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Social norms are people's beliefs about the attitudes and behaviors that are normal, acceptable, or even expected in a particular social context. In many situations, people's perception of these norms will greatly influence their behavior.

Therefore, when people misperceive the norms of their group-that is, when they inaccurately think an attitude or behavior is more (or less) common than is actually the case-they may choose to engage in behaviors that are in sync with those false norms. For example, many studies have shown that high school and college students overestimate how much their peers drink. Prevention experts have argued that this misperception of the norm drives greater alcohol consumption.

Specifically, research has found that high school students overestimate actual drinking behavior and attitudes supportive of alcohol use and underestimate healthy behaviors and attitudes among their peers. This finding suggests that alcohol prevention efforts should include a component designed to correct student misperceptions about their peers' drinking and attitudes.

One method frequently used to correct misperceptions is "social marketing," a method of using mass marketing techniques to disseminate information. When colleges conduct marketing campaigns to correct misperceptions of social norms, these campaigns are referred to as "social norms marketing" campaigns.

A growing body of evidence from college campuses suggests that social norms marketing campaigns are associated with decreased drinking and related consequences among college students. Preliminary evidence from high school settings confirms that these approaches may also be effective at the secondary school level.

The SNAPPY Project is a three-year project designed to gather more information about the feasibility and effectiveness of social norms marketing at the high school level. SNAPPY involves annual administration of an anonymous alcohol survey at two high schools. Using the survey data, SNAPPY staff will use a social norms marketing campaign to disseminate accurate information about drinking and attitudes to the students at one of the high schools. Follow-up survey results from the high school that received the campaign will be compared to the school without the campaign. Near the end of the three-year period, the comparison school will receive their own campaign.

For links to more information and examples of social norms marketing campaigns, see Social Norms Links.

Social Norms Alcohol Problem Prevention for Youth
is a project of Health and Human Development Programs, a division of EDC.

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Last Update: 12 March 2003