Wechsler Keeps On
by David J. Hanson, Ph. D.
Henry Wechsler has again attempted to discredit the social norms marketing technique used to reduce alcohol abuse. In another article and press release, he argues that the technique fails to work. 1 However, even a casual reading reveals that his effort is unsuccessful.
As noted by the developer of the technique, Dr. H. Wesley Perkins, “Wechsler first provided a biased and limited review of the research literature.” He ignored controlled experiments demonstrating the effectiveness of correcting exaggerated student misperceptions about drinking norms, and he ignored the most recent compendium of case studies on college campuses that have correctly implemented social norms marketing with dramatic success. Wechsler even failed to mention his own previous research which demonstrated that incorrectly perceived norms are the strongest predictor of alcohol abuse! 2
Wechsler’s study suffers numerous fatal mythological and logical problems. First, it had very small samples at each college, with as few as 50 or 60 students representing institutions with tens of thousands of students.
Second, Wechsler’s study has failed to identify and separate for comparison the colleges that have actually been conducting intensive social norms interventions. As Dr. Perkins explains,
Wechsler simply asks a single administrator on each campus whether or not the school had conducted a “social norms” campaign on their campus between 1997 and 200 -- with no definition or control for what that phrase meant. In the late 1990s, although the social norms approach to substance abuse prevention was gaining attention and a couple dozen projects had been initiated with U.S. Dept. of Education and other government funding, there was still much ignorance about what this approach entailed. Back in that time period one would have been hard pressed to identify more that a hundred schools nationwide implementing an actual model of normative feedback about the true positive norms that exist among the majority of students and not compromised by including the traditional model of scare tactics.
Yet the Wechsler et al study of 98 schools found almost 40 percent of administrators saying they had done some sort of social norms campaign during that period. If correctly identified, that would translate into an unbelievable 1,500 schools nationwide doing such campaigns in the 1990s. This is truly an absurd figure....” 3
Others have pointed out that “For an administrator to report that his or her institution has ‘ever conducted a social norms campaign’ is not the same as saying that the school has conducted a comprehensive social norms marketing campaign.” Wechsler admits that neither he nor any of his fellow-researchers made any efforts to “to determine the content, scope and duration” of what were reported to be social norm marketing programs. 4
Professor Perkins explains that the approach is still a minority alternative to traditional abuse prevention efforts. Only about 200 (of the 3,000 colleges in the US) have actively engaged in any kind of significant social norms effort, and even then the projects are sometimes compromised by scare campaigns that contribute to inflated misperceptions about the typical attitudes behavior of most students. 5
There are numerous other technical logical and methodological errors in Wechsler’s study too numerous to describe, but the errors identified above are sufficient to destroy the credibility of Mr. Wechsler’s claims. 6
On the other hand, properly conducted social norms marketing projects have demonstrated their effectiveness on many college campuses. For example, the National Social Norms Project has documented numerous successful examples, of which the following is a small sample:
Hobart and William Smith Colleges - 32% reduction over 4 years
See: Perkins, H. W. and Craig, D. (2002) A Multifaceted Social Norms Approach to Reduce High-Risk Drinking. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, Education Development Center, Inc.
Provides a comprehensive presentation of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges' Social Norms Project, which achieved a 30% reduction in high-risk drinking over 5 years. Contents include a complete description of program components, including data collection, print media campaigns, electronic media campaigns, curriculum development, and campus presentations.
Rx: Social Norms Marketing
Louisiana State University does not use social norms marketing, which is not only effective but also inexpensive to implement. Instead, LSU has received $700,000 from the temperance-oriented Robert Wood Johnson Foundation over the last few years to implement the tough "crackdown" approach promoted by Mr. Wechsler. The result? An astounding jump in heavy drinking of over 18% in just one year. LSU now has a serious epidemic of heavy drinking on campus.
Louisiana State University needs to implement social norms marketing, and the sooner the better.
Northern Illinois University - 44% reduction over 9 years
See: Haines, M. and G. Barker. "The NIU Experiment: A Case Study of the Social Norms Approach," (2003) in The Social Norms Approach To Preventing School And College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook For Educators, Counselors, And Clinicians, Ed. H. Wesley Perkins. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
This book chapter presents the first applied experiment using the approach in a college student population. The experiment used print media and co-curricular activities publicizing actual norms to change perceptions and, in turn, documented a dramatic and continuing decline in heavy drinking among students.
Rowan University - 25% reduction over 3 years
See: Jeffrey, L., P. Negro, D. Miller and J. Frisone. "The Rowan University Social Norms Project," (2003) in The Social Norms Approach To Preventing School And College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook For Educators, Counselors, And Clinicians, Ed. H. Wesley Perkins. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
This book chapter reports a replication of the social norms intervention approach with print media at an East Coast university. Assessment results demonstrate that as exposure to campaign materials increased each year a corresponding reduction in high risk drinking was the result.
University of Arizona - 27% reduction over 3 years
See: Johannessen, K., "The University of Arizona's Campus Health Social Norms Media Campaign," (2003) in The Social Norms Approach To Preventing School And College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook For Educators, Counselors, And Clinicians, Ed. H. Wesley Perkins. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
This book chapter reports on a replication of the Northern Illinois University print media strategy to reduce misperceptions that refined and further developed the production of media images and applied the strategy in a large southwestern university context. Again, a significant reduction in heavy drinking was the result. 7
filed under: Deceptive Alcohol Facts
Need help with an alcohol or drug problem?
Someone at the highly effective St. Jude program can help you.