BB&N Buzz: Social norms theory at work around drug usage perceptions

By Elaine Dai, Alicia Juang, Jake Kuhn, and Elana Sulakshana

The survey results revealed a discrepancy between students’ perception of drug usage and the actual usage. For example, 83% respondents said that alcohol consumption was common or excessive among students, while only 30% of students reported drinking once a month or more. Similarly, 46% of respondents thought that marijuana was common or excessive. The usage numbers reveal that just under 10% of students smoke marijuana once a month or more.

According to Wellness Collaborative educator Will Slotnick, such a disparity—formally deemed the Social Norms Theory—is typical. “You’re going to notice the people who are drinking, not the people who aren’t. Non-use tends to be hidden, especially in social situations,” he said.

Dr. Mark Johnson of the Pacific Institution for Research and Evaluation described the theory as the phenomena in which social norms—in this case, others’ behaviors and attitudes around alcohol and drug usage—influence people’s decisions.

“There are not stories about the non-users,” Upper School Counselor Doug Neuman said. “That feeds the perception that everyone must be doing it. At parties, the assumption is that everyone is drinking.”

Zach Boughner ’15 pointed to the media as another source of the false perception.

“There’s a lot of emphasis in the media and general assumptions made about high school and college [students drinking],” he said. “Everybody thinks that everyone’s doing it [so] when people are talking, they might be saying different things than what’s going on to boost social perceptions of who they are.”

For one senior girl, her own high school experience has shown that drinking habits often determine social groups.

“In high school, I think that if you’re really against [drinking], you won’t be as good friends with [peers who drink],” she said. “Drinking and partying define the group you associate with. People can get stuck in that—some might lose their friends.”

Jimmy Cochran ’14 disagreed, saying that experiences vary across the student body but that in his time at BB&N, substance use habits have not factored into his relationships.

“I think a lot of friendship groups are very diverse,” Jimmy said. “Within my close group of friends, it’s a personal choice, and people usually respect that.”

Zach added that whether others’ drug habits play a role in student life depends also on an individual’s mindset.

“I don’t think [drugs] are incredibly prevalent despite what the perception might be,” he said. “Depending on who you are and what you do what your life revolves around, you may or may not let certain substances determine who you are. I personally don’t think they’ve defined my high school experience.”

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