Knowing Peers’ Real Attitudes Helps Students Drink Less
The leading causes of death for adolescents in the United States are alcohol use and alcohol-related events.
Showing students that many of their peers are uncomfortable with alcohol reduces drinking.
To lessen excessive drinking on college campuses, social psychologists Christine Schroeder and Deborah Prentice randomly assigned incoming freshmen to one of two kinds of discussion groups. In the individual-oriented discussion groups, students first watched a short video about alcohol-related incidences on a college campus. Next, they talked about their attitudes toward and experiences with alcohol.
In the peer-oriented discussions groups, participants watched the same film, but then discussed how many students overestimate their peers’ comfort with alcohol because of a phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance. Although in private, many students believe they should drink responsibly, in public, they drink more because they perceive the social norms to be much wilder. In this way, pluralistic ignorance can drive excessive drinking.
Some four to six months later, the researchers discovered that participants randomly assigned to the peer-oriented discussion drank less than did those in the individual-oriented condition.
Why This Works
Once students are aware that their peers’ private beliefs about alcohol do not necessarily match their public behaviors, they are less afraid of being judged negatively if they choose not to drink as much as others.
When This Works Best
This intervention works best for people who fear the negative judgments of others. When people learn that their peers have a variety of attitudes about alcohol use, they feel less fearful about violating social norms.
The Original Study
Schroeder, C.M. & Prentice, D.A. (1998). Exposing pluralistic ignorance to reduce alcohol use among college students. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28(23), 2150-2180.
Text by Tobin Asher