How social norms affect the perceived riskiness of alcohol use amongst students

Intervention · Salud


Students’ drinking habits and beliefs (including the risks of alcohol) are largely shaped by their environment. This study conducted two experiments to understand how students evaluate the health risks associated with alcohol consumption.1

Specifically, they test whether students use a rank-based system to compare their drinking behavior to others’ in order to assess the riskiness of their own behavior. The first study surveyed students on their own drinking, their perception of others’ drinking behavior, and their perceived risk of developing alcohol-related disorders. The second study examined how context affects students’ perceived risk of drinking. The studies found that students do not make risk assessments by comparing to the average amount of alcohol consumed by others, but rather, their judgment is based on where their consumption ranks amongst a selected sample.

Rating = 4/5 (limited generalizability; some information lacking; significant results)

How students assess the riskiness of developing an alcohol-related disorder in personal and hypothetical contexts
Participants a) estimate other adults’ average weekly drinking levels and b) assess their own risk Riskiness assessment depended on the relative rank amongst other adults
Participants assess the riskiness of drinking x amount of alcohol from a list of alcohol quantities Riskiness assessment depended on the relative rank amongst the listed amounts on the provided list

Key Concepts

Social norms: a set of beliefs held by a social group that implies the acceptable behavior for a given situation. 

Social norms approach: an intervention strategy based on the premise that individuals generally misperceive the attitudes and behaviors of others and adjust their behavior according to incorrectly perceived norms. The social norms approach aims to change behavior by correcting these misperceptions. 

Decision by Sampling Model (DbS): a decision making theory that suggests we make decisions by first taking a sample of values from memory and our immediate environment, then comparing their behavior to the sample and sequentially ranks themselves, and finally summing up these rankings they assess their ‘relative rank’ in their sample distribution.2

The Problem

College binge drinking can lead to life-long disorders 

There is increasing evidence that binge drinking during adolescence can increase the  risk of life-time alcohol dependence and other alcohol-related disorders. This is a serious health concern due to the large percentage of college students who report engaging in binge drinking on a regular basis. Understanding how they perceive the risks associated with drinking is essential for creating interventions to promote healthier behavior.3

Research on social norms suggests that the perceptions we have of our own drinking habits depend on the behavior of those around us. So the first step in creating an effective intervention is to understand the exact process of how we are influenced by our environment. 

We adjust our behavior and beliefs to fit the norm

There is an abundance of research on interventions that apply the social norms approach to behavior change. However, they assume that the process of adjusting behavior and beliefs to meet social norms entails people comparing themselves to the perceived average behavior. A less-tested theory is the Decision by Sampling Model (DbS), which suggests that we don’t simply compare ourselves to the average, rather we rank ourselves amongst others.


Study 1: Identifying whether perceived risk is derived from perceived rank

The researchers first tested whether students’ perception of how much others drink influenced their perceptions on the risks associated with their own alcohol consumption. 

The researchers asked 250 undergraduate students who drink alcohol to complete a questionnaire with three sections: 

Section one: participants were asked to report how much beer, wine, and other spirits they drank on average in a week. 

Section two: participants had to give a percentage value to questions about the risk of developing alcohol-related health disorder in the next 20 years if they continued their current level of alcohol consumption.

Section three: participants had to answer questions about how much they thought other people drank on average in a week. By comparing this to the students’ reported drinking behavior from section one, it allowed for a more implicit way to gauge where they ranked themselves among the general public.

Study 2: Identifying whether perceived risk is derived from perceived rank 

In the second study, researchers tested whether participants’ assessed risk by comparing their drinking behavior to the average amount consumed by others, or if they ranked themselves amongst others.

81 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to two groups. Each group received a paper with a list of eleven different amounts of alcohol. The list of quantities differed between the two groups, but both lists had the same mean (36) and three ‘target amounts’ (in bold). 

List one:  5, 19, 26.5, 30, 32, 33, 34, 36, 39.5, 47 and 61 units per week

List two: 5, 6, 8, 11.5, 19, 33, 47, 54.5, 58, 60 and 61 units per week

For each amount, the participants were asked to rate the percentage chance of developing an alcohol-related disorder if one were to continue drinking that amount for the next 20 years. The target amounts were identical in both lists and were the same distance from the mean. So if participants rated the riskiness for each amount of alcohol based on the mean, the target units should be seen as equally risky in both groups. However, if they rated the riskiness based on rank, the target amount would have different risk ratings.

