When students at Northern Illinois University were asked to guess how many of their peers drink heavily, the results were surprising. Officials found those surveyed guessed high - far too high.
Those overestimates about binging have led to a new weapon in the battle to curb college drinking: Telling kids the truth.
Heavy drinking dropped on the De Kalb, Ill., campus after administrators went public with the survey results, which showed that not nearly as many people favored "binge" drinking (having five or more drinks while "partying") as students thought.
This positive peer pressure approach has caught the eye of the US Department of Education and other universities, who are beginning to see it as a viable alternative to fighting alcohol abuse on campus, often called the No. 1 problem in American higher education.
"This approach does work, we have seen this, that there is a modification of binge drinking," says Lavona Grow, a program analyst at the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program at the Department of Education. "Once students realize, 'Gee, not everyone is doing this,' it does change the drinking patterns."
A recent study by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York reported that alcohol is a factor in 28 percent of dropouts and 40 percent of all academic problems. It also reported that, over a two-week span, 42 percent of all students get involved in "binge drinking."
But at Northern Illinois University, binge drinking that used to involve 45 percent of the student body has dropped by 35 percent and alcohol-related injuries have fallen 31 percent over six years. The school's approach has been replicated at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which in only a year reduced drinking by 7 percent. Another two dozen or so colleges across the US are in early stages of using it as well.
Some critics and many administrators say, however, that a tougher approach is needed that makes alcohol less available.
In Massachusetts, for example, after the alcohol-related deaths of three college students here this fall, the state's Board of Education voted unanimously to urge a statewide ban at its 29 publicly funded campuses. It is the first state to put forward such a sweeping mandate to address the drinking issue.
Education Department support
Still, supporters of the "changing misperceptions of the norm" approach see a place for it in the mix of solutions. The Education Department, for example, now gives money to schools trying ways to fight binge drinking.
The inventor of the new approach, H. Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart & William Smith, in Geneva, N.Y., was first to discover that students would change their drinking behavior to conform to more accurate information about the drinking expectations of their peers.
But it was Michael Haines, the health services coordinator at Northern Illinois, who latched onto Professor Perkins's idea the year after three students died from incidents related to alcohol at the school.
At first, Mr. Haines's team tried traditional methods to squelch binge drinking and alert Northern Illinois students to the hazards of alcohol abuse - a simulated drunk-driving car crash on the mall, inviting media personalities to speak against drunkenness, and pamphlets and posters, telling about the hazards and harm. Excess drinking rose.
Haines decided to shift gears and adapted the Perkins example. First, he surveyed 1,000 students. He found 45 percent of the student body actually drank to excess. But students mistakenly thought that 69.3 percent of their peers were drinking too much.
"Because peoples' perceptions of what is 'normal' are strong mediators of behavior, we felt this overestimation of heavy drinking was pushing students to drink more," Haines says. "We felt that if someone could change that perception, we could reduce heavy drinking."
Getting the message out
Haines and his crew of three had a budget of only $8,000 when they set out to correct student perceptions. It allowed them to hire student actors to dress up as the "Blues Brothers" and give away $1 bills to those who could tell them what the majority on campus really thought about drinking. It was a high-profile, low-cost campaign.
In addition, the student newspaper, the campus Web site, classified ads, posters, and flyers all featured this simple message: "Most students have five or fewer drinks when they party."
After that, Haines says, student attitudes regarding drinking began to approximate "the norm" of what students actually expected and approved of which was far less alcohol consumption than most people thought.
Students come to college with "this 'Animal House' view created by mass media that all students are heavy drinkers," says Perkins. "We can combat that with print advertising, an electronic online mass media campaign.... If we can tell them the truth, the students respond."