How You Can Use Social Norming Data to Encourage Students to Make Healthier Choices

There is a phenomenon wherein most students participate in healthy behaviors but assume that most of their peers act unhealthily.

As such, students might second-guess if their healthy behavior fits in with the norm.

Social Norm Theory is the practice of showing data on student behavior to students — in order to showcase that most of their peers participate in healthy behaviors. When students become aware of this data, they are likely to modify their behavior to align with the majority.

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Social norm theory has been successfully used in the prevention of high-risk alcohol and other drug use and could also work for violence prevention and bystander intervention theory.

If you work in prevention or wellness, you’re probably already aware of all this. 

If you haven’t worked with social norming data before, consider if now is the time to collect such data and implement this theory into your programs. You can use social norm data on many topics, including alcohol use, drug use, healthy romantic relationships, masculinity and violence, and mental health

Collect this data by surveying students about their behaviors and perceptions. For example, ask “On average, how many times a month do you drink more than one drink in one sitting?” Then ask, “On average, what percentage of your peers do you think drink more than one drink in one sitting?”

Most students will overestimate how much their peers drink. 

The average response to the first question will give you social normal data. Show students this statistic. They’ll likely be tempted to reevaluate their assumption and relieved that their behavior actually fits in with the majority. 

If you aren’t able to show data that’s specific to your campus, you can use national data.

Or, consider if it could be worthwhile to collect it for specifically your campus. We get ours from the National College Health Assessment, Core Institute surveys, Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates, and AlcoholEdu, as well as new first-year student and exiting senior surveys.

Social norming is highly effective because while students won’t admit it, traditional college-age students are at a developmental stage in which they place extreme importance on fitting in with their peers. 

The classic way of sharing social norming data is by hanging posters across campus. But it’s worthwhile to think outside of that box. 

Here are 21 ways for incorporating social norming data into your work in unique ways, bound to get students to pay attention and make healthy behavioral changes.

Visual

1. TV Screens 

A smidge more engaging than their poster cousins, throw your social norming data on TV screens across campus. Students can see digital signage  to showcase data next to info about campus events.

2. Sidewalk Chalk

If you or your student employees have a free, sunny afternoon, head outside and write your norming data on the sidewalk. Use eye-catching colors so students won’t be able to ignore the numbers about the healthy majority.

3. Coffee Shop Sleeves

If you have a campus coffee shop that students love, work with the shop’s management to see if you can put social norming data on stickers for their coffee sleeves. Students who need their java of tea fix will be able to check out the data whenever they get a treat.

4. Visual Art Campaigns

If you or your staff are artistic, consider creative ways you could implement social norming data into visual art campaigns. For example, each April, my coworkers and I at Marquette University host denim day for our campus. 

Every Denim Day, students can view a visual display on the quad of denim decorated by students. Last year, I encouraged our peer educators to decorate the denim with statistics about violence prevention and how likely students are to intervene in situations that could lead to violence.

Students looked at and snapped photos of the display throughout the day, actively engaging with the data.

photo of a student taking a picture with her phone of denim pants hanging on a clothesline at Marquette's Denim Day

My students have also used social norms around healthy sleep habits in a performance art display. Last year, they set up a bedroom in our student union. Students could visit the bedroom and scan QR codes that led them to a survey about their sleep habits.

In doing so, we collected data from our students about their sleep, but also gave them statistics on the majority of students’ sleep habits and informed them about which sleep habits are healthiest

5. Door Decs

Ah, door decs. Love them or hate them, they are an enduring tradition in welcoming residential students to their new homes. Choose a month to make all door decs social-norm-themed. When students travel up and down the halls of their building, social norming data will surround them.

6. Table Tents

Think beyond dining halls when it comes to table tents. If there is a surface that students work on, consider topping it with a table tent that they can peruse with social norming data on it. Campus coffee shops, libraries, tables in staff offices, waiting rooms, and wherever your imagination takes you can be great spaces to place table tents. 

Change the design and refresh data based on the season, and you will earn some A+ engagement.

7. Yard Signs

Yard signs always catch my attention, especially if they direct me to an estate sale or yard sale. But I suppose if a social norming statistic was listed on one instead, it would make me stop and think. 

8. Campus Hotspots

Set a timer for two minutes and list all the high-traffic areas on your campus.  Or, ask your students to help you remember these spots. Then, figure out a way to display social norming data at each location. 

