The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers…

Michael Haines, the director of the Health Enhancement Services of the University of North Illinois had to find a way to reduce the drinking rate of his students. After various failed campaigns, he had to try something new. And he found that telling students the truth, because they mistakenly had a perception that their peers drank more than they actually did, was the solution. 

But by then Haines had something new to try. In 1987 he had attended a conference on alcohol in higher education sponsored by the United States Department of Education. There Wes Perkins, a professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Alan Berkowitz, a psychologist in the school’s counseling center, presented a paper that they had just published on how student drinking is affected by peers. “There are decades of research on peer influence — that’s nothing new,” Perkins said at the meeting. What was new was their survey showing that when students were asked how much their peers drank, they grossly overestimated the amount. If the students were responding to peer pressure, the researchers said, it was coming from imaginary peers.

The “aha!” conclusion Perkins and Berkowitz drew was this: maybe students’ drinking behavior could be changed by just telling them the truth.

Haines surveyed students at Northern Illinois University and found that they also had a distorted view of how much their peers drink. He decided to try a new campaign, with the theme “most students drink moderately.” The centerpiece of the campaign was a series of ads in the Northern Star, the campus newspaper, with pictures of students and the caption “two thirds of Northern Illinois University students (72%) drink 5 or fewer drinks when they ‘party.’” (See here for Haines’s thorough description of the campaign and here for lessons from a later, also successful, campaign at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.)

Haines’s staff also made posters with campus drinking facts and told students that if they had those posters on the wall when an inspector came around, they would earn $5. (35 percent of the students did have them posted when inspected.) Later they made buttons for students in the fraternity and sorority system — these students drank more heavily — that said “Most of Us,” and offered another $5 for being caught wearing one. The buttons were deliberately cryptic, to start a conversation. After the first year of the social norming campaign, the perception of heavy drinking had fallen from 69 to 61 percent. Actual heavy drinking fell from 45 to 38 percent. The campaign went on for a decade, and at the end of it NIU students believed that 33 percent of their fellow students were episodic heavy drinkers, and only 25 percent really were – a decline in heavy drinking of 44 percent.