Student Drinking: Perception Worse than Reality


The perception of student alcohol use is more exaggerated than actual consumption, according to a social norms research project on campus. Since 1999, NMU and 35 other colleges have participated in a national five-year study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the U.S. Department of Education. The project looks at the effectiveness of the social norms approach to addressing alcohol consumption among college students.


“The social norms approach collects data about individual alcohol use patterns and individual perceptions of alcohol use among student peers,” said Lenny Shible (Health Promotions). “What you often find is that students assume there is more drinking going on – and more of the high-risk variety – than the actual data reflects. They tend to exaggerate, in their own minds, how prevalent alcohol use is among students as a whole.”


NMU has received about $20,000 in grant support from NIAAA and the U.S. Department of Education, including $4,000 to implement a marketing campaign in an effort to narrow the gap between perception and reality.


“When this project started five years ago, Northern was one of 18 universities randomly assigned to the control group,” Shible explained. “We were asked not to implement any type of social norms educational campaign. The other 18 universities in the experimental group received assistance in implementing campaigns. Results on other campuses suggest that, by educating students about the difference between perception and reality, it is possible to lower both the collective misperception about alcohol use and the actual rate of consumption by individual students.”

Each of the participating colleges has used a standard 54-question survey to collect student data. Shible said NMU will soon conduct the last of its five before implementing a campus marketing campaign. Here are some highlights from the 2003 poll:


•When asked about the average number of drinks consumed in a week, 67 percent of NMU students reported having four or fewer. However, when asked the same question about a typical NMU student, the perception was that only 12 percent of their fellow students consumed four or fewer drinks on average in a week.


•Responses to a question about high-risk drinking revealed that a majority of NMU students – 54 percent – reported consuming four or fewer drinks when they party. However, NMU students’ perception of peer behavior was that only 2 percent of their fellow students consumed four or fewer drinks in party situations.


•In a series of questions about concerns with their own drinking in the last year, 22 percent of NMU students reported needing to cut down on their alcohol use.


•When asked about reasons to drink, the responses in the “very important” or “somewhat important” categories, in descending order, were: they like the taste (73 percent); to relax (62 percent); to reduce stress (53 percent); to unwind from work or school (45 percent); and to get drunk (39 percent).


•On questions related to campus and community policies, about 70 percent of students supported stricter discipline for the use of fake IDs and for alcohol policy violators.


•Half of the students surveyed reported serving as a designated driver and/or trying to stop someone from driving under the influence in the previous month.


•When asked about use, 24 percent of students said they had not consumed alcohol and 95 percent had not used drugs other than alcohol in the past 30 days.


“The good news is that most students are not drinking so much that they cause other people problems,” Shible said. “The number of non-drinkers is up and heavy drinking is down, but it is the smaller number of drinkers on campus who are consuming the most alcohol and causing problems. Education and awareness campaigns alone are not likely to change the behavior of heavy drinkers. They will probably have the most impact on moderate drinkers who occasionally overindulge.”


Shible said his hope is that the data collected over the past five years will provide the health promotions office with some valuable insight as it plans programming and services for the future. The upcoming social norms marketing campaign will feature banners, posters, advertisements and table tents.


A complete copy of the questionnaire and summaries of student responses from 2000-03 are available for review in the health promotions office, 1205 University Center .









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Updated: April 23, 2004