Reinforcing the Social Norms Approach – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Reinforcing the Social Norms Approach

For years, Professor of Chemistry David Craig P’05, Professor of Sociology Wesley Perkins and an evolving roster of HWS student researchers have illustrated the gap between college students’ perceptions around alcohol use and what the data actually reveals.

As Perkins explained recently, the social norms approach takes “the point of view that humans are group oriented, that we largely operate within packs and that norms are critically important in guiding and shaping our behavior…Researchers in psychology and sociology have demonstrated time and time again that social norms are one of the most important influencers in shaping behavior, especially of youth with regard to health-related behaviors and risk-related behaviors.”

Craig says that “up until fairly recently most colleges and universities, including us, have based research on anonymous surveys,” but in their study published in The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in May of 2018, he and Perkins “provide a parallel track of data that shows the surveys and BrAC [blood-alcohol concentration determined from a breath test] measurements are comparable.”

The study evaluates various computational methods from the literature that estimate BAC and offers “a formula that any college out there can use to get an equivalent set of numbers using simple survey questions,” Craig says, reinforcing both the soundness of survey-based research and the social norms approach to education.

The formula allows higher education institutions and other organizations to research alcohol use with the knowledge that the comparatively low-cost surveys are comparable to the measurements produced by biomedical tools like breathalyzers. While there is some variance in accuracy on the individual level, “we have found that in the aggregate the results computed from survey questions are comparable to the actual measurement,” Craig says.

Furthermore, he notes that when the biomedical measures are comparable to the survey findings, students have yet another metric for understanding their own behavior on the continuum of social norms. This kind of peer-group data, he says, offers “a powerful way to break down denial and get high risk students to recognize that they’re not just doing what they think everyone else is doing. A large majority — over three quarters — of our students have healthy values and attitudes about alcohol, but the perception among students is that their peers are consuming more alcohol, more frequently and more heavily than they actually are. By reducing misperceptions, letting people know what the majority do and think about alcohol, we can reduce heavy alcohol use on campus — and we have been doing so over the past 20 years.”

During that time, the social norms intervention model developed by the HWS Alcohol Education Project has been applied in a variety of settings and across various social circumstances, earning multiple awards from the U.S. Department of Education. Perkins and Craig launched the intervention program among student-athletes at HWS, eventually expanding the project to other NCAA Division III programs, schools abroad and the U.S. Air Force.

Through first-year seminars, semester coursework and independent and honors research, HWS students have been involved in the collection and analysis of data from the project’s inception. Data collection uses a double-blind protocol where instruments store the BrAC result internally and only display a test number. Data stations are located just inside random residence hall entrances from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. where subjects are randomly invited to participate. This permits data to be collected privately without any individual identifying information. Subjects can anonymously enter their test number at a website the next day and find out what their test result was the night before.

For more information about the Alcohol Education Project and the social norms approach, visit: www.alcoholeducationproject.org or http://www.youthhealthsafety.org/.

Perkins is a graduate of Purdue University, and he received his M.A., M. Div., M. Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and is editor of a book on the social norms approach to substance abuse prevention, and has been honored with national awards for his work in preventing alcohol and drug abuse in colleges and universities.

Craig is a graduate of California State University at Chico and received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside. In addition to his teaching duties, Craig is principle investigator of a program of BAC research at HWS. He is a leader in interdisciplinary program development particularly in the integration of the sciences into programs focusing on health and wellness at both the college and secondary school levels and has published numerous publications and a recent film on this subject.