Article Review

A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities

Review of the paper by Michael P. Haines (1996)

It is well-known that increased alcohol consumption of young people is a persistent problem and college and university students are no exception.

The Northern Illinois University (NIU) came up with a solution that has since spread to other US universities and even high schools. It all started by conducting a survey about students´ drinking behaviour, which revealed the presence of a large knowledge gap. Most of the students thought that binge drinking was more widespread than it really was.

The Health Enhancement Services Office at NIU decided to take action – develop a campaign to correct the perceptions of the students. What is the logic behind this? It is the belief that people are sensitive to social norms and tend to behave in line with them. For example, we all know that when we ask for something, we should say “please” and “thank you”. We do it because it is a norm accepted in our society and everyone does so. There are several papers proving that perceptions about the drinking behaviour of other students are a strong predictor of the actual drinking behaviour, so norms are at work also in this case (for the reference, see Graham et al., 1991 or Prentice and Miller, 1993).

The organisers of the NIU campaign were very careful with the design, since they wanted to spread the message as much as possible. They chose the campus newspaper, widely read by the students, as their medium to publish the following very simple message: “Most NIU students (55 percent) drink five or fewer drinks when they party”. This message was repeated on flyers, posters and on any occasion the students were likely to hear it.

The NIU team also came up with incentives for students to pay attention to the message. Two students were hired to work as “Money Brothers” (inspired by the movie The Blues Brothers). They would ask students how many drinks most NIU students consume and give $1 to anyone who answered correctly.  They also created some posters and would give $5 to those students living in university dorms who were found to have it on the wall of their rooms during random checks.

It is clear that the NIU team really worked hard to make students notice the message. The result? After the first year, there was an 18 % reduction in perceived binge drinking and a 16 % reduction in real binge drinking. Obviously after such success, the campaign has been repeated in the following years and binge drinking decreased further.Graph

Source: Haines, M. P. (1996): A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities

The take home message of this initiative is that social norms are powerful and capable of changing our behaviour. However, the message needs to be simple, truthful and most importantly, noticed by the target audience.

Since then, other universities and high schools applied the same technique to fight binge drinking of their students. Here are some of the campaign materials:

Sources: Social Norms Consultation & Nudge blog

How about you? Do you know how many drinks people from your university/company normally have?

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