Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus: The Power of the Social Norm

While doing research for my “truth” presentation, I came across material that spoke to the power of the perceived social norm in influencing people’s behaviour. I began to look more into it and found some interesting material on the potential consequences of plusralistic ignorance and how this can be incorporated into behaviour change strategies through the medium of social marketing.
Social norms are common subjects of research studies and the research has clearly established that social norms guide action in direct and meaningful ways. During the past decade there have been numerous programs that have delivered normative information as a primary tool for changing socially significant behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, drug use, disordered eating, gambling, littering, and recycling.
Social norms are complex and studies suggest that there are two general properties people use when perceiving and communicating social norms:

1. Social norms are defined by people’s public behaviour.
2. Norms are imbued with an impression of universality: people assume that all members of a group endorse that group’s social norms.
Pluralistic ignorance is “a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private attitudes and judgments are different from those of others, even though one’s public behaviour is identical (Miller & McFarland, 1991). It develops most frequently under circumstances when there is a widespread misrepresentation of private views. In these cases, people tend to rely on the public behaviour of others to identify social norms. This leads them astray, as it is a misrepresentation of private views. People in these circumstances have three choices: to move their attitudes closer to the (perceived) social norm, to bring the norm closer to their attitudes, or to reject the norm altogether. The easiest thing for an individual to do in most cases is to change their private attitudes.
The rational for social norm marketing to combat binge drinking in universities is based on the idea that:a) the majority of individuals overestimate the prevalence of alcohol drinking among peers, b) people use their perceptions of social norms as a standard to which to compare their own behaviour. Thus, the idea is that negative health behaviours, such as binge drinking, could be reduced in prevalence through correcting the target audience’s misperceptions surrounding this behaviour.

In the 1990’s there was great hope that understanding this phenomenon and that educating students about the drinking attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours of peers could reduce binge drinking. However, although the majority of college students do overestimate the prevalence of alcohol consumption on campus (see Berkowitz, 2004, for a review), a significant proportion of them—approximately 1/5 to ½ actually overestimate peer drinking. This might cause an undesirable “boomerang” effect and cause those who were drinking less than average to begin drinking more. Similar results have been found with a study examining social norms surrounding energy consumption and those who found they were under average energy consumption began consuming more (Schultz et al., 2007).  However, combining an injunctive message of approval was able to ameliorate this boomerang effect. Although there not yet consensus on the effect of social norm marketing to reduce binge drinking among youth, studies have found positive results and it is worth further exploration.

The truth campaign has me thinking a lot about the power of social media and social norms to address health problems. I wonder if this could be incorporated into a new binge drinking reduction marketing. Kitty discussed in class how shame and disgust-based alcohol awareness ads were effective in reducing teen drinking. I wonder if there could be a campaign could be effective that gives details about the actual prevalence of binge drinking among students, the negative health consequences, and has a message of approval for those who are drinking less than this  (such as “keep it classy”).

References: Prentice, D., & Miller, D. (1993). Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(2), 243-256.
Schulz et al. (2007):

Here is another interesting post on the issue:


One response to “Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus: The Power of the Social Norm”

  1. zarc42 says :

    Sent a link to this one to my undergraduate course – we were talking about this exact issue in tutorial last week.
    – Sarah T

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