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Experimental Test of Social Norms Theory in a Real-World Drinking Environment
Mark B. Johnson
Objective: Social norms theory articulates that behavior is influenced by perceptions of behavioral norms. Social norms interventions attempt to modify perceptions of what behavior is normative as a means of influencing actual behavior. Social norms interventions have been widely used on college campuses to reduce the level of student drinking. The effectiveness of these interventions has been mixed. A social norms program might fail because the intervention operations failed to sufficiently implement social norms theory in the real world or because of the theory's limitations. Our research involves an experimental examination of the impact of social norms information on actual drinking behavior within a real-world drinking environment. Method: Nearly 3,000 participants were interviewed and randomly assigned to one of nine social norms feedback conditions before heading to bars and nightclubs in Tijuana, Mexico. These same participants were resampled, interviewed again, and subjected to breath alcohol analysis when they returned to the United States. Results: We found that persons whose perceptions of normative drinking changed (became more accurate) during their visit to Tijuana consumed relatively less alcohol. We also found that providing participants with social norms feedback produced more accurate perceived norms. However, the effect sizes were too small to produce statistically significant results showing that social norms feedback could effectively reduce drinking via changing normative perceptions. Conclusions: Our research demonstrated that providing social norms feedback changed perceived drinking norms and that changes in perceived norms were correlated with reduced drinking. Effect sizes, however, were quite small. (J. Stud. Alcohol Drugs, 73, 851–859, 2012)