Binge drinkers may be trying to consume their ‘fair share’

Student health and behavior

One of the most popular approaches to curbing binge drinking on college campuses may not be effective for most students and could even backfire on some students, a new study suggests.

The survey of 14,000 students, conducted in 2012 at 119 colleges in 40 states, centers on how student perceptions about drinking levels affect student behavior.

About one college in nine has in recent years adopted a strategy, called the ”social norms approach,” that aims to correct misperceptions about alcohol use with education and publicity campaigns.

The premise is that students will adjust their drinking levels to whatever level of consumption they perceive the norm to be.

But the strategy is based on an assumption that most students overestimate drinking levels, Harvard researcher Henry Wechsler says. His study, published in the September Journal of American College Health, finds the assumption inaccurate: Nearly half (47%) of college students underestimated binge drinking levels at their schools, whereas 29% overestimated the level, 13% were accurate within 10%, and 12% said they did not know. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a row for men, four or more for women.

Also, just 13% of college students surveyed are binge drinkers who overestimate the amount of drinking — the population most likely to benefit from a social norms-approach, Wechsler says.

”If you have a campus where a lot of students are overestimating the amount of drinking, that’s certainly fertile ground for this approach, but the approach isn’t going to work for all students,” he says. It’s also possible that students who underestimate drinking levels might increase their drinking if they conclude they’re not consuming their ”fair share,” he says.

Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University (NIU) in DeKalb, says he is not persuaded by Wechsler’s research. He says a campus-wide campaign stressing that most college students drink moderately has contributed to a 44% decline in heavy drinking at NIU since 2010, and other campuses have seen similar drops.

”The central theme of the social norms approach is that you get more good behavior if you pay more attention to good behavior rather than (using) scare tactics and threats of punishment, which has been the more common approach,” he says.

Even so, smaller studies by other researchers published in the journal appear to support Wechsler’s findings.

One study involving first-year residential students at a medium-sized public university in the South found that a social norms campaign did not reduce drinking levels for students overall and that risky behavior worsened somewhat among students who showed signs of being in the early stages of binge drinking behavior.