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Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 10:52 EDT

How Misperceptions Drive Social and Political Agendas

July 21, 2008

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., July 21 /PRNewswire/ — After the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech University, schools across the country spent tens of millions of dollars to bolster campus security. There have been 137 murders on college campuses in the past eight years and on-campus murders represent less than 1 percent of homicides nationally.

“The fact is that colleges and universities may be safer than our own homes,” says Dr. James C. Turner, Executive Director of the National Social Norms Institute (NSNI) and a Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Virginia. He cites the rush to bolster campus security after the Virginia Tech shootings, which left 27 students and five faculty dead, as one example of how tragic, but rare, events can be misperceived as the norm and prompt major changes in public policy.

Dr. Turner, who heads the Department of Student Health at the University of Virginia and is president-elect of the American College Health Association, will be the keynote speaker at the 2008 National Conference on the Social Norms Approach set for July 20-22 at the Hyatt Regency at the San Francisco Airport. The two-day conference is expected to attract about 200 college health officials and social scientists from across the country.

The social norms approach is premised on the idea that a person’s behavior is strongly influenced by perceptions of how other members of his or her social group think and act. For example, many college students believe that binge drinking is the norm and may be tempted to binge drink because they think their peers do so. In fact, research shows that most college students do not binge drink.

To combat such misperceptions, more and more college campuses are mounting social norms marketing campaigns aimed at giving college students accurate information about their peers, thereby reinforcing existing healthy behaviors.

In his keynote address, Dr. Turner applies social norms theory to the larger social and political arena. He focuses on three issues — the misperceptions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD); that liquid biofuels will help the planet by decreasing global warming; and that violence is epidemic on America’s college campuses.

In the case of Iraq, Dr. Turner says, the United States government decided to go to war in large part because of faulty information about WMD. The federal mandate promoting biofuels, he says, was undertaken without evaluating the negative consequences, such as the impact on global food shortages, or proof that the approach would have a positive impact on global warming. And a few high-profile cases of campus violence, Dr. Turner explains, have prompted colleges and universities to spend millions of dollars on stepped up campus security that will likely never be needed.

“After Virginia Tech, most colleges, for good reason, wanted to prevent similar tragedies on their own campuses.” Dr. Turner says. “As a reaction, many have put a lot of money into a number of expensive security measures. However, the core of our strategy should be to get better at identifying seriously troubled students and intervening with them.”

Dr. Turner points out that it may take decades to determine whether a common perception is correct or not. As an example, he cites the endorsement, prior to the 1950s, of cigarette smoking by many in the medical community. One ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, for example, proclaimed: “20,679 Physicians say Luckies are less irritating.”

But with accurate data, Dr. Turner argues that misperceptions can be corrected — and behaviors changed — through concerted social norms campaigns. Such campaigns involve the dissemination of accurate information showing that most members of a particular group engage in healthy behaviors.

The approach has shown success in reducing high-risk drinking on college campuses by promoting accurate information about how much students on each campus actually drink. Among the schools that have positive results are University of Virginia, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Northern Illinois University, Rowan University, the University of Arizona, the University of Missouri and Western Washington University.

The approach is also being used in a variety of other settings – from high schools to state regulatory agencies — to address issues such as smoking, use of seatbelts, gambling, tax compliance, energy conservation and risky sexual behavior.

At the conference, researchers will report new data from several studies underscoring the difference between perception and reality among students in America’s junior highs and high schools on a number of issues including the prevalence of bullying, obesity and use of alcohol. The new data indicate that students consistently overestimate the extent of the problems and how social norms programs can address the issue.

The National Conference on the Social Norms Approach is sponsored by the NSNI and The BACCHUS Network.

Overview of Social Norms

Social norms is a behavior change model based on correcting a population’s misperception about behavior. Research has shown that perceptions are one of the strongest predictors of behavior. People tend to overestimate the negative behaviors and underestimate the positive, protective behaviors. Correcting these misperceptions allows people to have the space to act on their own values (instead of misperceptions) and make positive healthy choices. The goal is to get students to emulate the positive behavior of the vast majority of students.

About The National Social Norms Institute

The University of Virginia, a national leader in alcohol and substance abuse education, established the National Social Norms Institute (NSNI) to conduct ongoing research into the effectiveness of social norms methodology to combat high-risk drinking among students. The purpose of NSNI is to research, evaluate and disseminate information on the social norms methodology to the field. The Institute’s goal is to assist new and current practitioners in the field in utilizing the social norms approach to bring about behavior change in their communities and institutions. It is supported by a generous gift from Anheuser Busch and its charitable foundation. NSNI’s leadership has changed as of October 1, 2006, with Jennifer Bauerle, PhD as the Director and James Turner, MD as the Executive Director. For more information, visit http://www.socialnorms.org/ or contact Jennifer Bauerle at bauerle@virginia.edu.

About The BACCHUS Network(TM)

The BACCHUS Network(TM) is a university and community based organization focusing on comprehensive health and safety initiatives. It is the mission of the 501 C3 non-profit organization to actively promote student and young adult based, campus and community-wide leadership on healthy and safe lifestyle decisions concerning alcohol abuse, tobacco use, illegal drug use, unhealthy sexual practices, mental health, fitness and other high-risk behaviors.

Part of the mission of The BACCHUS Network(TM) is to help engage campuses in the use of evidence-based strategies in developing comprehensive health promotion initiatives. As part of this effort, the organization has long supported and promoted social norms and pioneered programs and initiatives using this strategy to complement peer education initiatives.

For more information on The BACCHUS Network(TM) visit http://www.bacchusnetwork.org/ or contact Drew Hunter at drew@bacchusnetwork.org.

    Contact:    Jennifer Corrigan    732-382-8898 (Office)    732-742-7148 (Cell)  

The National Social Norms Institute

CONTACT: Jennifer Corrigan for The National Social Norms Institute,office, +1-732-382-8898, or cell, +1-732-742-7148

Web site: http://www.socialnorms.org/http://www.bacchusnetwork.org/