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Social Norms and the Prevention of Alcohol Misuse in Collegiate Contexts

H. Wesley Perkins

Objective: This article provides a review of conceptual and empirical studies on the role of social norms in college student alcohol use and in prevention strategies to counter misuse. The normative influences of various constituencies serving as reference groups for students are examined as possible factors influencing studentsí drinking behavior. Method: A review of English language studies was conducted. Results: Parental norms have only modest impact on students once they enter college beyond the residual effects of previously instilled drinking attitudes and religious traditions. Faculty could theoretically provide a positive influence on student drinking behavior, but there is little evidence in the literature that faculty norms and expectations about avoiding alcohol misuse are effectively communicated to students. Although the norms of resident advisers (RAs) should ideally provide a restraint on student alcohol misuse, the positive influence of RAs is limited by their negotiated compromises with students whom they oversee and by their misperceptions of student norms. Research reveals student peer norms to be the strongest influence on studentsí personal drinking behavior, with the more socially integrated students typically drinking most heavily. The widespread prevalence among students of dramatic misperceptions of peer norms regarding drinking attitudes and behaviors is also a consistent finding. Permissiveness and problem behaviors among peers are overestimated, even in environments where problem drinking rates are relatively high in actuality. These misperceived norms, in turn, have a significant negative effect promoting and exacerbating problem drinking. Conclusions: Interventions to reduce these misperceptions have revealed a substantial positive effect in several pilot studies and campus experiments. (J. Stud. Alcohol, Supplement No. 14: 164- 172, 2002)