By now, you're probably wondering what the idea of a "social norms approach" actually involves. The inspiration for it came in the mid 1980s when two researchers found that college students thought their peers drank more alcohol than they actually did. Researchers at other schools across the country soon began to see the same pattern, and it became clear that students almost always think others drink more than they actually do.
The goal, then, of a social norms campaign is to tell people about the actual behaviors and attitudes of the majority of those around them because, guess what? Schools that have tried the social norms approach have found that most college students drink in a healthy, responsible way. Telling students these truths will hopefully make them feel less pressure to drink a lot as a way of fitting in, since most of their peers have safe drinking habits. That is the power of a social norms campaign: it has potential to change both perceptions and the way people act.
Social norms campaigns have been used mainly to encourage college students to develop safer drinking habits, but have also been used to address cigarette smoking, drinking and driving, seat belt use, sexual assault, and HIV risk behaviors. Many other schools have used social norms campaigns successfully to address extreme drinking, and you can find links to some of their websites on the Links page.
There is more to creating a social norms campaign than you might think. The process is circular and looks something like this: