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UAlbany's Social Norms Posters Misleading?

By Joe Hoffman

Nearly a quarter of students at the University at Albany have had unprotected sex while drinking alcohol in the past year, and another 12% had used stimulants in the past year according to a survey conducted by the university.


But students on campus have likely seen the survey’s data presented in a more flattering light, plastered on colorful posters in the Campus Center or on Podium columns.


The posters are part of the university’s “Social Norms Campaign,” and are the brainchild of Dr. Dolores Cimini, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at UAlbany.


One such poster reads "75% of students don't let alcohol interfere with having safe sex." Another claims “87% of students take steps to be safer at parties.”


But the complete data set, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, points to a more complete picture.


The posters have drawn criticism from students, and some scholarly evidence calls into question the campaign’s effectiveness at reducing risk behaviors.


“I might see a poster that says 86% of people don’t smoke weed, but if I’m around a lot of people that smoke weed, I’m probably gonna think that’s not the norm,” said Jordan Stewart, a junior philosophy major. “It’s more about someone's personal experience around whatever the poster is trying to say.”


For Cimini, criticism is a good thing.


“That’s actually a positive sign that people are mocking it,” she said, “The numbers have to be hard to believe.”


Cimini started the campaign to point out how students who drank or used drugs were actually in the minority. When presented with the true data, social norms theory says that students will be positively pressured into making safer choices.


But she fears that release of all the data from the study may hurt some students.


A CLOSER LOOK AT THE STUDY

The study is not peer-reviewed, but conducted and analysed completely by the university. Its procedure, like any study, may affect the accuracy of the statistics.


In the spring of 2018, CAPS sent employees into UAlbany classrooms and passed out just over 1,000 anonymous surveys with 123 questions each.


The university chose which classes to survey by picking a ‘stratified random sample,’ according to Cimini.


But data provided reveal that only 10% of respondents were senior level. Thirty-seven percent were sophomores, 28% were freshmen, and 25% were juniors.


“The focus is for some of our studies on first year students and the like,” said Dr. Cimini about the discrepancy. “When we do the surveys, we tend to get bigger classes selected which are the freshman and sophomores. The senior classes are a lot smaller, so the balance turns out like this sometimes.”


The in-class survey method may lead to mixed results, said John Yu, an emeritus professor of sociology and former research director for the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.


“Once you go into a class, because of the environment, the students are there under supervision by the professor,” said Yu. “So they would think that your surveys are for class work. So you get a high response rate but if the students are under pressure, you don’t get good results. Your results are most likely under-reported.”


Cimini said students who might lie or be misleading on the survey are balanced out by the students who are being honest.


THE ALCOHOL QUESTION

The notion that UAlbany is a “party school” is a reputation the university is less than proud of - and fatal hazing from underground Greek life and incidents like Kegs and Eggs have not helped.


The survey data paint a picture of a portion of students who engage in ‘risky’ activity. For example, 41% of respondents engaged in binge drinking the last time they partied.

“Binge drinking” is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as drinking enough to raise blood alcohol levels to 0.08 g/dL. For men, this takes typically five drinks over two hours, and for women, it takes four.


“Any level of alcohol use on any college campuses concerns me. It's a risk behavior,” Cimini said. “But that's why we have our offices here available and the work that we do.”


CAPS provides counseling for students struggling with alcohol, drugs, or mental health issues, and uses the data garnered from the 123-question surveys to make internal funding and program decisions.


A few years ago, the surveys helped CAPS implement a program called “Let’s Talk.” On certain days, CAPS counselors table out in common student areas like the science library or the Educational Opportunity Program’s advising office.


“Those are populations that maybe culturally, traditionally would seek counseling less often,” said Dr. Cimini. “But if we're there, in the hall, especially Yours Truly who has a dog, they get exposed to what counseling is like in a very friendly way.”


The Social Norms posters tend to interpret survey data in a particularly positive manner.

One poster on campus says that “87% of students take steps to be safer at parties.”


But the data suggest that a substantial portion of students do not take what CAPS considers to be ‘safe steps.’


For example, 40% of the respondents had ‘pregamed’ before going out to drink in the past month.


Forty-one percent said they rarely or never paced themselves to one drink per hour. Another 48% said they rarely or never avoided drinking games when partying.


On the brighter side, 66 percent said they always or most of the time used a designated driver (including buses) to get to/from parties.


Cimini said the “87% of students” poster was calculated by adding together the percentages, but was not clear on how exactly they came to equal 87.


“Well you know that’s something that is complex and it would just take too much detail to explain,” said Cimini.


A HELPFUL STRATEGY?

The pushing of positive social norms is not unique to UAlbany; other colleges around the nation have tried it, with mixed results.


A 2003 study by the Harvard Department of Health and Social Behavior analysed 98 colleges that used social norms marketing programs, looking at trends of student alcohol use over time.


The researchers concluded there was no evidence to support the effectiveness of the campaigns in reducing alcohol usage.


Cimini, however, says that the university has seen a decrease since starting the program. As of publication, she has not provided precise percentages showing a decline.


“There’s no one strategy that works perfectly,” said Yu. “Probably there’s a group that drinks more, having more risks, so different strategies will only be effective to a small group of people.”


Student Jordan Stewart said unless the culture of drinking changes, the posters will have a small effect.


“I feel like people follow what they’re going to do,” said sophomore human biology major Samantha Varner. “They don’t really think about statistics when they’re going out.”


“The [posters] are choosing the good stuff and hiding the bad stuff,” added Varner.


But Cimini said students should not be exposed to all of the survey results. Facts like 12 percent of students have taken stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall in the past year should remain in the hands of CAPS, unless they are presented in a careful and strategic way, she said.


“If we were to release some of the responses, for example, a certain percent of students who have considered suicide, that actually might injure students,” said Cimini. “It might make them potentially emotionally concerned or upset.”


Suicide may be a particularly pertinent topic for Cimini to consider: more than 60% of students said they had never received information on suicide prevention from the university.


Meanwhile, over a quarter of students said in the past year they have experienced feeling so depressed it was difficult to function.


The survey statistics document provided to the ASP can be found online.