The role of injunctive norms and alcohol use during the first-semester of college.

Author:Talbott, Laura L.


Injunctive norms, or perceived peer approval of drinking is a potentially important influence on college student drinking. Few studies on college student drinking have attended to injunctive norms during the first few months of college. Longitudinal data from 534 first semester freshmen are used to describe the contributions of injunctive norms to alcohol consumption. Injunctive norms were measured by peer approval of drinking and alcohol consumption was measured by the typical number of drinks consumed in the past 30-days while partying. Results indicate that injunctive norms were a significant predictor of drinking after controlling for gender and effects of time.


The transition to college is a crucial time for first-year students when the natural history and progression of alcohol use are at peak levels (Schulenberg, Bachman, O'Malley & Johnston, 1994). Although values, beliefs, and behavior patterns may have been established prior to matriculation to college, the transition to college may disrupt established patterns and leave students open to new influences on drinking. For instance, the absence of parents, insecurities in adjusting to college, difficulties coping with stress, home sickness, and loneliness or isolation are a few factors that may lead to the desire to consume alcohol at increased quantities. (2-7) Furthermore, the selection of a new peer-group has been identified as the strongest single predictor of young adult alcohol use. (8-11) Specifically, first-year college students, who select to associate with peers who largely approve of alcohol consumption, are more likely to consume alcohol themselves. (12-15) Thus, peer influences, including injunctive norms, should be considered as an important predictor of alcohol-related problems.

The misuse of alcohol is a major social and health issue for college students in the United States. (16) At the time of this study statistics indicate that 85.6% of college students consumed alcohol in the past year. (17) Under the legal drinking age of 21, many first-year students have not been exposed to the quantity at which alcohol is consumed at college, thus intensifying the potential for alcohol-related problems. (18) Nationally, nearly half of first-year college students meet criteria for binge drinking. (17)

Building on the seminal social norms research from the 1980's, (19) a study by Graham and colleagues established that different types of peer influences (i.e. direct and indirect) have the ability to impact first-year student alcohol use in unique ways. (20) Indirect peer influences are an individual's perception and interpretation of peers' drinking behaviors. (21) There are two different means for assessing indirect peer influence commonly referenced in the college alcohol literature: social modeling (i.e. emulating peer behavior) and perceived norms. The definition of perceived norms is challenging to interpret in the college alcohol literature because it is comprised of two distinct sub-components: 1) descriptive norms and 2) injunctive norms. Collectively, descriptive and injunctive norms greatly influence what a first-year student will perceive as either acceptable or unacceptable behavior. (22) Unfortunately, previous college alcohol studies have not defined perceived norms or clearly differentiated between the two types, making it difficult to determine how norms, or which type of norms, most directly influence drinking behaviors. (21,23)

Specific to this study, injunctive norms are the least studied perceived norms sub-types. Injunctive norms, for purposes of this study, are defined as the perception of peer's approval of drinking (also know as the norm of "ought" or "prescriptive norms"). (21,24-26) Injunctive norms strongly impact personal alcohol use, and peer approval of drinking is hypothesized to be more influential than institution-based norms. (27-29) Thus, drinking levels perceived to be appropriate by highly regarded individuals (i.e. close friends) are more influential in determining a first-year student's drinking behavior than those of the institution (i.e. campus as a whole) or the larger sub-population (i.e. all first-year students).

The major hypothesis in this study is that, in conjunction with other major predictors of college student drinking (e.g. race and gender), injunctive norms will make significant, unique contributions to self-reported levels of alcohol consumption. Furthermore, over time, injunctive norms will predict changes in drinking, such that those who perceive peers as having a positive view of drinking will consume more alcohol relative to baseline. (24, 30-31) These hypotheses will be tested with survey data from 534 first-year students, surveyed four times, 30-days apart during their first semester of college.

Presently, studies have not isolated a large sample restricted to first-year college students on which to explore the role of injunctive norms. The majority of college alcohol studies assessing injunctive norms are cross-sectional. (28-29) Therefore, this study makes novel contributions through the nature of the sample, the frequency of measurement, the longitudinal design, and the focus on injunctive norms.



This study was conducted at a large, public, southeastern university during the fall semester of 2004. Eligible participants were enrolled in their first semester of college and resided in one of nine freshmen residence halls on-campus. Complete racial/ ethnic information was provided for 2,175 eligible first year students. The eligible pool was comprised of 1,762 (81.0%) Caucasian students and 297 (13.7%) African American students. Asian, Hispanic, and Native American student comprised the remaining 5.3% of the eligible population, thus, the eligible pool was reduced to include only Caucasian and African American students. The final sample of 1,109 students was comprised of all 297 African American students and 812 (404 female, and 408 male) Caucasian students who were proportionately sampled by race and dorm.

The following Table 1 illustrates the sample composition of first-year student respondents at each survey wave. Over the four data collection points, the sample composition for each race-gender combination remains fairly consistent. The largest decline in participation is among Caucasian males, which began at 24.1% and was reduced to 19.2% by Wave 4.


The present study, in accordance with university IRB requirements, was conducted in a confidential manner, as the name, gender, race, room number, and hall of residence were known to the authors. The longitudinal nature of the assessment required the authors to assign each of the 1,109 first-year participants an identification number. The identification number assisted with participant tracking across each survey wave, identification of which residence hall the participant represented, and to ensure that survey incentive items were correctly distributed.

Distribution of the Freshmen Center Survey occurred at four 30-day intervals that spanned the first semester of college enrollment from September to December of 2004. First-year students received the survey around the 15th of each month and were requested to return the survey within seven days. The surveys were placed under participants' dorm room doors by Residence Hall Assistants in a large envelope. In addition to the survey, the envelope consisted of a letter from the Director of Residence Life instructing students about the study purpose and the location of drop-off for completed surveys, as well as a pre-addressed campus mail envelope.

The return of survey materials via campus mail posed several scenarios that could potentially breech confidentiality. Therefore, the authors petitioned the IRB for a "waiver of written consent" to ensure participant confidentiality. The IRB granted the request and required the authors to add a statement to the initial letter informing students that completion of the survey would be accepted as voluntary consent to participate. Thus, at...

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