September 4, 2003

Harvard Study: They'll Drink No Matter What

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“Most Cornell students drink moderately or not at all,” proclaim ubiquitous signs throughout the Cornell campus. According to a Harvard researcher, however, social norms campaigns to curb excessive student drinking, like the one employed at Cornell, fail to have any positive effect on students’ drinking habits. In some cases, such campaigns appear to increase drinking.

The study was conducted by Henry Weschsler, the Director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. It is the first detailed study of the effectiveness of social norms campaigns. Dr. Weschsler was unavailable for comment for this article.

Social norms campaigns seek to highlight positive behavioral trends in a community such as a college in an attempt, in the case of college drinking, to reduce the perception that one must drink heavily to succeed socially at school.

“Social norms theory is based on the finding that many college students overestimate the level of drinking at their schools. By contrast, our research suggests that most Cornell students have a fairly accurate perception of how much drinking is going on here,” said Timothy Marchell ’82, Director of Alcohol Policy Initiatives at Gannett: Cornell University Health Services.

In the study, which was published this summer in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Dr. Weschsler discussed reasons for the ineffectiveness of the social norms approach in the schools he studied. He concluded that a major factor was that the social norms approach was designed at a small school with little diversity but was being employed now at “large public institutions with diverse student populations.”

The study goes on to say that at these schools, “