Revisiting the rationale for social normative interventions in student drinking in a UK population

Author(s): John B, Alwyn T


Objectives: Social normative re-education interventions are based on the premise that harmful student drinking is caused by misperceptions of campus drinking norms. They have become dominant despite little evidence for effectiveness, especially with heavy drinkers. The objective of this study was to explore the relative importance of social norms and other key cognitive constructs in predicting single occasion alcohol consumption in undergraduates.

Design: A cross sectional survey design was utilised.

Setting: Three UK universities.

Participants: 367 1st year undergraduate students.

Measures: Frequency and quantity of alcohol consumed; hazardous drinking; descriptive and injunctive normative perceptions of alcohol consumption were measured at 3 proximal-distal levels.

Results: Participants in this study were drinking at much higher levels than previously reported (means of 20 units for males, 16 units for females on a single drinking occasion); 85% exceeded the UK government's definition of binge drinking of 8 units or more on a single occasion. Norm perceptions, which form the basis of social normative interventions, were not significant predictors of individual consumption. Cognitive appraisal of oneself as a drinker and volitional behavioural control on drinking occasions are the most important constructs in predicting heavy drinking in this sample of UK undergraduate students. The model that emerges explains 40% of the variance in single occasion consumption.

Conclusions: Students are consuming levels of alcohol that will result in accumulative harm if unchecked. This study provides an explanation as to why social normative interventions are not effective. An alternative focus for reducing alcohol consumption in UK undergraduates is suggested.

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