Social norming changes perceptions about drinking

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Brian Massie

At universities across the country, the number of alcohol-related deaths is on the rise. But at the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech and a number of other colleges, they’ve managed to reverse the trend.

It’s called “social norming,” and it relies on a combination of social events, peer counseling and information to challenge the perception students have about drinking. Unlike many programs, it accepts the reality that underage drinking is inevitable.

Dr. John Brummette, a professor in the school of communication and the head of the Outreach and Messaging Committee of the Radford University Alcohol Task Force, thinks social norming is a direction RU should take.

Accompanied by several graduate students at the Task Force meeting held Wednesday, April 6, Brummette explained the purpose of social norming. ‘Live Well’ is the social norming campaign he hopes RU will adopt. The group debuted several poster designs.

Five drinks in a night is the universally accepted tipping point, as having more than four drinks in a night tends to negatively impact class attendance, grades and other aspects of academic life. As such, the posters have a common purpose; slogans such as “Four or Fewer” and “Get a Buzz” encourage people to only get a buzz from drinking instead of being overly intoxicated. Another poster, designed especially for RU in April, reads “The Quad in Quadfest stands for four or fewer.”

Campuses using “Just Say No” campaigns have seen little to no change in student drinking patterns, despite well-funded programs. The predominant tactic of these approaches is highlighting risk. Sometimes called “health terrorism,” this tactic hopes to frighten individuals into positive change by insisting on the negative consequences of certain behaviors.

Social norming runs counter to traditional health and safety educators, “who think we should just crack down because people are dying,’” said Drew Hunter, executive director of the Bacchus & Gamma Peer Education Network, a Denver-based coalition of 1,000 colleges and universities that deals with student health and safety issues.

E. Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, stated that a social norming campaign there has been successful at reducing student drinking, particularly among women.  Drinking at fraternity parties showed only a slight decrease, which Geller attributes to the deep-rooted drinking culture that “overpowers social norms.”

VCU reported the overall number of drinks consumed during a given drinking session declined by over 30 percent after the introduction of the social norming program within only a few years.

While it was generally well accepted, Dr. Brummette’s presentation and his push for social norming encountered some resistance. Assistant Dean of Students David Horton said he thought the posters in present form would send the wrong message and were encouraging students to drink. Social norming, reiterated Brummette, is a proven way to encourage people away from unhealthy levels of consumption.

Given the complicated approval process for new campus organizations at RU, the ‘Live Well’ social norming program is still pending review.

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