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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.

In his review of the conceptual and empirical studies on the role of social norms in college student alcohol use and prevention strategies to counter misuse, Perkins has noted (Perkins, 2002) the classic statements in sociology regarding how fundamental norms are to the understanding of the social order as well as to variation in human behavior (Campbell, 1964; Durkheim, 1951). In addition, he notes that social psychologists have "long argued that people tend to adopt group attitudes and act in accordance with group expectations and bevaviors based on affiliation needs and social comparison processes (Festinger, 1954), social pressure toward group conformity (Asch, 1951, 1952), and the formation and acquisition of reference group norms (Newcomb, 1943; Newcomb and Wilson, 1966; Sherif, 1936, 1972)."

The specific application of what has come to be called social norms theory was first suggested by Perkins and Berkowitz in 1986. Perkins has reviewed the state of social norms theory (Perkins, 2003; Perkins, 2014).

The findings from their college-based study 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 quantity 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, they suggested, might reduce heavy drinking and related harm (Perkins and Berkowitz, 1986).

The theoretical implications of these finding were further elaborated by these researchers (Berkowitz and Perkins, 1987; Perkins, 1997) in subsequent articles.


Asch, S.E. Effects of group pressure on the modification and distortion of judgements. In: Guetzkow, H. (Ed.) Groups, Leadership and Men: Research in Human Relations. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press, 1951.

Asch, S.E. Social Psychology. Upper Saddle River, HJ: Prentice Hall, 1952.

Berkowitz, A.D. and Perkins, H.W. Current issues in effective alcohol education programming. In: Sherwood, J.S. (Ed.) Alcohol Policies and Practices on College and University Campuses. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 1987.

Campbell, E.Q. The internalization of norms. Sociometry 27:391-412, 1964.

Durkheim, E. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York: Free Press, 1951.

Festinger, L. A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7:117-140, 1954.

Newcomb, T.M. Personality and Social Change: Attitude Formation in a Student Community. New York: Dryden Press, 1943.

Newcomb, T.M. and Wilson, E.K. College Peer Groups: Problems and Prospects for Research. Chicago, IL: Aldine, 1966.

Perkins, H.W. Misperception is Reality: The "Reign of Error" About Peer Risk Behaviour Norms Among Youth and Young Adults. In Xenitidou, M. and B. Edmonds. (Eds.) The Complexity of Social Norms, Computational Social Sciences. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, pp. 11-36, 2014.

Perkins, H.W. (Editor). The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2003.

Perkins, H.W. Social norms and the prevention of alcohol misuse in collegiate contexts.
Journal of Studies on Alcohol/Supplement No. 14, 2002.

Perkins, H. W. College student misperceptions of alcohol and other drug norms among peers: Exploring causes, consequences and implications for prevention programs. Designing Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Programs in Higher Education: Bringing Theory Into Practice. Boston, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, U.S. Department of Education, 177-206, 1997.

Perkins, H.W. and Berkowitz, A.D. 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, 1986.

Sherif, M. The Psychology of Social Norms. New York: Harper Collins, 1936.

Sherif, M. Experiments on norm formation. In: Hollander, E.P. and Hunt, R.G. (Eds.) Classic Contributions to Sicial Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.