Small Group Social Norms

Impact Score19.5
Students Impacted30%

What is small group social norms?

The small group social norm intervention provides students normative feedback on alcohol use, attitudes, and behaviors in a small group setting. It is grounded in social norms theory which corrects students’ perceptions of the alcohol attitudes and behaviors of their peers to motivate them to reduce their drinking. By drawing upon data gathered from members of the group and discussing students’ perceptions of the alcohol attitudes and behaviors within the group, participants’ resistance to behavioral change may be lowered and their acceptance of normative messages facilitated, intervention researchers theorize. Small group social norms sessions are typically conducted with high-risk groups like athletic teams, members of Greek letter organizations, or first-year students, but the method has also shown some success in the classroom setting.

Data on personal consumption and student perceptions of peer drinking-related behaviors is usually gathered before the group session using a written or online survey or during the session using clicker technology. In the group session, data is presented to students to demonstrate discrepancies between perceived and actual group behavioral norms. Participants are encouraged to examine their personal perceptions and behaviors compared with actual norms. Group discussion typically accompanies the data presentation. Members discuss why the misperceptions exist and what members of the group can do differently. In addition, educational information, such as the effects of alcohol and harm reduction approaches may be discussed.

Research findings

Small group social norms interventions have been applied to various student populations from varsity athletes to first-year students with varying degrees of success. Several studies including that by Reilly and Wood (2008) have shown reductions in normative misperceptions following group sessions, but did not find accompanying reductions in alcohol consumption.

Several other studies conducted with members of high-risk groups have produced reductions in both normative misperceptions and drinking rates. For example, a study among members of the Greek population used a live survey method where students were immediately shown the group’s responses on a large projection screen via clicker technology. The facilitator drew attention to discrepancies between the actual levels of alcohol consumption and the group’s perceptions of consumption among members of the group Participants were able to see how their alcohol use compared with that of their peers in the group, as well as seeing whether their perceptions of their peers’ consumption were accurate. In addition, participants were encouraged to examine their personal perceptions and behaviors compared with the actual norms. This study suggests that small group social norms sessions coupled with personalized feedback sessions yield significant reductions in consumption (LaBrie et al., 2008). A similar study conducted among a different high-risk population, varsity athletic teams, produced similar results including reductions in perceived norms and drinking, alcohol-related consequences, attitudes, injunctive norms and descriptive norms (LaBrie et al., 2009).

Issues and considerations

Social norms theory suggests that in order for social norms messages to have an impact on behavior, the targets of the intervention must have some affinity to the group whose norms are being described—whether that is through a campus-wide social norms marketing campaign, or a fraternity chapter-specific small group social norms session. Therefore, the small group social norms modality may have increased efficacy in groups with strong cohesion, as with a fraternity or sorority chapter, or a varsity athletics teams. As members of these groups desire to fit in with their peers, they will more likely seek to adhere to the normative behavior of that group.

The impact of small group social norms sessions has been found to be stronger for students with higher discrepancies in perceived norms. Some researchers warn that providing norms to light-risk or abstainers may have had an unintended harmful effect.

LaBrie, J. W., Hummer, J. F., Huchting, K. K., & Neighbors, C. (2009). A brief live interactive normative group intervention using wireless keypads to reduce drinking and alcohol consequences in college student athletes. Drug and Alcohol Review, 28, 40-47. PMID: 19320674.

LaBrie, J. W., Hummer, J. F., Neighbors, C., & Pedersen, E. R. (2008). Live interactive group-specific normative feedback reduces misperceptions and drinking in college students: A randomized cluster trial. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 22(1), 141.

Reilly, D. W., & Wood, M. D. (2008). A randomized test of a small-group interactive social norms intervention. Journal of American College Health, 57(1), 53-60.