New Study Shows Reductions in Serious Alcohol-Related Consequences Among College Students

August 07, 2008
August 11, 2008 — A new six-year study conducted at the University of Virginia has found that exposing college students to information that corrected misperceptions about campus drinking patterns resulted in dramatic reductions in alcohol-related negative consequences.

The study is reported in the July-August edition of the Journal of American College Health by Dr. James Turner, executive director of student health at U.Va.; Jennifer Bauerle, director of the National Social Norms Institute at U.Va., and H. Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Social Norms PosterAccording to the authors, the results are in direct contrast to national trends on negative consequences of drinking on campuses and offer what the authors call "cautious optimism and encouragement for those engaged in campus alcohol and drug prevention nationally."

Starting in 1999, U.Va. embarked on a social norms marketing campaign to better inform first-year students about drinking behaviors as reported in student surveys. In general, according to these surveys, students actually drink less than their peers perceive.

Social norms research has shown that students are influenced by perceptions, whether right or wrong, and tend to behave according to what they perceive to be normal.  For instance, if they perceive a negative attitude or behavior to be normal, they are more likely to engage in that behavior or adopt that attitude. Social norms marketing is an approach that communicates accurate information about the prevalence of healthy behaviors and attitudes among peers. 

Once the marketing campaign had been launched, Turner and his colleagues began surveying students who had been exposed to the campaign about 10 alcohol-related consequences, from missing class to having unprotected sex to getting in trouble with police.

Over the six years of the study, students' odds of experiencing none of 10 alcohol-related consequences nearly doubled and multiple consequences decreased by more than half for all undergraduate students.

First-year students exposed to the campaign reported a 22 percent reduction in the odds of experiencing multiple negative consequences and a 24 percent reduction in the odds of having an estimated blood alcohol content of greater than .08 the last time they partied.

The initial marketing campaign targeted U.Va.'s first-year students with highly visible monthly posters focused on protective behaviors among students.

For example, one such poster in the "Hoo Knew?" series had as its message: "86% of UVA students usually intervene to stop friends from drinking and driving."

Beginning in 2002 the campaign was expanded to include all undergraduates and not only highlighted campus alcohol consumption norms, but also provided information about protective behaviors — i.e., intervening to stop friends from drinking and driving or asking friends to slow down if they are drinking excessively. These messages were delivered through advertisements and articles in the student newspaper as well as campus
posters and Web pages.

The researchers asked both about drinking behaviors and about recollection of these marketing messages. The authors concluded that students who were reached by these messages reported lower estimated blood alcohol concentration than those they previous had in addition to significantly lower probability of experiencing alcohol-related consequences.

According to the authors, their observed findings have "profound implications for the overall improvement of health status in this student population." Based on an undergraduate population of 12,500, the researchers, comparing 2001 and 2006, estimate that

  • 1,972 fewer students were injured by alcohol-related events
  • 1,511 fewer drove under the influence of alcohol,
  • 553 fewer engaged in unprotected sex as a result of alcohol.

"Even more dramatic," they wrote, "is that nearly 2,480 more students reported 0 of 10 serious alcohol-related consequences in 2006 versus 2001." Over the six years of the study a total of 9,108 more students experienced no alcohol-related consequences, they estimated.."

These observations, the authors note, contrast sharply with national surveys of college students that report either no decrease or a slight increases in seven negative consequences between 2001 and 2005.

"We believe that the social norms marketing campaign has really had a fairly dramatic impact on the students at our university," Turner said. "As a clinician what I find so interesting about social norms marketing is that it shares many of the principles that we use in motivational counseling when we see an individual in a clinical setting. It creates a discrepancy between what the patient may be doing or believing and what is actually the norm. It presents the information in a very respectful and objective way that enable an individual to make a healthier decision."