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Survey of young adults finds differences from social norms theory

April 18, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Research findings based on a 2015 online survey of young adults challenge to a degree the widely held theory that young people tend to misperceive their peers' drinking levels and that this negatively influences their own alcohol use behaviors. The study, conducted by treatment resource provider Recovery Brands, found that a slight majority of survey respondents accurately assessed their consumption levels when compared to self-reported responses from their peer group.

The study involved 417 young people ages 18 to 24 who reported having engaged in binge drinking sometime in the month prior to the survey. “We had hypothesized that individuals would say that they drink less than their friends, but that in reality their levels would be the same or more,” says study co-author Ruchi M. Sanghani, Recovery Brands' director of research.

However, around 51% of respondents' self-evaluations of alcohol use were consistent with self-reported peer group use, while around 23% misperceived consumption below the peer group's actual range and 26% misperceived consumption above the peer group's actual range. Study results were published online Feb. 24 in the Journal of Addiction and Dependence.

“What we found doesn't disprove social norms theory,” which generally states that young people tend to overestimate how much their peers are drinking, Sanghani says. “It challenges it. It's just not the only thing that we found.”

Perception about a friend

As well as being asked about their perceptions of alcohol consumption, survey participants were asked “whether or not they had 'that friend' or 'those friends': a person or group of individuals who they felt consumed alcohol more excessively than most of the peer group members, and frequently became more intoxicated, ill, incoherent, and/or pressured others to drink,” the study paper states. Nearly 58% of respondents said they believed they had such a friend, and of those who said they did, 59% believe that friend has an alcohol use disorder.

“We were surprised about the number who believe they have 'that friend,' and that the person may have an [alcohol use disorder],” says Sanghani.

She and her co-authors believe this indicates a potentially important role for young-adult peers in intervening on behalf of friends in need of help. As they wrote in the article, “Due to the major influence peers have and their ability to detect drinking problems in others, peers and friends of those struggling with an [alcohol use disorder] may be the best sources to get help for those who need it.”

Sanghani says that in the college setting, for example, students can be made aware of where on-campus resources are available, so that they can try to link their problem-drinking peers to these services.

She adds, “There's an opportunity for the treatment industry to be able to educate colleges and universities on what to do.”