NEWS- Dispiriting poll: Social Norms head not dismayed

It was announced in the hallowed UVA Rotunda by a president invoking the memory of a student who died in an alcohol-related fall– a $2.5 million dollar gift from a beer company to launch a new research center at UVA, the National Social Norms Institute. Now, a new study suggests that social norms campaigns overstate their own importance.

Did Anheuser-Busch's $2.5 million just go down the drain?

According to the Penn State University study, 72.6 percent of students simply do not believe the social norms message that most students on campus drink "zero to four" drinks when they party. However, the newly installed head of the UVA-based Institute isn't panicking.

"Social norms is alive and doing quite well, specifically at UVA, and at many other universities," says Institute director Jennifer Bauerle. "It doesn't surprise us that people are wary of the information when it first comes out. If the information was already common knowledge, then it would defeat the purpose of the messages."

The study found that students do not believe social norms messages mainly because a campus norm isn't relevant to them, according to the survey of 277 Penn State students. What those students reported as more relevant is their own social group's behavior.

But some messages did produce results. For instance, the study found that if researchers talked about the serious risks of binge drinking, underage women were more likely to stop and think about them. The social norms campaign at UVA, however, has yet to include serious risk information.

"I think there's a lot of research that shows scare tactics don't work," Bauerle says.

One dire note from the study is that approximately 57 percent of surveyed students were binge drinkers, drinking "five or more" drinks in a single sitting.

The study did find one other area of success for social norms campaigns. They reportedly motivated 61 percent of respondents to think about binge drinking as a problem. That's the kind of statistic that Bauerle says justifies her belief that further study will find ways to deliver more effective campaigns.

 "One of the reasons we're creating the Institute is to see what's working and further refine our methods," she says. "We're choosing to focus on the glass half full."

"Hoo Knew" posters are part of UVA's social norms campaign