This meta-analysis provides a quantification of the extent of the discrepancy between students’ descriptions of their own drinking behaviors and attitudes towards drinking, and their perceptions of others’ drinking behaviors and attitudes. The findings confirm that most students view themselves as drinking less and being less approving of alcohol use than peer reference groups; overall, the effect size was medium, according to guidelines established by Cohen (1977)
. However, the magnitude of norm misperception is influenced by several factors related to the type of norm assessed, the students, campus and the framing of the question. First, self-other discrepancies in injunctive norms are larger than those for descriptive norms. Second, women tend to overestimate descriptive and injunctive norms to a greater extent than do men. Third, self-other discrepancies increase as the reference group becomes more distal. Fourth, specific questions tended to result in smaller SODs than more vague ones. Fifth, large campuses were found to have smaller SODs than smaller campuses. Thus, many different factors contribute to the (in)accuracy of perceived norms. The findings of this study have implications for future social norms research.
One conclusion that can be drawn from this meta-analysis is that the degree of norm misperception may be, in part, a result of how the norm is assessed. Specifically, the proximity of the reference group to the individual and the specificity of the information being obtained should both be carefully considered when assessing drinking norms. To clarify these effects, a supplemental analysis was performed comparing studies that assessed norms of distal targets using a non-specific question (conditions that should result in greater SODs) versus studies that assessed norms of proximal targets using specific questions (conditions that should result in smaller SODs). Indeed, the fourteen SODs derived from distal targets with non-specific questions were significantly larger (mean ZFisher = .441) than the fourteen SODs derived from proximal targets with specific questions (mean ZFisher = .285; Z = 3.544, p = .0002). Thus, using non-specific questions with distal reference groups will result in larger self-other differences than using specific questions with proximal reference groups. Researchers should carefully select their reference groups and assess specific behaviors and attitudes in order to gather information relevant to the students that are trying to influence. Such efforts will reduce inflated SODs that may be a result of challenging questions rather than a genuine misperception of norms.
These assessment considerations aside, perhaps the most important aspect of norm (mis)perception is its relevance for behavior and attitude change. To date, the inclusion of norm education in interventions aimed at reducing college drinking has had promising results. Interventions that attempted to change descriptive norms have reported significant reductions in norm perception (Barnett et al., 1996
; Borsari and Carey, 2000
; Haines and Spear, 1996
; Steffian, 1999
; Walters, 2000
; Walters et al., 2000
); furthermore, self-reported alcohol use decreased following most of these interventions. Therefore, descriptive norm education, administered in a variety of formats, appears to be an effective method of changing student perceptions of others’ drinking. It is unclear whether similar changes occur with injunctive norms; only two interventions have been published. One large scale study found that four weeks after receiving norm education, both dormitory residents and Greek members reported decreases in the perceived approval of alcohol use of close friends and the typical student (Barnett et al., 1996
). In contrast, Schroeder and Prentice (1998)
did not detect any group differences in norm perception at a longer (4–6 month) follow-up. These studies indicate that correcting misperceived norms may have some influence on behavior; however, precisely how this may occur is unclear. Therefore, this meta-analytic integration offers some guidance to future interventions using descriptive and injunctive norms.
First, although the magnitude of SODs increases as the reference group becomes more distal, it is possible that the relevance of the reference group decreases as well. Information relating what the “typical student” does may be easier for the student to dismiss than the norms of a more relevant group, such as best friends or fellow Greek members. Thus, it is possible that norms from groups that are more proximal, and presumably more relevant to the student will be more likely to result in behavior change than the norms from less relevant groups. Evidence supporting this hypothesis comes from research indicating that local norms play more powerful role in self-evaluation than global norms (Prentice and Miller, 1994). Indeed, everyone is not weighted equally when creating norms. Instead, personal behaviors and attitudes will be influenced most by individuals that “are highly similar to the self, share an important category membership with the self, are reference others [whose behaviors and attitudes are valued], and place the self in a positive light” (Miller and Prentice, 1996
, p. 813). For example, Agostinelli and colleagues (in press)
have suggested that increases in the problem recognition in personal alcohol use may occur when college students evaluate the drinking habits of immediate peer groups instead of more distal individuals. Therefore, social norms interventions may better serve students by focusing on the drinking of more proximal, relevant groups (e.g., male freshmen). Although the self-other discrepancies may be smaller, the information may be impactful. These are empirical questions that await formal testing.
