The Extent of Misperceptions

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Social norms theory originated when Perkins and Berkowitz (1986) noted that undergraduate students were largely inaccurate in their perceptions of their peers' attitudes toward alcohol use. Students by and large reported that their own attitudes concerning heavy alcohol use were conservative, yet they believed that their classmates approved of and held liberal attitudes toward heavy alcohol use. Thus, although the actual injunctive norm favored controlled, moderate levels of drinking, it was perceived that most students were comfortable with heavy drinking. Such misperceptions have been repeatedly documented with respect to alcohol use. Perkins et al (2005) examined data from 76,145 students, representing 130 colleges nationwide, and found that, regardless of the magnitude of the actual drinking norms, students consistently overestimated the prevalence and approval of alcohol use on their campus. In a synthesis of the literature, Borsari and Carey (2003) found that undergraduates consistently reported that they drink less and are less approving of alcohol use than their peers. Erroneous perceptions of drinking norms are not localized to college students or collegiate settings. Young adults who do not attend college and middle and high school students hold similarly exaggerated views of the typical drinking behaviors of their peers (Linkenbach and Perkins, 2003a; Perkins and Craig, 2003b).

Although the social norms approach was developed in the context of alcohol use and, consequently, has focused extensively on this issue, discrepancies between perceived and actual norms have been documented across a number of health behaviors. Individuals generally overestimate the prevalence of risky behaviors and underestimate the prevalence of protective behaviors. This pattern of findings has been replicated for drug use, including the use of tobacco, marijuana, and other illicit drugs (Perkins and Craig, 2003b). With respect to sexual behavior, condom use is underestimated, while levels of sexual activity are overestimated (Scholly et al, 2005). Finally, having bearing for body image disturbance and self-esteem, most women believe that the average woman is thinner than she is (Sanderson et al, 2002), and women inaccurately believe that men find overly thin women attractive (Bergstrom et al, 2004).

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