Social Norms National Research & Resources

Social Norms: An Introduction

In April 2002, when the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) issued its Task Force Report on College Drinking, the NIAAA Panel on Prevention and Treatment noted that "several institutions that persistently communicated accurate norms have experienced reductions of up to 20 percent in high-risk drinking over a relatively short period of time. Together these findings provide strong support for the potential impact of the social norms approach."1 This is an impressive recommendation for those of you who may be grappling with the issue of student drinking on your campus. But just what is the social norms approach, and what should you know about it?

First, a bit of history. Until recently, the predominant approach in the field of health promotion sought to motivate behavior change by highlighting risk. Sometimes called "the scare tactic approach" or "health terrorism," this method essentially hopes to frighten individuals into positive change by insisting on the negative consequences of certain behaviors. Think of the image of a crumpled automobile, flashing red lights, and the tag line "Speed kills!" and you will have a sense of this kind of public health campaign.

As sociologist H. Wesley Perkins has pointed out, however, this kind of traditional strategy "has not changed behavior one percent."2 In 1986, he and Alan Berkowitz published the findings from their research revealing that most students on their campus thought that the norms for both the frequency and the amount of drinking among their peers were higher than they actually were, and that students generally believed that their peers were more permissive in their personal attitudes about substance use than was in fact the case.3 Correcting such misperceptions, these researchers suggested, might reduce heavy drinking and related harm.

These findings, along with concurrent research in the field of Wellness regarding resilience— and identifying protective factors and protective behaviors—revolutionized the field of health promotion and spearheaded the development of the approach now widely known as social norms. For many years, prevention efforts had focused almost exclusively on the problems and deficits of particular populations. The work emerging from those employing the social norms approach, however, began to demonstrate the effectiveness of promoting the attitudinal and behavioral solutions and assets that are the actual norms in a given population.

Essentially, the social norms approach uses a variety of methods to correct negative misperceptions (usually overestimations of use), and to identify, model, and promote the healthy, protective behaviors that are the actual norm in a given population. When properly conducted, it is an evidence-based, data-driven process, and a very cost-effective method of achieving large-scale positive results.

Finally, although most of the positive results documented in the literature to date have used social norms to address alcohol, a number of universities, high schools, communities, and organizations are using this approach to address other issues as well, such as tobacco prevention, seat-belt use, sexual assault prevention, and academic performance.

Responses to some of the most frequently asked questions about the social norms approach can be accessed by selecting the FAQ link in the navigation bar to the left of this page.

  1. NIAAA Final Report of the Panel on Prevention and Treatment, available at:
  2. See: "A Closer Look at Alcohol" by Mark Alden Branch, Yale Alumni Magazine, May 2001. Available at:
  3. Perkins, H. W. & Berkowitz, A. D. (1986). "Perceiving the community norms of alcohol use among students: Some research implications for campus alcohol education programming." International Journal of the Addictions, 21, 961-976.

**Portions of the information presented on this page were originally prepared by Michael Haines and Richard Rice and are printed here with their permission.