Tuesday, January 25, 2005
The Daily Sentinel

Frightening students away from alcohol or tobacco or even into buckling their seat belts might drive some toward the choices they’re intended to discourage, a Montana researcher said Monday.

Dr. Jeff Linkenbach, director of Montana State University’s “MOST of Us” programs, told school administrators, police and other officials that there is another approach — one stressing that most people make sound decisions.

Efforts to discourage underage drinking in Mesa County already have been taken into account some of Linkenbach’s findings, said members of the task force. More efforts eventually will be geared to a positive approach, members said.

Describing himself as a “recovering health terrorist,” Linkenbach said he ran traditional programs warning young people about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, but found he wasn’t achieving the results he wanted.

Studies of such programs suggested that shock approaches don’t work and might have a “boomerang effect,” he said. “It’s better to do nothing than blast people with fear-based approaches.”

Student surveys in Montana suggest that most students avoid alcohol and that they know their friends do the same, he said. In looking at larger groups, however, students reported they believed most people did drink, leading them to misunderstand the norm.

Those “dark, dim, distorted views” can drive the promotion of healthy behaviors in the wrong direction, he said.

Stressing the idea that most people make good decisions, however, seems to pay dividends, he said.

“The science of the positive seems to be the spark,” he said.

That approach played out in Montana with campaigns stressing that “four out of five don’t drink and drive” and similar messages aimed at bringing people’s perceptions more into line with reality, he said.

At the same time, he noted, people still need to be reminded of the dangers of abusing alcohol and other drugs, but campaigns shouldn’t destroy any sense of hope.

Local efforts to change the perceptions of social norms remain important especially in the face of large, media-driven perceptions about alcohol, sexual activity and the like, he said.

“Local efforts trump national ones,” he said. “You can make a difference with a local, public conversation.”

Students at Central High School and East Middle School will be drafting their own campaigns along the lines of the “MOST of Us” campaign as they look at survey data showing conclusions similar to those drawn from Montana students, said Judy Jepson of School District 51.

Similar efforts already are under way at Mesa State College.

The underage-drinking task force also eventually will follow suit, said Ruth Michels of the task force.

The task-force campaign most recently has been geared to discourage adults from providing alcohol to minors, so it has shown police approaching a door where a mother is waiting, as well as courtroom scenes depicting the aftermath of providing alcohol illegally.

Linkenbach’s social-norming approach is described in greater detail at www.mostofus.org.