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Study Looks At Students' Drinking Misperceptions, Behavior

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Updated January 06, 2004

Updated January 06, 2004

College students' drinking behaviors are influenced more by their perceptions of their friends' drinking behaviors than by social norms marketing campaigns that encourage students to "go along with the crowd," according to a University of Iowa researcher who studies college students and alcohol use.

Social norms campaigns typically use statistics or facts to counter students' misperceptions about how much their fellow students drink--posters or ads stressing that the majority of students are moderate drinkers or non-drinkers, for example. While social norms campaigns have become popular on college campuses over the past decade, this approach is problematic, said Shelly Campo, Ph.D., assistant professor of community and behavioral health in the UI College of Public Health, and communication studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"These campaigns are based on the assumption that students don't really know what the correct norm is, that they are likely to underestimate how many people are really drinking responsibly, and that a 'correct' message will change their behavior," Campo said. "These campaigns also assume that students want to be like the typical college student, which is difficult to define, particularly at a college or university with a large or diverse student population."

In her research on social norms campaigns, Campo found that colleges and universities that claimed great success in reducing problem drinking among students typically were implementing additional methods, such as peer-to-peer education sessions, expanded counseling services and parental notification policies. Campo also found other studies that failed to show support for social norms campaigns or showed such campaigns correcting students' misperceptions but not actually changing their behaviors.

"Clearly, norms can have an effect on behavior, but my thinking was that changing students' behavior would more likely come from social pressure from their friends," Campo said.

Campo and her colleagues surveyed 550 students at a medium-sized northeastern university where social norms campaigns had been used for three years. The researchers were interested in whether the students' misperceptions about drinking on their campus--whether they under- or over-estimated the number of students engaged in problem drinking--impacted their drinking behavior. The researchers also surveyed the students about their perceptions of their friends' drinking as it related to their own drinking behavior.

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