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Misperceiving the College Drinking Norm and Related Problems: A Nationwide Study of Exposure to Prevention Information, Perceived Norms and Student Alcohol Misuse

H. Wesley Perkins, Michael P. Haines, Richard Rice

Objective: This study examined (1) the prevalence of misperceptions of college student drinking norms across campuses nationwide, (2) the importance of perceived norms in predicting high-risk drinking, (3) the association of exposure to alcohol education information with studentsí perceptions of campus drinking norms and (4) the differences in high-risk drinking rates between schools where exposure to alcohol information is associated with more accurately perceived norms and schools where exposure to information is unrelated to perceptions or is associated with greater misperceptions. Method: Multivariate analyses were used to analyze an aggregate database of the National College Health Assessment survey administered to 76,145 students from 130 colleges and universities nationwide from spring 2000 through spring 2003. Results: Regardless of the actual campus drinking norm, a consistently large percentage of students nationwide overestimated the quantity of alcohol consumed by their peers. Studentsí perception of their campus drinking norm was the strongest predictor of the amount of alcohol personally consumed in comparison with the influence of all demographic variables. Perception of the norm was also a much stronger predictor when compared with the actual campus norm. Reduced levels of high-risk drinking and negative consequences were found among students attending the relatively few schools where exposure to prevention information was associated with less exaggerated perceptions of the drinking norm compared with students attending other schools. Conclusions: Misperceived drinking norms are a pervasive problem. Schools that do not seek to reduce these misperceptions with their prevention information are neglecting a potentially powerful component of prevention. (J. Stud. Alcohol 66: 470-478, 2005)