An accidental creation, social norms grows in influence

by Carl Burnett | 5/15/02 5:00am

In the mid 1980s, two alcohol-education researchers named Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz hit upon a revolutionary idea: instead of trying to scare college students into not drinking, it might be more effective to tell them how little their peers were drinking. If they listened, the theory went, the psychology of peer pressure would mean that they soon start drinking less.

In 1986 Perkins -- then an untenured young professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. -- and New York psychologist Berkowitz published a landmark study documenting their hypothesis. The study asked college students about their drinking habits, and it also asked them to guess about the habits of their peers. The data indicated that students regularly think their peers drink more than they actually do.

Other researchers had noticed a similar trend, and there was even a term for it: "pluralistic ignorance." But Berkowitz and Perkins wondered why the misperceptions existed, and became interested in using the finding to their advantage.

Not until a desperate alcohol educator at Northern Illinois University, Michael Haines, decided to try an approach based on Berkowitz and Perkins' approach was the hypothesis put to the test.

In 1988, before the university had launched a concerted alcohol-education campaign, 45 percent of NIU students drank five or more drinks when they partied, although the average student thought 69 percent drank that many.

The university had just spent a year using more traditional methods of trying to curb unhealthy drinking: promoting abstinence from drinking and trying to scare students with statistics and stories about how it can ruin lives. Over that year, 1988-89,there was no significant change in campus drinking habits, administrators found.

An exasperated Haines already had a grant to find ways to reduce college drinking from the U.S. Department of Education. He convinced the department to fund a program at NIU based on Berkowitz and Perkins' study.

During the 1989-90 school year, Haines bombarded students with newspaper ads bearing the message that most students drink five or fewer drinks when they party. Other educators have since spread the message with posters, backgrounds on public computers or even by paying students if they can recite their school's drinking statistics.

As a health educator, Haines had recently been trained in the principle that small-group intervention was the best tool for combating issues like drinking.

"When we first [tried social norms], I didn't think it was going to work," Haines said. "I had no idea how powerful media could be."

In 1990, after the campaign had been in place for a year, only 37 percent drank five or more, and students thought just 57 percent drank that many. Both figures continued to decline every year, and by 1999, levels of drinking five or more at once dropped by 44 percent from the 1989 levels.

Inevitably, other colleges and universities took notice, and the strategy acquired a name: social norms marketing.

A second, larger-scale test of the social norms method took place at the University of Arizona in the early 1990s. At 35,000, the student population there was much larger than NIU.

This time, the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention stepped in and funded an entire comprehensive study. Again, the results were overwhelmingly positive.

Soon, researchers were talking about applying the social norms method to reduce smoking, illicit drug use, risky sexual behavior, violence, racism, homophobia and date rape. And communities outside of higher education began to try social norms approaches to topics like breastfeeding, seat belt use and ecological responsibility.

Haines is now the director of the National Social Norms Research Center. For the last five years, the Center has organized an annual conference on social norms. Berkowitz edits Social Norms Quarterly, which he founded in 2001, and is in high demand as an alcohol educator at institutions around the country. The New York Times praised social norms marketing in its "Year in Ideas" in 2001.

Perhaps inevitably, there has been a backlash against social norms methods. One of the most outspoken critics of social norms is Harvard's Henry Wechsler, one of the authors of a 1994 study indicating 44 percent of students at 140 campuses are "binge drinkers" -- defined as those who drink five or more drinks in one night. The study's results helped intensify many colleges' motivation to deal with drinking.

Wechsler argues that the social norms approach is flawed because it places too much responsibility on students to reduce their drinking and not enough on administrators, who should find ways to reduce the availability of alcohol on campuses.

Others complain that the social norms model fosters conformity by encouraging people to do what everyone else does. Berkowitz has two responses to that accusation. First, he said he saw no problems with conforming to healthy behavior like moderation in drinking. The other response is that social norms is not about conformity, "it's about doing what feels right for you," he said. "You begin to learn what its like."

And Haines criticized older approaches, saying that scare tactics are ineffective because they amount to intolerance."The public is hungry for a friendlier way," he said.

Berkowitz said social norms marketing has succeeded "beyond [his] wildest dreams."

His former collaborator, Perkins, agreed, but stressed above all that they stumbled upon the theory mostly by accident.

"I'd like to say it was a grand vision," he said. "But most of it was serendipity."