For more than two decades, Professor of Chemistry David Craig and Professor of Sociology Wes Perkins have pioneered a social norms intervention model that effectively dispels harmful misperceptions about conduct like alcohol abuse, while promoting positive behaviors.
Through their Alcohol Education Project, Craig and Perkins – who have published extensively on the subject – are collaborating with the United States Air Force to apply the model at military bases across the country and around the world. The results of their recent 2012-2014 study at Air Force bases shows that using a social intervention model had a positive impact and was able to successfully reduce alcohol abuse and associated consequences.
“There’s a tremendous amount of research that demonstrates people are underestimating moderate behavior, but will overestimate bad or risky behaviors,” Perkins says. “It’s not the majority of a group that has a problem, but when asked, everyone tends to think that everyone else is engaging in a negative behavior.”
For the study, which was funded by the Air Force through a sub-grant from Kansas State University, eight Air Force bases were selected, representing a variety of sizes and locations in the U.S. and abroad. Data was collected to understand the real social norms involving alcohol abuse, establishing a baseline at each site. A related survey was then developed and issued to Air officers.
“We uncovered a pattern and found that the Airmen thought more of their peers were more indiscriminate with their behaviors than was the actual case,” Perkins says.
As part of the intervention model, military officers were educated about actual social norms around alcohol abuse through personalized feedback following the survey and a localized media campaign at their respective base.
“By giving them personalized normative feedback there was a substantial impact of reducing negative behaviors,” Craig says.
Monthly incident reports at five bases that received social norms intervention showed a 21 percent overall reduction of alcohol-related misconduct. The three control bases, which did not receive the intervention training, had a 47 percent increase in alcohol-related misconduct.
Craig and Perkins, who were principal investigators of the 2012-2014 study, are now involved in the second phase of the research which is being led by researchers at Pennsylvania State University at more than 15 military bases. In the second phase of the study, researchers are exploring additional factors, including whether taking the survey as a group or through email at a respondent’s convenience has an effect on the outcome of the intervention. They are also exploring the impact of localized feedback on social norms versus providing respondents with more generic information.
“When new people arrive in a particular group, they bring with them particular misperceptions,” Craig says. “If you want the program to work, you have to keep it going. You can’t drop it. It’s not a magic bullet.”
Over the years, the Alcohol Education Project has been applied in a variety of settings and across various social circumstances.
Perkins and Craig launched the project among student-athletes at HWS, eventually expanding the intervention program to other NCAA Division III programs. Students have also been involved with the research, administering breathalyzing and collecting data to better understand actual norms regarding alcohol consumption.
Perkins and Craig also extended their work to understand social norms around drinking and driving in non-college communities. The model has also been used in high schools.
Social norms misperceptions isn’t a phenomena isolated to alcohol consumption, Perkins and Craig say. For example, they’ve introduced social interventions for bullying in middle schools. Similarly, it’s been used regarding misperceived peer weight norms and poor self-image.