When you’ve compiled all of the most popular places on campus by connecting with colleagues or students, you can be more effective in engaging students.

Push it a step further by asking your students to list high-traffic areas on campus for you. You might not realize where the studying hotspots are if you are usually in your office all day. 

9. Swag and Giveaways

If you purchase giveaways for students, this is a great place to list social norming data.

Whenever a student looks at their pop-socket or takes a drink from their cute water bottle, they will see the statistic. If you purchase T-shirts or backpacks with your data displayed on them, you will have the extra benefit of many other students seeing them across campus as well.

Media

10. Podcasts

If your campus or a student organization hosts a podcast, try to secure a guest spot for yourself. If you can’t be interviewed, record an ad that details this data instead. 

11. Dining Radio

My campus has a dining hall radio. The station not only plays the hottest hits, but students can also hear information about upcoming events. Take some time to write and record a little copy about social norming data and submit it!

12. Campus Television

If your campus has a television station, consider submitting social norming data as a story for newscasters to present before high-risk weekends, such as Halloween, homecoming, or big game days. 

13. A Play, Skit, or Musical

My favorite way we’ve used social norming data at Marquette is a play we hosted during orientation called “Marquette Now Trending”. We held auditions for student actors to deliver a TED-Talk-style play about attitudes their peers have surrounding high-risk alcohol use, bystander intervention, mental health, and gender violence. 

While we haven’t tabulated our data yet, we really enjoyed this opportunity to show new students that most Marquette students actually have healthy attitudes regarding these topics.

14. Social Media Accounts

You might already be sharing your social norming data on your office’s social media accounts but consider expanding your reach by working with your communications office to take over your institution’s Instagram or other social media feeds for the day or week to put your norming data on a big platform.

You could even work with students who are social media influencers.

15. Institutional Homepage

Reach out to your communications staff to find out if you can take over a part of the main homepage during the first six weeks of the semester when students begin to learn the norms on campus. 

If you can display student data on the homepage, students will see it every time they check out something on the homepage. If they are confronted with this data in this way, they might reconsider their assumptions.

16. Student Job Descriptions

If you hire student employees, chances are they read your job descriptions very carefully to see if they have the necessary qualifications. 

Take advantage of this by incorporating data on majority student behavior into job postings. You can weave this right into the job description. 

For example, in our peer educator job posting, we could write “The majority of Marquette students do not participate in high-risk drinking. Join our team to educate students on this topic and make a space for students who don’t want to participate in drinking on campus.” 

In Person

17. Conduct Hearings

Conduct hearings are a great time to discuss social norms with students. While you’re already planning on discussing how their behavior impacted the community negatively, talk about social norms so students can see that their behavior was actually outside of the norm. 

18. Individual Interventions

BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students) is one of the most effective individual interventions in behavior change. If you are a BASICS practitioner, use social norming data in your motivational interviewing sessions with students. 

19. One-on-ones

Make it a habit to weave social norming data into your one-on-one conversations with students. This can help students see that they aren’t alone in avoiding high-risk drinking or using the counseling center. Developmentally, it’s an important part of challenging students to think critically about what is happening on campus.

20. Professional Development of Student Employees

If you have student staff, consider putting social norming statistics on their meeting agendas. Or, host a professional development staff meeting during which you lay out the campus norms and discuss their reactions and thoughts. 

21. First-Year Seminar or Classes

If you teach a first-year seminar or another course, consider all the ways you could incorporate social norming data into your lessons or assignments.

It would be so cool to have one class session on the actual norms around drinking, another on bystander intervention, or another on accessing mental health services. These would be amazing ways for students to engage with the data and consider how their behaviors fit in with their peers. 

Sometimes, I think about how social norming data as a prevention key is too good to be true. It’s proven to be effective in changing student behavior and it is so easy to share this data with students in engaging ways. 

If you’ve got social norming data surrounding behaviors around alcohol and other drug use, bystander intervention, and mental health, but have been stumped about how to use it, I hope this list will be a good start to get your ideas flowing. 

How have you used social norming data? How have students responded? We’d love to hear your stories and insights @HelloPresence.

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Kacie Otto

About the author: Kacie Otto is the Violence Prevention Specialist at Marquette University. If she’s not knitting or reading a book about feminism, you might find her at a campsite or in a thrift shop. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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