The Social Norms Program

by Evangenline Choe | 5/23/01 5:00am

Now that the Social Norms program has been in action for a couple years, it seems like a good idea to look back not only upon the program and its evolution but also upon the reactions students have had to the program. As administrative intern in the Alcohol and Other Drug Education office, I feel that I have a unique perspective on the program that I don't get to share as often as I might like. Hence this D piece. Allow me a moment upon this little soapbox (And yes, that's me on the posters about not hooking up).

First, I'd like to run through the basics of Social Norms. Surveys taken across the nation as well as at Dartmouth reveal that students' perceptions of their peers' drinking behavior are grossly inaccurate. That is, students think that those around them drink more heavily and more often than they really do. I would argue that these misperceptions are at least partly as a consequence of the traditional approach to alcohol education on college campuses. Traditional programs emphasized the incidence of problem drinking and drinking related accidents, thereby highlighting only negative aspects and consequences of college students' drinking. These programs ignored the majority of students who drink moderately, responsibly, or not at all.

Social Norms began in 1989 at Northern Illinois University as a way to approach the issues of drinking on college campuses from the opposite direction. The idea is to shift the focus from the negative to the positive drinking behavior going on on campus; to recognize and publicize the fact that most students make healthy choices about drinking. The program's main goal is not to stop college students from drinking, but to disseminate factual information to students about the drinking behavior of their peers on which they may partly base their own decisions. Across the nation, such programs have been shown not only to reduce incidence of drinking-related problems but also to reduce the incidence of drinking-related misconceptions. Students' attitudes and perceptions about drinking and the amount of drinking going on on campuses including Dartmouth's are becoming more accurate.

The information posted around campus about Dartmouth students' behavior while drinking (i.e. The majority of Dartmouth students drink 0, 1, 2, 3, or at the most 4 drinks when they party) comes from surveys conducted professionally by the Evaluation and Research Department). The rate of response to these surveys is about 60 percent, and is analyzed such that the statistics we post are based not on an overall average of number of drinks consumed on a given night (so that, for example, two students, one of which drinks zero drinks and one of which drinks eight, do not simply average out to having had four drinks each). Alcohol and Other Drug Education receives this statistical information from Evaluation and Research and conducts focus groups of students to find out what kind of information they're interested in seeing and how they'd like to see it presented. The posters are then designed, printed and tacked up for all to see.

Social Norms is not a campaign that wants you to do what everyone else is doing, but one that wants you to give you positive and correct information. The point of putting up the posters and sending out the info cards to all our HBs is to spread the truth, and let students make their own decisions based on knowledge based in fact rather than on misconceptions and rumors.

Since the implementation of Social Norms at Dartmouth, I have had the opportunity to hear what a good number of folks have to say about the posters they have seen. Many people are skeptical about the figures presented on the posters and think they must be either entirely made up or based on surveys taken by a bunch of Trustees and administrators in some random corner of the campus on Saturday nights. As I've said, these are misconceptions, because the responses to the surveys are given via the web by a representative sample of us, Dartmouth students. Dartmouth students' responses to the survey questions are right on par with both the national and Ivy League averages, and it's hard to believe that so many people would get together and decide to lie consistently.

In doing my job this year I've been asked the most questions (read: grilled hardest) by far about the sources of the statistics, and the disbelief expressed by students I've talked to has been in both directions -- some think four or fewer is a very low number of drinks in a night while others thought it was pretty high. I appreciate the way most Dartmouth students are tough about what they'll believe. Luckily, the effectiveness of the Social Norms program isn't entirely dependent on students' believing the statistics. The posters can stimulate worthwhile thought and discussion about drinking behavior whether or not the people believe the statistics. As long as no one is offended or angered by the information we provide, we are excited and interested by the reactions we get from students. The fact that students respond to the posters tells us that the messages are being read and processed.

Lastly, I want to make it clear that the aims of Alcohol and Other Drug Education is not to stop anyone from using drugs according to their own decisions. Prohibition is not our goal. We are looking to provide students with facts that they can use to make informed decisions. This philosophy applies to all drug use at Dartmouth -- as part of Health Services, the aim is to keep as many students healthy and safe as possible, and I believe that that aim is best achieved not by telling students how to behave but by doing our best to make sure that students have correct information on which to base their own individual, personal decisions.

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