A Proven Way to Reduce Alcohol Abuse

Interview with Dr. H. Wesley Perkins

An effective, inepensive, proven, rather easy, new way to reduce alcohol problems quickly is explained by a major authority in alcohol education, Dr. H. Wesley Perkins of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Dr. Hanson--

Dr. Perkins, your research and insights form the basis of a unique, even revolutionary, way to reduce alcohol abuse among students. Could you please explain your approach.

Dr. Perkins--

I'd be happy to. Students typically believe that their peers drink much more than they actually do, and believe that their peers have much more permissive attitudes toward alcohol abuse than they really have. The importance of this general misperception is that it fuels problem behaviors as students try to live up to a distorted image of what their peers believe and do. They therefore end up engaging in abusive drinking behaviors that they would not otherwise do. This leads to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: problem use actually becomes more widespread as students drink at higher levels in order to conform to what they imagine to be the norm.

Dr. Hanson--

That makes sense. But how can we break this "viscious cycle"?

Dr. Perkins--

Basically, we need to correct misperceptions. The logic is that when students discover that fewer students than they believe are really "bingeing," for example, then they will be less likely to "binge." We have found that when surveys are taken on campuses to discover actual levels of alcohol abuse, followed by extensive and widespread publicizing of that information, the actual abuse of alcohol subsequently drops dramatically.

Dr. Hanson--

That's impressive. Have your very positive results at Hobart and William Smith Colleges been duplicated elsewhere?

Dr. Perkins--

Yes, this approach has been used successfully at institutions large and small, urban and rural, public and private, all over the country.

Dr. Hanson--

Well, so-called binge drinking is a problem on campuses. The press is full of alarming reports about how serious and common alcohol abuse is among young people. Isn't it important to spread the word and warn students of what to expect at college so they can avoid abusing alcohol when they get there?

Dr. Perkins--

It's true alcohol abuse is a very serious problem. But we need to be careful about how we present and discuss these problems so that we don't actually contribute to increasing them.

Consider "binge drinking" as an example. Reports might indicate that 25% of the students on a campus are frequent "binge" drinkers. Yet simply announcing this finding to a student body also contributes to an overall belief that alcohol abuse and student life go hand in hand and it indirectly helps reinforce the false notion that most students view frequent intoxication as acceptable.

We could report, on the other hand, that 75% of the student body does NOT engage in frequent "binge" drinking. This would reinforce the attitudes and behaviors of those who do not engage in such behaviors......in essence, it would help empower them to avoid such behaviors.

Emphasizing pervasive drinking problems on campus may end up being counterproductive as students' highly excessive misperceptions of the actual behaviors and attitudes on campus become even more inflated. Thus, an alternative is to report the same information a bit differently by focusing on the majority behavior and creating a more positive mindset about acceptable social norms. Of course, the the actual data remain the same, whether presented negatively or positively. While concern about the abuse of alcohol must not be neglected, we must always carefully consider the impact of the message on those who receive it.

Dr. Hanson--

So this approach involves correcting the distorted misperceptions of students by giving the actual, positive facts regarding alcohol consumption patterns among their peers?

Dr. Perkins--

That's it in a nutshell. Much of our research is now directed toward learning the most effective ways of correcting false beliefs about drinking. Unfortunately, the development of programs to address these misperceptions is still in its adolescence. A variety of reliable techniques are emerging now to collect and communicate data on norms and misperceptions. Mass marketing strategies such as newspaper articles, advertisements, poster campaigns, media events that publicize true norms and help reduce misperceptions have been introduced on campuses with notable success. Focused workshops and orientation programs that allow students to reveal their true attitudes and to contrast actual norms in a group with misperceptions have also been developed. At my own institution we are also challenging misperceptions with accurate data by using campus computing and electronic mail networks and by introducing this perspective in the classroom as well. We need more techniques, however, and more studies about their relative effectiveness.

Dr. Hanson--

I think more educators, parents, and news people should be aware of this effective new approach. Thank you for describing it.

Dr. Perkins--

You're welcome.

 

Dr. H. Wesley Perkins, Professor of Sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, has conducted extensive research over the last 15 years on alcohol problems among college students and young adults focusing on peer misperceptions of norms, proactive prevention strategies, problems of collegiate children of alcoholics, gender-related aspects of use, stress and drinking, age-law effects, religious-ethnic differences in drinking, and evaluation studies of campus environments. His research has been published in national and international journals and he has provided numerous workshops, keynote conference addresses, and served as consultant to colleges and universities throughout the United States. http://www.hws.edu/~perkins http://www.hws.edu/~alcohol

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