Harnessing changing social norms to curb student drinking

Newswise – A pilot study at the University of Washington in Seattle found that messages about changing “drinking norms” could help curb intentions to use alcohol among college students. Young people’s alcohol consumption is known to be influenced by their (often mistaken) perceptions of how their peers drink. To date, social norm interventions on campus have focused on correcting students’ overestimations of the amount of alcohol consumed by their peers. Such interventions reflect the current state of normative behavior, known as static standards. On the other hand, dynamic standards emphasize that a behavioral norm changes over time. These norms could be important in health behavior interventions, given emerging evidence that people align their behavior with social norms that they anticipate will be prevalent in the future, even more so than the current norm. The new study, published in Alcoholism: clinical and experimental researchtested the concept of integrating dynamic norm messages into alcohol interventions.

The data came from 461 students who had been randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group was exposed to Dynamic Norms messages emphasizing that binge drinking among college students has steadily declined over the past six years. The second group was exposed to static standards messages, indicating only current consumer standards. The third group, a control group, received no normative information. Immediately following the messaging intervention, participants were asked how they thought drinking norms among college students might change over the next few years. The group that had been exposed to the dynamic norm messages felt that future drinking norms would generally decrease and more students would abstain from heavy drinking. Students in the static and control standards groups, on the other hand, felt that future consumption standards would increase. Next, participants were asked about their own intentions to drink alcohol over the next month. Students in the dynamic norms group reported that they would consume fewer drinks per week and engage in fewer binge drinking episodes than those in the static and control norms groups.

Despite the clear differences in drinking intention, one month after the messaging intervention, the three groups did not differ significantly in actual drinking behavior (weekly drinks or binge drinking episodes) reported by participants. As the study took place during the Covid pandemic, this may be due to a reduced opportunity to engage and observe social consumption on campus. The researchers suggest that future studies of dynamic norm messaging could seek to strengthen the effect of intentions on later behaviors. For example, in addition to highlighting declining drinking norms, dynamic norms messaging could also provide additional messages about student behaviors that help them abstain from alcohol. It will also be important to identify the most effective way to present dynamic standards messages.

In summary, although further research is needed, the results provide proof-of-concept that dynamic norm messaging may be a prudent strategy for reducing drinking intentions among college students.

Such interventions could be integrated or used alongside existing norm correction strategies.

Leveraging Dynamic Norms to Reduce Alcohol Consumption Among College Students: A Proof of Concept

experimental study. S Graupensperger, CM Lee, ME Larimer (pages xxx).


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