How Misperceptions Drive Social and Political Agendas

Monday, July 21, 2008 General News
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., July 21 After the 2007 shootings atVirginia Tech University, schools across the country spent tens of millions ofdollars to bolster campus security. There have been 137 murders on collegecampuses in the past eight years and on-campus murders represent less than 1percent of homicides nationally.

"The fact is that colleges and universities may be safer than our ownhomes," says Dr. James C. Turner, Executive Director of the National SocialNorms Institute (NSNI) and a Professor of Internal Medicine at the Universityof Virginia. He cites the rush to bolster campus security after the VirginiaTech shootings, which left 27 students and five faculty dead, as one exampleof how tragic, but rare, events can be misperceived as the norm and promptmajor changes in public policy.

Dr. Turner, who heads the Department of Student Health at the Universityof Virginia and is president-elect of the American College Health Association,will be the keynote speaker at the 2008 National Conference on the SocialNorms Approach set for July 20-22 at the Hyatt Regency at the San FranciscoAirport. The two-day conference is expected to attract about 200 collegehealth officials and social scientists from across the country.

The social norms approach is premised on the idea that a person's behavioris strongly influenced by perceptions of how other members of his or hersocial group think and act. For example, many college students believe thatbinge drinking is the norm and may be tempted to binge drink because theythink their peers do so. In fact, research shows that most college students donot binge drink.

To combat such misperceptions, more and more college campuses are mountingsocial norms marketing campaigns aimed at giving college students accurateinformation about their peers, thereby reinforcing existing healthy behaviors.

In his keynote address, Dr. Turner applies social norms theory to thelarger social and political arena. He focuses on three issues -- themisperceptions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD); that liquidbiofuels will help the planet by decreasing global warming; and that violenceis epidemic on America's college campuses.

In the case of Iraq, Dr. Turner says, the United States government decidedto go to war in large part because of faulty information about WMD. Thefederal mandate promoting biofuels, he says, was undertaken without evaluatingthe negative consequences, such as the impact on global food shortages, orproof that the approach would have a positive impact on global warming. And afew high-profile cases of campus violence, Dr. Turner explains, have promptedcolleges and universities to spend millions of dollars on stepped up campussecurity that will likely never be needed.

"After Virginia Tech, most colleges, for good reason, wanted to preventsimilar tragedies on their own campuses." Dr. Turner says. "As a reaction,many have put a lot of money into a number of expensive security measures.However, the core of our strategy should be to get better at identifyingseriously troubled students and intervening with them."

Dr. Turner points out that it may take decades to determine whether acommon perception is correct or not. As an example, he cites the endorsement,prior to the 1950s, of cigarette smoking by many in the medical community.One ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, for example, proclaimed: "20,679Physicians say Luckies are less irritating."

But with accurate data, Dr. Turner argues that misperceptions can becorrected -- and behaviors changed -- through concerted social normscampaigns. Such campaigns involve the dissemination of accurate informationshowing that most members of a particular group engage in healthy behaviors.

The approach has shown success in reducing high-risk drinking on collegecampuses by promoting accurate information about how much studen

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