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Social Norms: The Background

There are two different but related kinds of norms.

One type, behavioral norms (also known as descriptive norms), refers to the most common actions or behaviors actually exhibited in a social group. Thus, the behavioral norm is what most individuals of a social group actually do.

The other type, attitudinal norms (also know as injunctive norms), refers to the most widely shared beliefs or expectations in a social group about how people in general or members of the group ought to behave in various circumstances.

The study of the powerful impact that norms have on both thought and behavior is a well established area of research in the social sciences, most especially in the fields of sociology and social psychology.

The specific application of social norms theory to college drinking was first suggested by
H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D. and Alan Berkowitz, Ph.D. in 1986.

The findings from their college-based study1 revealed a consistent pattern of misperceptions held by students regarding the norms of alcohol use among their peers. Specifically, students typically thought that the norms for both the frequency and the amount of drinking among their peers were higher than they actually were, and they generally believed that their peers were more permissive in their personal attitudes about substance use than was in fact the case. Correcting such misperceptions, these researchers suggested, might reduce heavy drinking and related harm.

These findings, along with concurrent research in the field of Wellness identifying resilience and protective factors and 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.

1 H. Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz. "Perceiving the community norms of alcohol use among students: Some research implications for campus alcohol education programming." International Journal of the Addictions, 1986:21, 961-976.