Alcohol Education Guide
to Reducing Harmful Drinking

Western Washington University Social Norms Program



Implementer: Western Washington University

Partners: Funding from the US Department of Education

Program Overview: This social norms program used a universal and targeted approach in an effort to reduce alcohol consumption among the general population and heavy drinking among harmful drinkers in a university setting.

Program Design: This program used two approaches, a social norms marketing campaign aimed at the general university student population and a normative feedback approach targeting harmful drinkers.

The social norms marketing campaign used mass media, including ads in the student paper and posters placed on campus to promote the message that "Most (66%) Western students drink 4 or fewer drinks when they party." Ads contained the following element: pictures of college students, information on what constitutes one drink, a statement describing the methodology used for arriving at the statistics, and information about the creator of the ad. In addition to the mass media efforts the campaign also enlisted "lifestyle advisors." These advisors were trained students who were taught about social norms and their potential influence on behavior. These students committed to attempt to correct their peers' misperceptions regarding normative drinking behavior.

The targeted normative feedback component focused specifically on harmful drinkers. Students who had been cited as violating campus alcohol policies in university residence halls or who were charged in the local court for underage possession of alcohol were targeted as harmful drinkers. These students were mandate to receive personalized normative feedback in a motivational interviewing style intervention from risk reduction specialists.

Evaluation: Each component of the program employed a slightly different evaluation design.

The social norms marketing campaign relied on campus pre and post intervention campus surveys. Information on drinking perceptions and behaviors was collected through the WWU Lifestyles Survey in the spring of 1997 and 1998. Additionally, a panel survey was conducted. Students who responded to the 1998 post test were followed for another year and surveyed again in 1999.

The normative feedback intervention was evaluated among the 446 harmful drinkers mandated to participate. These students completed a baseline questionnaire before the intervention as well as a post test at completion and a three month follow up after completion. The questionnaire included items to assess quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption, negative alcohol related consequences, use of psychoactive substances, sexual behavior, alcohol expectancies, readiness for change, psychological distress, alcohol dependence, and perceptions of others' drinking behaviors.

Key findings: Evaluations found that both components of the program produced statistically significant changes in misperceptions and alcohol consumption.

Social norms marketing campaign:

  • Over the course of the campaign there was a 44% reduction in misperceptions of typical drinking patterns among students (p < 0.001[JT1] )
  • There was a 20.6% reduction in students reporting consuming 5 or more drinks on a single occasion (p < 0.024)
  • The panel survey showed significant decreases in the typical and peak number of drinks consumed; misperceptions about other students' heavy drinking, and reported negative consequences

Targeted normative feedback:

  • Students receiving the mandated normative feedback reported significant decreases in the typical and peak number of drinks consumed
  • Intervention students reports a significant decline in the reported amount of time spent drinking
  • Students reported a significant decrease in frequency of alcohol consumption over the past month


1. Fabiano, P. M., McKinney, G. R., Rhoads, K., & Stark, C. (2000). Longitudinal findings from the 1999 lifestyles survey. Focus, 5(5), 2-8. 

2. Fabiano, P. M. (2003). Applying the social norms to universal and indicated alcohol interventions at Western Washington University. In Perkins, H. W. (Ed),The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse, 83-99. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Target Audience: University/young adults (18-21 years)
Issues: Underage Drinking
Setting: University
Approach: Social Norms