Second, the gender of the recipients of norm interventions deserves further consideration. The results of this meta-analysis suggest that women endorse greater SODs than men. However, previous research suggests that women are more resistant than men to changing their misperceptions. For example, Prentice and Miller (1993)
found that, at 8 week follow-up, men had reduced their self-other discrepancies, but women showed no such change. Schroeder and Prentice (1998)
replicated these results, observing that women maintained their injunctive norm discrepancy over time. An untested hypothesis proposes that gender differences in the use of alcohol in socialization may have accounted for this change. Specifically, men may be more visible in the drinking environment than women: drinking groups tend to be all male or mixed genders. As a result, men assume that normative information applies to other men, and may have to reconcile their personal use with perceived norms. Although women tend to report greater SODs, they may perceive norms to be more descriptive of men’s behavior than their own. Thus, generic normative feedback may have a lesser influence on women’s drinking (Read et al., 2001). The implication of this finding is that normative information may have to be gender-specific to have an effect on women’s alcohol-related behaviors and attitudes.
Third, the size of the campus may also influence the effects of social norms campaigns on behavior. The finding that the larger the campus, the smaller the SODs reported by students was counter-intuitive; however, this may have been a function of the way students estimate the descriptive and injunctive norms. Students on small campuses may consider their friends as representative of the campus in general. Therefore, these students would have a vested interest in estimating that others on campus drink more and are more approving of alcohol use than they. To think otherwise would imply that they were among the heaviest drinkers on campus, a realization that would make many students uncomfortable. Therefore, there is a distinct advantage of misperceiving norms on smaller campuses. On larger campuses, however, students may realize that they don’t personally know most of the other students. As a result, the behaviors of the other students may not be seen as relevant, or even knowable. Estimating the behaviors and attitudes of a large campus may be a much more difficult task. As a result, when making their estimates, students on larger campuses may rely more on their personal behaviors and attitudes and those of their friends as a point of reference. Both the decreased relevance of others’ behaviors and attitudes and the difficulty of making norm estimates may result in the lower SODs on large campuses. If this is the case, then norms campaigns may be more effective on smaller campuses because the impact of learning that “most of the students on this small campus drink this way” may be more influential.
Finally, the intention of the social norms approach is to convey that the actual levels of alcohol use and attitudes towards drinking on campus are more moderate that most students suppose (Perkins, 2002
). This information challenges students’ personal beliefs and behaviors that heavy drinking is prevalent and acceptable, and “as students begin to adhere to more accurately perceived norms that are relatively more moderate, the actual norms become even more moderate as the process of misperception leading to misuse is reversed” (Perkins, 2002
, p. 169). However, given the limitations of the evaluation research conducted thus far, it is difficult to ascertain what is responsible for observed campus-wide reductions in drinking following a norms intervention (e.g., Haines and Spear 1996
). Such reductions may be a reflection of actual behavior and/or attitude change or a norm-driven response bias. Being educated on accurate drinking norms on campus may make students wary of reporting their own use as exceeding those norms. Therefore, it is important to establish the relationship between SODs and personal alcohol use to determine precisely how these interventions have influenced behavior.
These questions reflect the paradox that faces researchers as they attempt to develop social norms messages that can be effective and influence the greatest number of students. Dissemination of accurate normative information to correct large SODs may encourage individuals to change personal approval of alcohol use and/or drinking behaviors. Such a monotonic relationship between the size of SODs and behavior/attitude change would recommend the use of injunctive norms, distal reference groups, and non-specific questions as the most effective ways to provoke the largest SODs that would prompt self-evaluation in students. However, it is unclear that normative information addressing these SODs would be effective; to the contrary, it may be relatively easy for the student to dismiss. In particular, the relevance of the reference group being conveyed also must be considered: Information about peer groups of little importance to the individual may not bring about much re-evaluation of one’s drinking. This presents a problem, as smaller SODs exist among the reference groups that are likely to be the most proximal (and likely more relevant) to the student. Therefore, future research needs to address the relationship between SODs and perceived relevance of the normative comparison in order to develop the most effective means of communicating to the students the notion that others don’t drink as much as they originally supposed.
Some limitations of this meta-analytic integration should be noted. First, norm type and Greek membership were confounded, making it difficult to determine the respective influence of these two variables on SODs. Second, the interrater reliabilities for the proximity of the reference group and question specificity, while acceptable, were not perfect. The challenge deriving proximity ratings from the literature suggests that future research using SODs should make explicit their assumptions about the proximity of reference groups. Third, because we used group means to calculate SODs, we were unable to test the relationship among the predictors, SODs, and personal alcohol use. As a result, we cannot test the question of whether the relationship between SODs and alcohol use is equally strong at all levels of potential predictors. Prior research has shown that the SOD-consumption relationship is robust, even when all the factors that might affect the size of the SOD (our predictors) are left to vary. Therefore, a systematic evaluation of these potential moderating relationships is the logical next step for research in this field.
In sum, a variety of factors influence the perception of self-other discrepancies in drinking behavior and alcohol-related attitudes. The social norms approach is a promising prevention strategy because it is based on actual data about alcohol-related attitudes and drinking behaviors on campus. That said, the results from this meta-analysis reveal that the respondent gender, type of norm assessed, reference group, question specificity, and campus size all influence the size of the SOD. Social norms correction efforts should consider factors related to the assessment methods, person variables, and the campus context to maximize their effectiveness.