Alcohol and social norms

Alcohol Research UK recently shared the introduction to a research and development grant looking into ‘alcohol related social norm perceptions in university students: a review of effective interventions’ for change (dated August 2010).  The introduction had some interesting research quoted that supports my anecdotal experience of ‘social norms theory’.

‘Social norms theory’ was first proposed by Perkins and Berkowitz in 1986, after their investigation into student drinking behaviour appeared to demonstrate a ‘pluralistic ignorance effect’ (where everyone assesses a situation by observing what other people do, and which is a major influence on normative social behaviour) in relation to misperceptions of behavioural drinking norms. Studies conducted on American college campuses consistently demonstrate that students overestimate both the alcohol use and approval of drinking of others, thus producing elevated norms, which make excessive alcohol consumption seem common and acceptable (e.g. Borsari and Carey, 2001). The approach suggests that changing these mis-perceptions through normative feedback should lead individual students to reduce their personal levels of drinking, and social normative approaches have been increasingly applied to interventions to attempt to change undergraduate drinking behaviour. This trend developed in the United States and appears to be increasing in popularity in the United Kingdom.

Borsari, B. & Carey, K.B. (2001) Peer influences in college drinking: a review of the research. Journal of Substance Abuse, 13, 391-424

The Home Office have funded a pilot ‘Alcohol Impact’ scheme across seven Universities in England and Wales in a bid to “create a social norm of responsible alcohol consumption by students.”

If the findings are robust it would be interesting to compare the findings to other social groups and to see if the theory applies more widely within British culture.  I’m sure that it isn’t just students who overestimate both the alcohol use and approval of drinking of others!  What do you think?

83 days to go

20 thoughts on “Alcohol and social norms

  1. I agree. Since starting to drink at 17-ish I have always drunk heavily – but it was ok because almost everybody I knew was drinking in exactly the same way. Then as an expat it was the same. Everybody drank to excess and boozy lunches and dinner parties were just the norm. It’s hard adjusting to a quieter lifestyle and I sometimes feel as though I no longer fit in with any of my friends, but that’s ok. Given time, I will make new friends through my new interests and activities – hopefully there will be some non-drinkers among them.

  2. I think as drinkers we tend to surround ourselves by other drinkers socially, so it feels normal. Does make it harder when you quit! Having said that, as I moved from my work hard / party hard twenties into my thirties and parenthood, I did get the feeling that was becoming out of step with a lot of people I knew, perhaps because now they were “baby world” friends rather than party friends. Social norms can and do change tho – look at the way we feel about smoking, which has changed from the norm to socially unacceptable in the last thirty years or so, aside from changes in the law…. interesting post! xx

    1. Thanks MTM, although I worry that I’ve got a little too close to the subject and it is warping my view and making it less objective xx

      1. I dunno Paul’s comments yesterday made me wonder if I’ve catastrophised the UK’s drinking issues because it’s an issue for me. Just thinking out loud really *sigh*

      2. Ah – I see now. That was an interesting post from Paul – do you mean the “spot it, you’ve got it” thing? I just mentioned that to Primrose, have been seeing myself doing it now! Not sure this is the case here, though. There is hard evidence on issues like liver disease. x

      3. Yes that was interesting and guilty too! I was referring to how the UK isn’t in the WHO top 10 countries for alcohol consumption. I’m wondering if I’m blowing the booze issue here out of proportion? Probably best to ignore me, I’m having a moment 🙂 xx

  3. how about that terribly sad statistic from the link you gave me the other day?

    according to The Childrens’ Society, that ONE IN TEN children in the UK live in a household where a parent or carer drinks too much?

    so, no I don’t think we are obsessing about this. it’s not like having just bought new shoes and going round looking at everyone’s feet.

    we live in a boozed-up world: fact. we don’t have to partake: also fact. thank God.

    1. amended to add – don’t know where that statistic came from as having checked back to original link it actually refers to ONE MILLION CHILDREN in the UK.

      NB there are roughly 12 million children under 18 in the UK, so 1 in 10 is about right too.

      sorry – could have sworn I saw 1 in 10… I do hate inaccurate quotes! xx

      1. It is frighteningly high I know that much and my experience on a daily basis supports their numbers xx PS Childline figures estimate that three in 10 children live with at least one binge-drinking parent.

    2. Thank you Prim – it isn’t just me who feels this way then!? My job means that I see a great deal of this stuff and sometimes I think I am obsessing!

      1. just you and all the children’s charities 🙁

        thinking of my kids’ primary school – a school of 200 if it is three in 10 makes 60 kids. or nearly two classes. not obsessing. CLARITY.

      2. Makes you wonder doesn’t it – why don’t the powers that be take note? 🙁

  4. i think you are spot on and not obsessing at all. possibly the wolf sneaking in. world is awash.

  5. Just to chime in here – I have often used the term ‘social conditioning’ in reference to drinking alcohol. I really believe this is at the root of the issues with alcohol in this country. Also have to say that I am gob-smacked that the UK does not feature in the top 10 countries for alcohol consumption. Are you sure that is right??? Just joking – I know your research is spot on. Anyway – no Lucy – it is not just you!!! xxx

    1. Thanks Kim 🙂 You know when you wonder if you are going slightly bonkers with it all? Maybe it’s just me! 😉 I think with the top 10 countries it’s not that we’re not bad enough it’s that there are countries where the issue is worse xx

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