Harvard Study: Students Will Drink No Matter What

(U-WIRE) ITHACA, N.Y. 09/04/2003- “Most Cornell students drink moderately or not at all,” proclaim ubiquitous signs throughout the Cornell University campus. According to a Harvard researcher, however, social norms campaigns to curb excessive student drinking, like the one being employed at Cornell, fail to have any positive effect on students’ drinking habits. In some cases, such campaigns appear to increase drinking. The study was conducted by Henry Weschsler, Director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard University School of Public Health. It is the first detailed study of the effectiveness of social norms campaigns. Dr. Weschsler was unavailable for comment for this article. Social norms campaigns seek to highlight positive behavioral trends in a community such as a college in an attempt, in the case of college drinking, to reduce the perception that one must drink heavily to succeed socially at school. “Social norms theory is based on the finding that many college students overestimate the level of drinking at their schools. By contrast, our research suggests that most Cornell students have a fairly accurate perception of how much drinking is going on here,” says Timothy Marchell ’82, Director of Alcohol Policy Initiatives at Gannett: Cornell University Health Services. In the study, which was published this summer in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Dr. Weschsler discusses reasons for the ineffectiveness of the social norms approach in the schools he has studied. He concludes that a major factor is that the social norms approach was designed at a small school with little diversity but is being employed now at “large public institutions with diverse student populations.” The study goes on to say that at these schools, “…there may be no typical student or single common social norm… One’s estimate of drinking patterns… is governed by one’s own drinking style and individual students’ drinking behaviors align more closely to the drinking behaviors of their immediate social group rather than to the overall student population at a given school.” While Marchell acknowledges that there were important questions raised by the Harvard study, he says that he is not yet ready to abandon the social norms approach. “Because of limitations of the study design, I don’t conclude that there is no value to this approach,” Marchell said. Prof. H. Wesley Perkins of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the so-called “father of social norms” according to the Los Angeles Times, has issued a strongly worded press release criticizing the Harvard study, labeling it biased and limited in scope. Among his criticisms are that Dr. Weschsler used statistical samples that were too small in relation to the size of the schools studied and that many of the schools in the study that were determined to employ the social norms approach were not using it properly. “As my recent book makes clear, one must look at programs that intensively apply the [social norms] model with fidelity and good evaluation measures to see the positive results coming from this approach,” Perkins says in his press release. Discussions with Cornell students regarding the school’s social norms campaign reveal little of the positive results to which Perkins alluded. “We have one of those [Most Cornell students drink moderately or not at all] posters hanging above our liquor shelf. We took it from the dorm when they put them up before Slope Day,” says Kelly Thompson ’06. According to Dave Wang ’06, students are skeptical of the alcohol education programs at Cornell. “The fact that it’s an entire campaign to prevent kids from drinking takes away its credibility.”