4E Framework

The premise of this study entails the 4E framework as used in cognitive science. The 4E framework here is made up of the dimensions: Embodied, Embedded, Extended and Enactive. The idea behind this framework is that our brain, body, our physical and social environments all interact and shape our cognition. In this case, the dimensions provide a useful base for understanding how people assess the risks associated with drinking. First, our drinking behaviors are embodied, meaning they are not calculated behaviors dictated solely by our minds, rather they involve emotions and other bodily sensations of, for example, pleasure felt when being part of a group. Second, our assessments are embedded in our society and culture. Third, we extend the risk assessment to a simple process of comparing to a sample of those around us. Finally, the risk assessment process is Enactive as it involves both bodily processes and environmental influences. 

Results and Application

The relationship between perceived risk, perceived rank and actual alcohol consumption

By comparing the self-reported drinking amount, with the participants perception of others’ drinking and perceived risks associated with drinking, results from the first study show that perceived risk was predicted from level of drinking and perceived rank but not from how personal drinking differed from the mean. 

Results from the second study showed that the rank of a target amount in the context of the other amounts on the list influenced the risk rating that was assigned to it. For example, the target amount 19 (units of alcohol/week) was ranked 2nd in terms of riskiness in group one and 5th in group two.

The mechanism behind adhering to norms 

This study gives a deeper insight to the cognitive mechanisms behind how social norms affect behavior and perceptions of risk. Specifically, it shows that when we gather social proof on how to act in a certain social situation, we do not simply compare ourselves to the mean, rather we rank ourselves among others. 

Climate & Energy Green behavior has to become a social norm if we want to see a positive change. But first, the social norm needs to be established. Proving personalized feedback on water and energy consumption that allows a person to rank themselves amongst their neighbors could help change behavior and establish greener social norms. 
Health & Wellbeing If ranking is our natural way of processing information, changing the way information is presented in social norm interventions could significantly improve outcomes. For example, instead of providing people with recommended drinking limits, it may be better to provide them with information about which percentile they are in.
Public Policy Findings from this study can be used to create more efficient information campaigns aimed at changing behavior.


  • The results provide a simple way to improve social norm based behavioral interventions.
  • Response bias may be a limitation as students self-report how much they drink.
  • Only college students were used in the study which limits the generalizability of the research.

Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?
It provides a way to improve interventions aimed at reducing binge drinking. 
Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?
None of the participants were identified.
Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?
Room for Improvement
Effectiveness of results when applied to a broader population is uncertain, and plans to conduct further research was not mentioned.

Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?
Room for Improvement
The study does not mention how they received consent from participants.
Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?
Participants are not restricted in the perceived risk rating or in their drinking behaviors.
Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?
Room for Improvement
The participants' choices on drinking behavior remain the same.

Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?
Room for Improvement
The study only mentions that they used both male and female undergraduate students. 
Are the participants diverse?
Room for Improvement
Since the participants were undergraduate students, it may lack diversity in terms of age and socioeconomic status.
Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?
Insufficient Information/Not Applicable
The study does not mention how the results can be used for equitable distribution of welfare.

Related TDL Content 

How Social Norms Complicate Behavioral Research

Behavioral science interventions using social norms can be extremely complicated. Norms are implicit, intangible and volatile which makes it challenging to create and predict the results of such interventions. This article gives deeper insights into the issues associated with interventions using social norms and it provides tips on how to mitigate them.

Harnessing Social Norms for Social Good

How can social norms be used to promote social distancing during a pandemic? This article explores how framing messages as inductive norms has the strongest impact on behavior.


  1. Wood, A. M., Brown, G. D., & Maltby, J. (2011). Social norm influences on evaluations of the risks associated with alcohol consumption: Applying the rank-based decision by sampling model to health judgments. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 47(1), 57-62.
  2. Stewart, N., Chater, N., & Brown, G. D. (2006). Decision by sampling. Cognitive Psychology, 53(1), 1-26.
  3. Moreira, M. T., & Foxcroft, D. (2007). Social norms interventions to reduce alcohol misuse in University or college students. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
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