Letter to the Editor 4-6-18

By Professor H. Wesley Perkins

Department of Sociology

I write in response to Phoebe MacCurrach’s March 2, 2018 Herald article titled “HWS Social Norms and Just Facts.”  Ms. MacCurrach is not happy about the 20% of students who engage in unintended sexual activity as a result of drinking during the academic year, the 27% who are not offended by sexist comments, and the 21% who do not use a designated non-drinking driver.” Neither am I, nor are others who work in the field of health promotion and risk prevention, nor most people who simply care about themselves and others. I applaud her concern about these potentially harmful behaviors.  I wish she had taken the simple step and a few minutes of her time, however, to speak with me or my colleague, David Craig, about our Just Facts information (we routinely invite students to do so and our doors are open) before launching her apparently uninformed critique of our work.

Yes, we often report the basic facts about students in terms of what the majority of students do and believe (80% never engage in unintended sexual activity as a result of drinking, 79% use a designated driver, etc.).   The crucial issue is why do we do so rather than concentrate on the problem behavior statistic.  Are we trying to sugar coat the problems?  Of course not.  The problem behaviors are a very serious concern not to be ignored, but the positive norms are an important key to addressing the problem effectively.  The approach is very simple and straightforward:

1) Human behavior is largely influenced by social norms—what the majority of peers believe to be acceptable and how the majority actually behave.  For better or worse, we are largely herd animals looking to the group for some direction in what we value and what we do in our social lives.  A long history of social science has demonstrated this claim without question.

2) However, what more than three decades of research begun at HWS on social norms and risk behaviors now shows with amazing consistency is that students, and people in general, often grossly misperceive their peers’ norms.  They most often believe that risky or problem behavior is much more prevalent than it actually is and often erroneously believe it is the norm.  Likewise, they underestimate the prevalence of protective attitudes and positive behaviors erroneously believing these attitudes and actions are not typical of peers.  Our research on this point has now been thoroughly documented in scores of our studies and in extensive research by others subsequently exploring this phenomenon in secondary schools and university settings throughout the US and internationally.

3) Why is this important?  Because we have also demonstrated in many published studies that people conform more strongly to what they erroneously think is the norm than to the actual norm that often is not recognized as such.  Someone who engages in a problem behavior frequently continues to do so when they mistakenly think most others approve of the behavior and believe most others do it frequently as well.  Those who are ambivalent about the risky behavior may go along with it occasionally because they think “everyone else is doing it” and feel pressured to do so.  And although those who have the strongest opinions opposing the behavior may not engage in it even when they erroneously think most others do, they will most likely remain silent as bystanders when they think few others support their desires and concern for protective behaviors.

4)  Scores of published studies have now shown that when the actual norms—positive attitudes and behaviors of the majority—are intensively communicated to people as information campaigns based on credible, truthful data about their peers—then the problem behaviors shrink and the positive norms grow stronger.  This is not a trick or fake news.  The approach is simply letting the data-based truth about norms be seen in clear daylight and discussed in conversation.  If we are going to conform to norms, then why not let that conformity be to accurate norms instead of the problematic misperceptions?  We have clearly observed the positive effects of addressing misperceptions of HWS alcohol consumption norms over many years, for example, based not only on survey data, but also data collected in anonymous breath analysis testing, and data on alcohol-related hospital transports.  When actual norms are most widely communicated, problem rates have declined in response.

So when Ms. MacCurrach calls for publicizing problem behavior statistics rather than the larger positive norms, though this might be useful for getting funding, or to get parents or politicians more concerned about the problem,  it will not reduce the problem behavior in the population of students who are the focus of concern.  Talk about the problem will likely only exacerbate the problem as this kind of talk reinforces the misperception that many and possibly the majority of peers are doing it.  And we also know that scare tactics and finger wagging about problems do not reduce the risky behaviors that some students exhibit.

So that is why we continue to report the facts about the norms being positive because that supports most students acting responsibly more often or in continuing to always act in healthy ways that they most often desire for themselves and others. And yes, we have given special attention to student-athletes in some of our data-based messages because even though they are at higher risk for substance abuse and related problem behaviors on average, here again the majority are not the problem.  This fact needs to be continually communicated to this subpopulation that is highly visible and serves in many instances as role models of either misperceived problem behavior or accurately perceived positive norm behavior .

In short, the evidence clearly shows the benefit of communicating positive norms that are, indeed, “just facts” about the majority of students, and not distortions of the norms.  It’s a great thing to be able to simply tell the truth based on real data—something that has been lost recently in political discourse—and in so doing, reap a positive result for our community.

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