‘Social Norms’ Seen to Keep Students on Right Track

Researchers find promise in countering perceptions that 'everybody is doing it.'

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Colorado educator Scoot Crandall once measured his success in persuading young people to avoid smoking, drinking, or drugs by his ability to make girls cry. Mr. Crandall, at the time a guidance counselor in the Poudre school district just north of Denver, would go into classrooms, tell nightmarish tales of the dangers of substance abuse, and watch the tears roll.

Then a district administrator convinced Mr. Crandall that, as heart-wrenching as his talks were, they were not having much of an impact on students’ behavior. “You’re making ’em cry, my friend,” Mr. Crandall recalls his colleague saying, “but they get to high school and junior high school, and they’re doing what they always did.”

Norm References: TEAM Fort Collins in Colorado uses posters and stickers in its school-based campaigns against substance abuse.
Norm References: TEAM Fort Collins in Colorado uses posters and stickers in its school-based campaigns against substance abuse.
—Courtesy of TEAM Fort Collins

That’s when Mr. Crandall turned to the “social norms” approach to intervention. Rather than scare students out of misbehaving, social-norms educators use survey data on students’ actual behavior to underscore that, when it comes to avoiding risky habits, many students are already doing the right thing.

The catch is that young people tend to believe the opposite: They think “everyone” is smoking, drinking, and engaging in all sorts of under-the-radar activities. The idea is that if students know the truth, they will feel less pressured to engage in dangerous practices themselves.

“We’ve always talked about peer pressure,” said H. Wesley Perkins, a sociology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. “Now, we’ve realized that a lot of that peer influence comes out of perceptions which are erroneous.”

Educators at a growing number of colleges and, more recently, high schools and middle schools seem to think that’s an approach worth trying. A handful of case studies—some more scientific than others—suggest that social-norms proponents are on to something.

Perceptions Count

Colleges and high schools that have tried the approach report experiencing reductions of 20 percent to 30 percent in students’ self-reports of problem behaviors such as drinking and smoking.

And a randomized study due to be published this year in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol points the same way. It tracked 18 colleges and found that students on campuses with social-norms-based campaigns against alcohol were less likely to drink than their peers at comparison schools.

“It’s in the category of something that looks like it could be effective,” said Vivian B. Faden, the deputy director of the division of epidemiology and prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in Bethesda, Md. “But it could be most effective when used in combination with a more comprehensive approach.”

Perception v. Reality

An online survey of secondary school students found discrepancies between students’ actual views on bullying and their perceptions of their peers’ views on the subject.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Though psychologists have long known that people are influenced by their ideas of what most others do, U.S. researchers did not see perceptions of social norms as a potential force for curbing problem behaviors in young people until the 1980s.

The interest came after Mr. Perkins and fellow researcher Alan D. Berkowitz surveyed students at Hobart and William Smith and found wide disparities between students’ self-reported alcohol consumption and their perceptions of their friends’ and classmates’ drinking habits. What’s more, Mr. Perkins’ later studies found, the students whose misperceptions were most extreme tended to be the heaviest drinkers.

What would happen, the pair of researchers wondered, if colleges used marketing techniques to get the message to students that alcohol use was not as common as they thought? Would more students just say no? Most of the case studies conducted at the postsecondary schools that tried out the approach suggested it could work.

So proponents of social-norms interventions began moving their approach into high schools and middle schools in the 1990s. Precollegiate educators also began using the strategy to address a wider range of problem behaviors, including gossiping, bullying, and poor attendance.

“Kids actually come up to us and say thank you, thank you for recognizing me,” said Mr. Crandall, who is now the executive director of TEAM Fort Collins, a nonprofit agency that works to prevent illegal use and abuse of cigarettes and drugs in the Fort Collins, Colo., area.

Students, he said, are “tired of sitting in classes and hearing terrible things being said about them.” Mr. Crandall shared his experiences with the prevention approach at the eighth National Conference on the Social Norms Model, which was held in Denver, July 26-28.

At Fort Collins’ Rocky Mountain High School, one of the schools in which Mr. Crandall’s group has worked, the percentage of students who reported not drinking and driving grew from 83 percent in 2003 to 89 percent in 2005. The changes followed an intensive social-marketing campaign, called “Live Large. Don’t Drink and Drive,” that was launched at the 1,800-student school in 2002.

The campaign included student surveys, posters, banners, focus groups, and T-shirt and water-bottle giveaways—aimed at conveying the campaign’s positive peer-pressure message.

Precollegiate interest in the approach also grew as research reviews began to suggest that interventions relying on traditional scare tactics, such as the original Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program that Los Angeles police started in 1983, were getting nowhere. Indeed, Scared Straight, a program that arranges for prison inmates to talk with juvenile offenders and teenagers deemed at risk of becoming offenders, has been shown to cause young participants to commit more crimes.

Efficacy Debated

But the social-norms approach has its critics, too. One is Henry Wechsler, the director of college-alcohol studies at Harvard University’s school of public health.

Norm References: TEAM Fort Collins in Colorado uses posters and stickers in its school-based campaigns against substance abuse.
Norm References: TEAM Fort Collins in Colorado uses posters and stickers in its school-based campaigns against substance abuse.
—Courtesy of TEAM Fort Collins

“Focusing on students—whether it’s education or social-norms marketing or attitudinal messages—is only a small part of the job, because the level of drinking in colleges is sustained not simply by students’ attitudes but also by the environment,” he said. “You have to change the environment to get at the root of the problem.”

Mr. Wechsler also faults the social-norms movement because of its financial ties to Anheuser-Busch, which helps underwrite a national center and some of the campus-based campaigns. Mr. Perkins said the St. Louis-based beer brewer has not financed any of the key studies in the literature on social norms.

Mr. Wechsler’s own study of the approach, published in 2003 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, concluded that social-norms campaigns failed to reduce college drinking. He based that finding on survey results from 37 colleges that used the approach and 61 colleges that did not. But Mr. Wechsler’s study was also criticized for relying on simple responses from one administrator at each school to determine whether colleges had waged a social-norms marketing campaign.

In comparison, the report due out later this year uses several indicators to document the credibility, duration, and intensity of a college’s social-norms campaign. The study, led by William DeJong, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Boston University’s school of public health, did not find dramatic reductions in levels of alcohol consumption in most schools, with or without the approach.

It did find, though, that on social-norms campuses, alcohol-consumption rates increased less and students were less likely to drink than peers at nine control schools. What’s more, it concludes, the greater the intensity of the marketing campaign, the larger the effect on campus drinking levels.

Vol. 26, Issue 02, Pages 16-17

Published in Print: September 6, 2006, as ‘Social Norms’ Seen to Keep Students on Right Track
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