Social Norms

Normally on Fridays at the Daily Deac we encourage you to reach out and have contact with your students.  Studies have shown that when parents and students connect on a Friday, the students tend to report less risky behavior that weekend.

Wake Forest has been working on a social-norming campaign to debunk some myths about students and alcohol use and to promote safer behavior.  Your students will be seeing posters on campus now (and in the coming weeks) about alcohol.

I asked Malika Roman Isler (’99), Director of Wellbeing, to guest author the Daily Deac today to share more about this initiative (below).  This may give you extra food for thought should you choose to contact your Deac this Friday.

– by Betsy Chapman


The Office of Wellbeing provides oversight for the Thrive initiative and develops prevention education and partnership throughout the campus.  Our office developed an alcohol-focused social norms campaign because we know that both at Wake Forest and other universities, a student’s alcohol use is heavily influenced by what they believe their peers do and think.

Oftentimes, students overestimate the amount and frequency of drinking among their peers, and underestimate how common abstinence and responsible drinking occur.  This campaign was an opportunity to correct those misperceptions among our students and get them talking more about responsible decisions they want to make, and encourage their friends to make – all while knowing that they’re not alone in doing so.

Often as students make the transition from high school to college, they have to find a healthy balance between what they expect college life to be like and the reality of what it is.  Sometimes this includes engaging in high-risk drinking because they think it’s the norm, particularly during the first month or so on campus.  So, we designed a marketing campaign with the Communications and External Relations team that was based upon information that first-year students shared about their drinking behaviors and their beliefs about others’ drinking behaviors.

There was a fall campaign focused on first-year students.  The campaign included nine messages that addressed alcohol-related behaviors such as: encouraging abstinence, assisting someone experiencing an alcohol-related emergency, avoiding blacking out, eating before and during drinking, and telling a friend when they’ve had too much to drink.  These messages were posted in the first-year residence halls for the first 5 weeks of the fall semester.  We surveyed students before and after the campaign to determine how much impact that campaign had.

Students who received the campaign first (in 3 of the 6 residence halls) reported a decrease in thinking that other students black out when they drink, and increased likelihood to: 1) tell a friend they drank too much, 2) determine a way home before drinking, 3) eat before and during drinking, 4) track their number of drinks, and 5) have fewer drinks on an occasion compared to students who did not receive the campaign in the first round.

These results are promising, and this campaign is one of multiple strategies being used to promote a safer alcohol culture on our campus.  This effort works hand in hand with offerings like training to help students identify and safely intervene when harm might occur to them or those around them (bystander intervention training), tools for stress management other than alcohol use (yoga, meditation, etc.),  leadership development training, and modified event management systems.

Alcohol misuse is a national problem.  However, Wake Forest has never been an institution that conforms to national standards; we believe in setting them.  So, we’re committed to doing the same as it relates to alcohol.  We’re not accepting alcohol misuse as our norm, because as shown in the social norms campaign, many of our students are already making safe decisions.  For those students who are engaging in high-risk drinking, we want them to understand that our community has a different standard.  And both the administration and their fellow students expect a different norm from them.

The social norms campaign sheds light on the reality of most students’ behaviors and preferences for the behaviors of those around them.  With that information, students can appreciate that they should not feel the need to drink large amounts of alcohol, drink frequently, not tell a friend when they’ve had too much – and they don’t need to consume alcohol at all!

For the spring semester, we are conducting a similar campaign throughout the entire campus, providing an opportunity for safer shifts in our broader community.  You can see some of the social norms posters below.

– by Malika Roman Isler (’99)

PS – For those of you interested in how we conducted the study, here’s more:  all first-year students took a pre-campaign survey so we could assess their perceptions and behaviors related to alcohol.  We then conducted the campaign in 3 of the 6 first-year residence halls for 5 weeks.  We did a post-campaign survey to all first-year students so we could compare the first-year students who received the campaign to the first-year students who had not received the campaign.  But because we wanted all students to have exposure to the messages, after our survey was complete, we went back and conducted the campaign in the 3 first-year residence halls that had not received the campaign originally – so all first years ultimately received the information in the campaign.

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