The Kansas Health Foundation is funding Project Wellness for four and a half years to conduct a social norms media campaign on the Kansas State University main campus. The social norms approach to reduce heavy drinking and its associated harm on college campuses has been used successfully at several universities across the nation. For example, Northern Illinois University has seen a 44-percent decrease in heavy drinking on its campus over 9 years, the University of Arizona had a 28-percent decrease over 3 years, and the University of Missouri saw a 16-percent decrease after one year.
How this media campaign works
Social norms, whether accurately or misperceived, are potent shapers of human behavior. Regarding alcohol use during college years, students tend to overestimate the percent of their peers who are heavy drinkers and underestimate the percent who are moderate drinkers. If students perceive that heavy drinking and drunken behavior are more common and acceptable than they actually are, then they will tend toward this kind of behavior. Conversely, if students become aware of the actual degree of moderate and safer drinking practices of their peers, then they will tend toward more moderate, safer alcohol use. Practicing the latter behavior, the norm, is beneficial. For example, compared to heavy drinkers, moderate drinkers are more likely to have more positive social relationships, achieve better grades, and ensure their physical safety when partying.
Therefore, the purpose of the ads is to inform K-State students about the ACTUAL drinking behavior of the KSU student body through clear and consistent messages, so their behavior is based on fact and not inaccurate perceptions. The typical K-State student drinks moderately if he or she drinks at all, and knows how to protect him- or herself from alcohol-related harm.
Where Project Wellness gets the facts used in the ads
KSU students themselves are the source of the information in the ads. During the 1999 Spring semester, the Project Wellness staff administered an anonymous and voluntary survey in classrooms to a sample of 1,297 KSU students. The sample was proportionately representative of the student body with respect to gender, year in school, college, age, and GPA. The sample included students who live in residence halls, apartments or houses, and fraternities and sororities. In the survey, students were asked to respond to questions about their own drinking behaviors and about what they believe to be the drinking behaviors of most KSU students. In our ads, we are simply providing the information obtained in the survey. The survey will be repeated each Spring semester during the four-and-a-half year grant project.
What the survey reveals about drinking norms at KSU
The 1999 survey reveals a discrepancy between what students report about their own drinking behavior and what they perceive to be the norm. The results are interesting. For example, 61% of KSU students report that they actually have 5 or fewer drinks when they party. However, only 31% of them believe that most other KSU students have 5 or fewer drinks when they party. The amount of alcohol students report they actually drink is considerably lower than the amount they believe most KSU students are drinking. Also, when asked, "How many nights do you usually party?," most students (54%) report they party 0 or 1 nights per week, whereas they believe that most KSU students are partying 3 or 4 nights per week. Thus, the majority of students report that they party considerably less frequently than what they believe is the norm at K-State. These results indicate that most Kansas State students drink moderately, if at all.
Furthermore, the K-State survey findings are remarkably similar to those of other universities and colleges implementing social norms programs on their campuses, among them, Michigan State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Iowa, Dartmouth College, and the University of North Carolina.
Most K-State students have safe and healthy drinking behaviors. This is good news! Kansas State students are basically a healthy population who have the ability to make good choices and avoid harm when it comes to alcohol use.
Perkins, H.W. (1997). College student misperceptions of alcohol and other drug norms among peers: Exploring causes, consequences, and implications for prevention programs. In Designing Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Programs in Higher Education: Bringing Theory into Practice (pp. 177-206). Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.
Haines, M.P. (1998). Social norms a wellness model for health promotion in higher education. Wellness Management: Newsletter of the National Wellness Association, 14 (4, Winter).
1999 Kansas State University Student Alcohol Survey
Northern Illinois University Health Enhancement Services