In October, Professor of Sociology H. Wesley Perkins delivered an invited talk as a guest speaker at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His presentation, “Confronting the ‘Reign of Error’ among Youth: The Social Norms Approach to Reducing Problem Behaviour and Promoting Health,” was the second event in this year’s seminar series sponsored by the university’s Child Studies Program.
The editor of the book, “The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse,” Perkins has published extensive research on alcohol and other drug problems among college students, adolescents and young-to-middle aged adults in professional journals. He is a pioneer in work uncovering peer misperceptions of alcohol and other drug norms and developed the theory underlying the social norms approach to prevention.
Perkins’ talk began with the history of social norms research in the field of risk prevention. This work actually began with research conducted at Hobart and William Smith Colleges during the 1980s uncovering the phenomenon of pervasive misperceived peer norms regarding alcohol use and its detrimental effect on actual student drinking. He described his subsequent theoretical work on why these misperceptions emerge and how they produce negative consequences for youth and young adults. Perkins’ presentation provided examples from many of his empirical studies that demonstrate pervasive peer norm misperceptions and the positive benefits of intervening to reduce these misperceptions. Work on this topic has included studies of misperceptions of high risk behaviors such as frequent alcohol, tobacco, drug use, heavy sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, bullying, intoxicated driving, sexual risk taking and sexual harassment as well as misperceptions of norms for protective behaviors such as seat belt use, HIV/AIDs testing and student reporting to authorities about weapons in school.
In addition to his teaching duties at HWS, Perkins is the co-director of the Colleges’ Alcohol Education Project, which has twice received a national award from the U.S. Department of Education as a Model Prevention Program in Higher Education. His other research interests and publications include studies of family roles and well-being among young adults and comparative studies of social values and religion in Great Britain and the United States. He is also conducting an extensive research project on forgiveness and health in the life course of young and middle-aged adults and a project on social norms and bullying in adolescence.
Perkins, who joined the HWS faculty in 1978, received a B.A. in sociology from Purdue University, an M.Div. degree from Yale University Divinity School and an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from Yale University. He has received the HWS faculty prize for outstanding scholarship and the faculty prize for outstanding service to the Colleges’ community.