Perception is the Strongest Predictor of Alcohol Consumption on College Campuses

DEKALB, Ill., A study of more than 76,000 students attending 130 colleges and universities, published in the current issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, confirms that most college students overestimate peer drinking. The study says these misperceptions have the strongest impact on personal alcohol consumption and associated negative consequences. It further finds that students exposed to school prevention programs decreasing misperceptions of peer norms exhibit significantly less high-risk drinking and consequences.

Michael Haines, M.S., Director of the National Social Norms Resource Center and a co-author of the study, says, “Reinforcing students’ attitudinal and behavioral norms of health and safety is the foundation of the social norms approach, which has been used successfully on numerous campuses to dispel the harmful misperception students have that the majority of their peers drink to excess. By communicating accurate information about students’ norms, schools can simultaneously celebrate the health of their students and cause it to grow.”

The study was undertaken to determine the extent of misperceptions among students about peer drinking and to examine whether more accurate perceptions correlate with reduced alcohol-related risk.

Research showed more than 70 percent of students overestimate the drinking norms at their school regardless of actual consumption statistics. For example, at schools where abstinence was the norm, only 21 percent of students accurately perceived that the typical student at their school did not drink. By contrast, almost three out of five (60 percent) thought it was most common for their peers to consume three or more drinks. Further, at schools where the norm was four drinks when a student partied/socialized, 37 percent overestimated the norm by one or two drinks and an additional 34 percent overestimated by three or more. Even at the single school with the highest norm, perception far outpaced reality, with 61 percent overestimating the norm.

Additional analysis showed students’ perception of their campus drinking norm is by far the strongest predictor of the amount of personal alcohol consumption – stronger even than gender and the actual campus drinking norm. Each one-drink increase in a student’s perception of the campus norm predicted almost a one-half drink increase in personal consumption. In comparison, a one-drink increase in the actual school norm predicted only a 1/3 drink increase in personal consumption.

Perhaps most importantly, data revealed that the odds of engaging in risky consumption or experiencing a negative consequence are significantly higher among students at schools where program information does not change perception compared with schools that do. Respondents in the former group were more than 1/3 as likely to have an estimated peak blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher and 1 1/3 more likely to experience a negative consequence compared with students at schools in the latter group. Negative consequences include physical injury to self or others, fighting, forgetting where one was or what one said, or having unprotected sex.

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