Misperceptions of the behaviors and beliefs of others function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although inaccurate, individuals conform to the perceived descriptive and injunctive norms in order to avoid feeling alienated from or rejected by their social group (Prentice and Miller, 1993). Through this process, erroneous perceptions of norms have real consequences for behaviors. Sher and colleagues (2001) examined college students' engagement in heavy drinking over 4 years of college. Perceptions of peer alcohol use and peer support for heavy drinking in years 1, 2, and 3 predicted heavy drinking in years 2, 3, and 4, respectively. Carey et al (2006) examined the influence of discrepancies between the perceived descriptive norm and personal drinking behavior on subsequent drinking behavior. Consistent with the social norms perspective, the degree to which individuals were discrepant from the descriptive norm positively predicted increases in drinking 30 days later.
Similar findings have been obtained in relation to other problematic behaviors. For example, perceptions of the prevalence of peer use of cigarettes and marijuana predict personal cigarette and marijuana use (Graham et al, 1991; Juvonen et al, 2007). The body image and disordered eating literatures have documented disturbing relationships of perceived norms for weight and body size with unhealthy behaviors among young women. Sanderson and colleagues (2002) found that women who had greater discrepancies between their own body mass index and the perceived average body mass index of their peers were at increased risk for both experiencing an extreme desire to be thin and engaging in behaviors that are symptomatic of bulimia, such as binging and purging. Similarly, Bergstrom et al (2004) documented greater unhealthy weight loss behaviors, including vomiting, fasting, and use of laxatives and diuretics, among women who overestimated men's endorsement of overly thin women as attractive.
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