DOT Grant Funds 'Social Norming' at SHU; First in State

News Story: April 30, 2007

By thinking outside the box, Sacred Heart University has found a way to put a cork in the idea that binge drinking and drug use are common behaviors at many college campuses. The University is the first in the Northeast to receive a grant from its state Department of Transportation (DOT) to implement “social norming” to reduce drinking and driving.

From left to right, Richard Madwid, Project Coordinator; Janice Kessler, Alcohol and Other Drug Program Coordinator; Juliet Little, Highway Safety Management Specialist at CT DOT; and Mary Jo Mason, Director of Counseling.

“Social Norming: An Evidence-Based Approach” was developed by Jeff Linkenbach, Ed.D., from the University of Montana, who has been enlisted to help SHU implement this innovative campaign on its Connecticut campus. More than 30 colleges nationwide have adopted the social norming approach to prevent drug and alcohol abuse.

The social norming approach to prevent high risk drinking among college students promotes positive fact-based messages that challenge students’ perceptions and gets them to realize what “normal” college behavior actually is. The campaign will educate and raise awareness of the traditional misperceptions among college students regarding their own use of controlled substances.

For more than 30 years, marketing campaigns for alcohol and drug abuse prevention have mainly relied on strategies that accentuate the negative. Those strategies include guest speakers, anti-drinking and drug presentations, mock drunk driving crash simulators or the popular scare tactic, “This is your brain; this is your brain on drugs” campaign.

“These strategies are all good; they have been proven to help, but a lot of research has shown that they don’t do as much as we think,” said Richard Madwid, project coordinator for Sacred Heart University’s Counseling Center.

The social norming approach, Madwid said, takes the typical anti-drug campaign and completely turns it around. “Until now, we’ve seen really negative campaigns--we’ve been trying to teach people in the negative for years. Social norming uses the concepts of advertising and marketing in the area of substance abuse but in reverse--in a positive way.”

Changing perceptions of college students’ substance use has been proven to cause less at-risk behaviors and lowered incidents of related issues, including drinking and driving, and alcohol/drug dependency.

The campaign, funded by the Connecticut DOT, began with a random sample survey of nearly 500 SHU students regarding their own drug and alcohol history and their perception of their peer groups on campus. The goal of the survey was to assess student behaviors and perceptions regarding campus use of alcohol and other drug use.

Using the survey data, SHU is developing an on-campus advertising campaign that will be ready in late summer, in time for the arrival of incoming freshmen, depicting that the majority of students on campus do not drink to excess. “What we found through these surveys was that in reality, what’s really happening at Sacred Heart University is that the majority of students are not drinking until they’re out of control,” Madwid said.

Madwid said students will be surrounded by positive messages about the culture at SHU, which is simply that a majority of students concentrate on their academics and not their partying. Madwid believes that, over time, students will see these images and start to change their actions or the decisions they make.

“Social norming changes college students’ perceptions of alcohol and other drug use. By using survey data in a positive marketing approach, social norming shows students that the majority does not go out and party every night,” Madwid said.

The DOT grant will also support Sacred Heart University’s sponsorship of a statewide summit for Connecticut colleges and universities to join the social norming approach and learn how to implement prevention strategies on their own campuses. Although the summit is still in the planning phases, Madwid said that SHU hopes to explain the benefits and positive results the University has received. It will take place at the Fairfield campus and will feature Linkenbach as a speaker. SHU will be the first University to hold a state-wide summit of this kind.