The Daily Tar Heel, Chapel Hill, N.C.
By Samuel Lau
Thursday, September 29, 2005
Though few would question the prevalence of alcohol on college campuses, a recent survey reveals that most students overestimate the amount their peers are drinking.
A report authored by Wesley Perkins, a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center, found that more than 70 percent of students overestimate the amount of alcohol consumption among their peers, regardless of the actual drinking norms at their schools.
Perkins attributed these results to a combination of various psychological, cultural and media factors.
“When we see somebody do something with little information about that person, we believe that this behavior is characteristic of their disposition,” he said.
Perkins also noted that students tend to focus on the most extreme examples when talking about how they spent their nights because they believe this is what their peers want to hear.
“No one says, ‘I can’t believe how many people were sober last night,'” he said.
Haines said that even health advocacy groups contribute to the problem by concentrating on aberrant behaviors that actually represent a small portion of the student population.
“They focus on the two percent of students who get arrested for DUI and not on the simple data,” he said.
Forty-four percent of students surveyed in a 1999 study from Harvard University’s School of Public Health reported that they had participated in binge drinking – five or more drinks in one sitting – in the previous two weeks.
UNC Junior Brandon Booker estimated that 90 percent of UNC students had participated in binge drinking in the same time period.
“College students drink to get drunk,” he said.
Experts say these misconceptions about alcohol use are important because the study shows that the biggest factor in how much someone drinks is how much they believe their peers are drinking.
Every one-drink increase a student perceives in the campus norm results in a one-half-drink increase in that student’s personal consumption, the study concluded.
“Since perception is the strongest predictor of how much one drinks, the best way to reduce consumption is to provide accurate perceptions,” Perkins said.
The study strongly supports social norms programs, which involve collecting credible data from the local student population and publicizing the information on campus.
The idea is to decrease student misperceptions, and thereby decrease high-risk drinking and its negative consequences.
Koreen Johannessen is the developer of one such program at the University of Arizona.
Called “Challenging College Alcohol Abuse,” the effort has contributed to a 29 percent reduction in heavy drinking on campus.
Johannessen attributed the program’s success to the credible information it provides students.
“When students have information they can make more informed decisions for themselves,” she said. “They feel that they’re not alone.”
She also emphasized that college campuses should offer students alternate options to heavy drinking, such as keeping the student union open late and making movie theater tickets less expensive.
“Colleges are responsible to provide the most healthy and safest environment in an attempt to minimize risky student behavior,” Perkins said.
“We cannot create abstinence, but we can reduce high-risk drinking.”