The New Republic
April 14, 2003
BYLINE: Cass R. Sunstein
The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians

“A sociologist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, H. Wesley Perkins has pioneered the “social norms approach,” which is motivated by a belief that alcohol and drug abuse are serious problems on college campuses, and by a great deal of skepticism about current efforts to address these problems. A recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health, for example, finds that no fewer than 44 percent of college students engaged in binge drinking in the two-week period preceding the survey. (Binge drinking is defined as five drinks or more in a row for men and four or more in a row for women.) On campus, binge drinking is in turn associated with serious problems, including physical injury, trouble with the police, and unprotected or unplanned sexual activity. Perkins urges that efforts at rehabilitation “are labor-intensive and expensive” and “do not reduce the overall prevalence of the problem among high-risk youth.” Educational efforts, emphasizing health risks, have not been shown to have much effect, especially among young people, who do not care greatly about possible long-term dangers, dismissing their own chance of facing serious harm. Some schools have tried the comic and clueless-sounding strategy of “alternative social events,” but these are costly and have not been shown to work. Punitive approaches have had some good results among adolescents, but they have been less successful for college students.”

“The ‘social norms approach’ is intended as a substitute for these failed methods. Perkins’s opening claim is simple. It is that students are likely to overestimate, by a significant margin, the level of substance abuse among their peers. More particularly, Perkins shows that at a wide range of institutions students think that “the norm for the frequency and amount of drinking among peers was much higher than the actual norm or average level of consumption.” In addition, students believed that “their peers were much more permissive in personal attitude about substance abuse than was the true pattern of attitudes.” This pattern was found at such diverse places as Princeton University, the University of Virginia, the University of Washington, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Northern Illinois University–and at every one of the hundred institutions that participated in a nationwide study. Importantly, the pattern of overestimation can be found even in places where the level of substance abuse is high. Wherever you look, students exaggerate the level of substance abuse, and they think that their peers are more willing to approve of such abuse than they actually are.”…

“Montana has adopted an aggressive ‘MOST of Us’ educational campaign, emphasizing that 70 percent of Montana teens do not smoke. The campaign is reported to have produced a substantial decrease (41 percent) in the number of teens who begin smoking. Alan Berkowitz, a contributor to this volume, suggests that male students greatly overestimate the extent to which other male students are comfortable with forced sex and with behavior that objectifies or degrades women. He contends that if male students had an accurate understanding of what other male students thought, sexual assault on campus would be significantly reduced.”