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‘Uncommon, Unhealthy’: The Right Feedback Reduces College Drinking

In psychology, the theory of “deviance regulation” posits that people generally behave in ways that elicit approval from others. Usually that means conforming to certain norms, or acting like everybody else to fit in. Sometimes, though, people behave in unusual ways, and if that distinctive behavior attracts negative attention, the disapproval alone may prompt them to stop.

Deviance regulation theory has been used to encourage healthy behaviors. Smoking, for example, is not only unhealthy and barred in many settings, but it’s also become harder for smokers to light up in the presence of non-smokers because so many people disapprove.

A recent study sought to apply deviance regulation theory to college drinking. Would college students drink less if told that their level of alcohol consumption was unhealthy, “uncommon,” and viewed negatively by others?

The study, published in the journal Behavior and Research Therapy, was co-authored by Professor Angelo M. DiBello (Brooklyn College), along with with the lead researcher Clayton Neighbors  and others  from the University of Houston, Rowan University, University of South Florida, University of Connecticut, and University of North Texas Health Science Center. The participants were 959 undergraduates who met criteria for heavy drinking (four drinks at one sitting for women, five for men). The students were surveyed three times in six months and received “computer-delivered, norms-based personalized feedback” about their alcohol consumption.

Researchers tested eight different types of feedback to determine which type of messaging was most effective in encouraging students to reduce their drinking. Some messages framed the feedback in positive ways; others framed it in negative ways. For example, one type of feedback emphasized that most students at their university drink in moderation, and that drinking in moderation is common and healthy. An alternative message emphasized that few students consume four or more drinks in one sitting, suggesting that heavy drinking is uncommon and unhealthy.

The researchers concluded that “messages focusing on unhealthy drinking behaviors, particularly when described as uncommon, were most effective in reducing drinking and alcohol-related behaviors over time.” Consistent with deviance regulation theory, the researchers concluded that this messaging worked because it suggested that “engaging in uncommon, unhealthy behaviors would result in negative distinction” (social disapproval).  The authors noted that while this study involved college students, feedback messaging “could be tailored to target” other populations in the context of how they are viewed by their peers.

Beyond SUM

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Angelo M. DiBello (Assistant Professor, Psychology) | Profile 1

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Brooklyn College