Contrary to news reports, Montana’s MOST of Us campaigns were never part of an evaluation conducted by a Harvard University researcher. The Associated Press has publicly retracted the misinformation printed in recent headlines, and an opportunity exists to further correct this misperception and set the record straight.
The Harvard study, already criticized by researchers for being seriously flawed, had nothing to do with Montana’s MOST of Us campaigns. The study claimed to evaluate college-specific social norms campaigns to reduce student alcohol use — whereas MOST of Us has expanded the application of social norms to issues and populations beyond the scope of the Harvard study. In fact not a single Montana college was surveyed.
MOST of Us is a research project at Montana State University – Bozeman’s Department of Health and Human Development funded through various federal and state agencies, as well as private foundations. Our research is based on social norms theory, which is currently being pioneered across the state by schools, communities, and government agencies. This science-based approach uncovers differences between people’s perceptions of typical attitudes and behaviors, versus what is the actual norm. Since much of our behavior is influenced by perceptions of how other’s act, correcting misperceptions can lead to positive changes in attitudes, behaviors, and greater support for laws and policies.
MOST of Us has used social norms theory in Montana to achieve statistically significant behavioral change with a variety of health issues and continues to receive strong support because it works. In a controlled study of teenagers in seven western Montana counties, an eight-month campaign measured a 41% reduction in the rate of teens beginning first-time use of tobacco as compared to teens across the rest of the state. A statewide seatbelt campaign targeting adults measured statistically significant increases in seatbelt use associated specifically with introduction of the MOST of Us message. Young adults who recognized the MOST of Us message had a lower self-reported incidence of driving while impaired during the previous month as compared to those young adults who did not recall any DUI prevention messages or those who only recalled other campaigns.
As a result of the research conducted by MOST of Us, the project received the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 2003 Public Safety Award and a NHTSA grant to train states across the nation in how to replicate Montana’s successful results. Other states and private foundations have recently contracted with MOST of Us to conduct research programs in their communities. Additionally, the American Medical Association recently contracted MOST of Us staff to incorporate social norms theory into national substance abuse programs.
At the national level, numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of social norms theory with regard to changing people’s perceptions, attitudes and behaviors. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends social norms intervention, as does the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) which lists prevention programs using social norms theory on their National Registry of Effective Prevention Programs.
The Harvard study of college alcohol programs was flawed. It did not adequately distinguish the difference between colleges who were actually conducting social norms interventions and those who were doing very different — even conflicting interventions. Because the Harvard study claimed to examine a specific application of the social norms approach, it is easy to understand how that could be misconstrued to be an evaluation of social norms theory overall and by extension, MOST of Us. However this assumption is wrong. Ironically, it demonstrates how easily misperceptions can occur, which is exactly what the social norms theory seeks to address.
Putting an end to all drunk driving, teenage smoking and other preventable losses of life must be the goal of all of us. The seriousness of improving the health and safety of all Montanans requires that we continue to research and apply the most successful combination of strategies available. Promoting effective public health policies, enforcing laws, and intervening on misperceptions of social norms will continue to be at the heart of effective public health interventions. Montana must move forward with addressing critical health issues with our eyes open and our perceptions set straight.
Jeffrey W. Linkenbach, Ed.D.
Linkenbach is a research faculty member and Director of the statewide Montana Social Norms Project based at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana and can be reached at (406) 994-3837 or by email at email@example.com or www.mostofus.org.