Social norms may harm, not help

by Kaitlin Bell | 7/31/03 5:00am

The T-shirts and posters boldly proclaim the drinking habits of the average Dartmouth students -- but they may do nothing to reduce alcohol abuse at the College. In fact, they may even be worsening the problem, according to a study released last week by the Harvard School of Public Health.

The study found that social norms campaigns targeting student alcohol abuse are ineffective at curbing high-risk drinking behaviors on college campuses across the country.

But Dartmouth's own health educators, echoing the official response of the National Social Norms Resource Center, criticized the study and said its findings will not change the way they conduct their work at the College.

Spearheaded by Dr. Henry Wechsler -- often described as a sort of maverick figure within the social norms field -- the study measured seven different kinds of high-risk drinking behaviors on 37 campuses with social norms campaigns as well as on 61 campuses without them. It found that the colleges with social norms campaigns saw no reduction in five of the drinking behaviors: drinking in the past year, drinking in the past month, heavy episodic or binge drinking, drinking 10 or more times in the past month, being drunk at least three times in the past month and usually consuming five or more drinks at a time.

Instead, these schools saw increases in the number of students who consumed alcohol in the month before filling out the questionnaire and the number of students who consumed 20 or more drinks during the previous month.

Social norms campaigns generally operate on the principle that students' misperceptions about the pervasiveness of high-risk behaviors lead them to act in ways they might be less inclined to do if they knew the reality. The approach, which was first developed in the mid-1980s, has quickly grown in popularity and is now employed in various forms in hundreds of schools across the country.

At Dartmouth, the statement, "Most Dartmouth students drink four or fewer drinks when they party," is a familiar slogan on posters, T-shirts and water bottles distributed by the College.

Responses to the study, including Dartmouth's own, tend to argue that the study's definitions of what constitutes a social norms campaign was too loosely defined by the researchers -- resulting in schools with weak or poorly conducted programs being included in the sample, and ultimately skewing the data.

For social norms campaigns to be truly effective at changing attitudes and behaviors, they must present accurate data on a consistent and lengthy basis, Health Programs coordinator Laura Rubinstein said.

Dartmouth's program not only employs those statistics carefully compiled by its own Office of Institutional Research, but also tries hard to create messages that resonate with students, she added.

But Wechsler, the Harvard study's head author, maintained that his findings show that even at schools with the longest-running and most comprehensive programs, the social norms approach is ineffective at the least, and in some cases even counterproductive.

"We evaluated multiple measures of student drinking," Wechsler said. "We also looked at schools where the programs had been in existence the longest, and where the largest proportion of students had been exposed to the programs. And, we examined each school individually."

"But we found no decline in the quantity, frequency or volume of student alcohol intake on social norms campuses -- in fact, we found an increase in two of the seven measures of drinking," he added.

Still, Rubinstein and Dartmouth Alcohol and Drug Programs educator Ryan Travis remained skeptical about Wechsler's methods, noting that within social norms research circles, the integrity of his research is often questioned.

"The media takes him seriously," Rubinstein said. "I don't think other researchers take him seriously."

Given their confidence in Dartmouth's methods and strategies -- and their suspicions about those used by the study's authors -- these most recent findings are unlikely to have an effect on the College's social norms alcohol campaigns, Rubinstein and Travis said.

Nevertheless, they both cautioned against endorsing any one alcohol-education strategy too stubbornly.

"It's important to keep asking questions," Rubinstein said. "How unbelievably pompous would it be for us not to examine what we're doing."

Indeed, in the event that social norms ultimately proves ineffective, Dartmouth has other strategies to fall back on. In addition to employing a well-funded social norms campaign about alcohol abuse, the College also tackles the problem in a number of other ways, she noted.

"We're not putting all of our eggs in one basket," Rubinstein said.