealthy levels of drinking. By publicizing the statistics of how few students at that campus actually do drink that much alcohol in one sitting, showing that the norm is to drink moderately, the model suggests that students will be less likely to binge drink themselves.
This approach has quite a bit of documented success. According to the National Social Norms Resource Center, some examples of the effectiveness of this type of project in addressing high-risk drinking include:
- Hobart and William Smith Colleges — 32% Reduction over 4 years
- Northern Illinois University — 44% Reduction over 9 years
- Rowan University — 25% Reduction over 3 years
- University of Arizona — 27% Reduction over 3 years
- University of Missouri at Columbia — 21% Reduction over 2 years
- Western Washington University — 20% Reduction in the first year
But what if there is actually a substantial proportion of the population that does engage in the undesirable behavior? You could still say that “a majority of West Knippenquad University students do not smoke pot,” if 51% say they abstain. But is that a meaningful statement? Even if only 20% of the population uses drugs, that is still one out of five people — not an insignificant figure. Among certain subgroups, the percentage might be much higher.
A recent study published in the Journal of Health Communication backs up these concerns. Not surprisingly, the study found that friends have a greater influence on students’ drinking behavior or beliefs about drinking on campus than social norms campaigns. The social norms messages are not believable if they do not square with what students have observed in their own experience among their friends and acquaintances.
A survey of 277 college students at a northeastern university found that nearly 73 percent did not believe the norms message that most students drink “0-4” drinks when they party. Of that group, nearly 53 percent reported they typically drank five or more drinks at one sitting. To illustrate the influence of social networks, 96 percent of the 5-plus-drink group said their friends drank a similar amount and believed that “other students” on campus drank a similar amount.
“Disbelief in the campaign message may have resulted from the behavior observed by students among their friends and acquaintances, which contrasted with the 0-4 message,” said co-author Ann Major, professor of communications and director of the Jimirro Center for the Study of Media Influence at Penn State. “Also, some students may discount social norms campaigns as an attempt by university administrators to control their behavior.”
Perhaps the social norms approach works among those students who are on the fence about engaging in an unhealthy behavior, and just need a little reinforcement to help them do what they would be inclined to do otherwise. Other types of approaches — social marketing, policy enforcement, or counseling — might be necessary to reach the more diehard partiers who already have set expectations for what is appropriate.
I am also made more skeptical about this approach with the announcement of the establishment of the National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia with a $2.5 million grant from the Anheuser-Busch Corporation. I’m glad that many campuses have had success with social norms marketing, but I do hope that it will not be seen as the magic bullet across all subgroups — especially for those most in need of some type of intervention.