Reducing hazardous drinking among 1st year university students: an exploratory cluster randomised trial of a social norms marketing campaign


By Dr. Graham Moore

Many students in Wales regularly drink alcohol in excess of current public health recommendations (14 units per week for women and 21 for men). The rising number of people attending university in the UK means that a larger proportion of young people than ever before may be exposed to the hazardous drinking environments associated with university life.

One approach to reducing student drinking, which demonstrates some promise in experimental US studies, is the social norms approach. This approach is based on the assumption that student drinking is influenced by perceptions of peer drinking, but that  students commonly overestimate how much their peers drink. Advocates of the approach argue that correcting these errors in perception through communicating how much peers really drink may reduce student drinking.

                                                Much of student social activity centres on alcohol.

Would this approach translate to the UK?

The social norms approach has gained increasing attention in the UK, with a 2010 Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights report highlighting plans to pilot such a scheme in Wales as an example of good practice.

There are, however, good reasons for caution in attempting to transfer this approach to the UK. In contrast to most US states, buying alcohol is legal for university students, and drinking levels among UK students are typically higher than in US universities. Hence, communicating ‘actual norms’ – how much students are really drinking – may reinforce, rather than reduce, hazardous drinking.

Trialling the social norms approach

In 2010, DECIPHer received funding from Alcohol Research UK, via the Drinkaware Trust, to conduct a survey to inform the development of a social norms marketing campaign. DECIPHer was also funded to conduct an exploratory evaluation of this campaign, to investigate whether this approach could be used in universities in Wales.  As well as ensuring the trial was rigorous, DECIPHer researchers were involved in promoting movement to a more ecological intervention approach, where aspects such as university policy and environmental factors were taken into account.

Fifty halls of residence in four universities in Wales were randomly assigned to either receive (intervention group) or not receive (control group) a social norms intervention. This consisted of the distribution in halls of a variety of materials, including posters and drinks glasses, communicating messages relating to student drinking habits.

Around four to six months after the initial materials were distributed, students within both intervention and control halls were asked to fill out web and paper surveys about the materials. These looked at:

  • Exposure – which materials they had seen;
  • Contamination – whether students in halls where the materials were not distributed saw them anyway;
  • How well they remembered and what they thought of the intervention messages;
  • Perceived drinking norms – how much the students thought others were drinking; and
  • The students’ own drinking behaviour.

A different approach for Wales?

While most previous social norms interventions have involved communicating exact levels of drinking (such as the average number of units consumed per week), a survey carried out in Wales had indicated that students’ drinking levels were hazardous. The survey found that an average drinking occasion lay on the border of NHS definitions of binge drinking (eight units for men, six for women), while most students reported drinking more than recommended weekly limits (21 units for men, 14 for women).

It was therefore decided that in this intervention, rather than presenting these values and risking normalising these levels of drinking, emphasis would be placed on the difference between students’ perceptions of others’ drinking and the reality of this.

                     Material from a social norms media campaign run by the University of Arizona. Differences in patterns
                        of drinking between the UK and USA meant a different approach was taken in the Welsh campaign.

What was found?

Around 15% (n=554) of students completed the follow-up survey. Their responses indicated that posters were seen by 80% of students living in the halls where the materials were distributed and 43% of students living in the halls where they were not. Most remaining materials were seen by a minority of students.

In their evaluation of the messages they saw, a little more than half of students said that the materials were relevant and credible to them, although fewer felt they would influence their behaviour. Notably, students who drank more heavily were least likely to perceive the messages as credible, meaning the intervention may have failed to reach a key target group.

No differences in perceived norms were found between intervention and control groups. However, this changed when students were classified according to whether they had seen the materials, rather than simply whether they lived in a hall where the materials had been distributed. Students who reported having seen intervention materials reported lower levels of perceived drinking in other students (descriptive norms) and perceived social approval of the behaviour (injunctive norms) than those who did not.

What next?

Following the exploratory trial, a recommendation was made not to proceed to a larger evaluation of the effectiveness of the social norms campaign. A key issue was the low (15%) response rate; if a definitive evaluation were to take place in the future, it would need to consider how this could be improved. Additionally, the tendency of students to see the materials in others’ halls of residence means that alternative methods for obtaining comparison groups may be needed to minimise ‘contamination’. Attention would also be needed to enhance the exposure, credibility and perceived relevance of intervention messages.

Overall, the study adds to a growing evidence base which indicates that caution is needed in attempting to apply the social norms approach to UK student drinking.