Social Norms Approach Addressing Problem Behaviors – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Social Norms Approach Addressing Problem Behaviors

HWS Professor of Sociology H. Wesley Perkins, HWS Professor of Chemistry David W. Craig P’05 and Assistant Professor in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University Jessica M. Perkins were recently published in pieces that explore utilizing the social norms approach to address health and various behaviors among young adults.

In the book Promoting Behavioral Health and Reducing Risk among College Students: A Comprehensive Approach (Routledge, 2018), Perkins and Perkins authored a chapter titled “Using the Social Norms Approach to Promote Health and Reduce Risk among College Students.” The chapter describes the theoretical underpinnings, supporting evidence and practical applications of the social norms approach to addressing problem behavior among young adults in higher education contexts. Challenges and lessons learned based on 30 years of research and intervention implementation in college settings as well as current cutting-edge questions about the approach are also identified in the chapter.

“The goal of this chapter is to present the reader with extensive research evidence in support of using the social norms approach to address a variety of challenges among college student populations. Higher education leaders, administrators and health promotion practitioners can use this information as a foundation for building a strong commitment to applying the social norms approach in their organization, institution or practice,” says Perkins.

“The social norms approach starts on 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,” explains Perkins. “When I say norms, I mean those behaviors and attitudes that are most common in the group. 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.”

Perkins and Perkins also worked with Craig to author an article “Misperceived Norms and Personal Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Fruit and Vegetable Intake among Students in the United States” which appeared in Appetite volume 129 in October 2018. The research article applies the social norms model to adolescent food and beverage consumption with data collected in 13 middle and high schools across six regionally diverse states. Research concluded that students tend to overestimate peer consumption of sugar sweetened beverages and underestimate peer consumption of fruits and vegetables. These unhealthy misperceptions existed across all student categories and grade cohorts, which may contribute to unhealthy personal dietary patterns that are found to occur among adolescents, suggesting a social norms intervention to reduce misperceptions may be beneficial.

“The social norms approach says let’s find out what the real norms are,” says Perkins. “Let’s collect data and information in anonymous surveys that will convey what the real truth is. When we interact with young people giving them the information about what the true norms are, we begin to erode their misperceptions.”