Friends have greater sway on college students' beliefs on drinking behavior

College students' friends have a greater influence on the students' drinking behavior or beliefs about campus drinking than social norms campaigns, according to a Penn State study.

Social norms campaigns are based on the rationale that binge drinkers will be more likely to reduce their drinking if they believe other students on campus drink less than they themselves do. Across the nation, university health educators have coordinated such campaigns based on the rationale that students will drink less alcohol if they think most other students on campus are not heavy or binge drinkers.

Binge drinking behavior is defined as having five drinks in one sitting for men and four for women. It has been estimated nationally that two of every five college students between ages 18 and 24 engage in this behavior, threatening the health of the campus community.

A survey of 277 college students at a northeastern university found that nearly 73 percent did not believe the norms message that most students drink "0-4" drinks when they party. Of that group, nearly 53 percent reported they typically drank five or more drinks at one sitting. To illustrate the influence of social networks, 96 percent of the 5-plus-drink group said their friends drank a similar amount and believed that "other students" on campus drank a similar amount.

"Disbelief in the campaign message may have resulted from the behavior observed by students among their friends and acquaintances, which contrasted with the 0-4 message," says co-author Dr. Ann Major, professor of communications and director of the Jimirro Center for the Study of Media Influence at Penn State. "Also, some students may discount social norms campaigns as an attempt by university administrators to control their behavior."

Lindsey Polonec, graduate student in communications, Dr. Major and L. Erwin Atwood, research associate at the Jimirro Center, all at Penn State, are authors of the article "Evaluating the Believability and Effectiveness of the Social Norms Message" in the current issue of journal Health Communication.

Of the students who drink 0-4 drinks, 42 percent said they believed "most other students" drink the same amount and 58 percent said "most other" students drank five or more, according to the study.

The study also examined the bias in students' beliefs about drinking behavior, behavior change, the negative consequences and perceived risks of alcohol use.

The social norms campaign was effective in motivating 61 percent of the students in the survey to think about binge drinking as a problem. However, the findings clarify that even if students accurately estimate the average number of drinks of students on their campus, this information does not reduce or increase their own drinking.

"Women were the largest group of students who did think about the binge-drinking problem and expressed concern about getting into trouble with police and more likely to believe in the effectiveness of the social norms information campaigns," said the researchers. "But it may be likely that men have greater social acceptance of heavy drinking and affiliated behaviors."

"The study emphasizes the complex and social nature of human interaction," Major says. "Social norms messages proved to be ineffective among target hard-core drinkers because they have little concern for what others think and do.

"Educators may need to consider multiple approaches to alcohol education with messages that are designed to target the specific needs of student groups and to acknowledge the power of their social networks," she added.

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Support for the research was provided by Penn State's College of Communications and the Jimirro Center for the Study of Media Influence at Penn State.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt