The Effects of Social Norming

By Iz Guis

Not so long ago, signs appeared around Latin. I, along with the rest of the student body, was informed of how many freshmen drank alcohol, what percentage of students have cheated, etc. I was immediately confused and a little suspicious. Why were they around school? What was the point? And most importantly, who were they for?

I asked around in the third floor computer lab, and the general consensus was just about the same as mine. No one really knew what they were for, and most questioned the validity of the statistics themselves. In an effort to uncover the mystery of the new signs, I met with Ms. McCarthy, who shed light on the intentions behind them.

The signs are a part of something called social norming. As Ms. McCarthy said, “The research is that people believe more stuff is happening than what is actually happening. Most people tend to believe that everyone is having sex and doing drugs, but when people were surveyed about it, they found that most people actually don’t do it.…The perception was so much greater than what was actually happening.” The concept makes a lot of sense. Thanks to movies and TV shows, it’s easy to believe that everyone in high school are having crazy experiences and feel as though you are the minority by not doing all these things that you see in the media.

The purpose of the signs is to shatter this skewed perspective and, ideally, to cause less people to participate in these activities in the first place. Ms. McCarthy continues, “Definitely, it was for the student body, for the community to get their heads around and to make people who are making safer, healthier choices not feel like they’re the only people making that choice.”

Social norming was not the primary intent of the surveys that we took in the fall, but once the results came in, the staff “felt that they really lent themselves to some social norming.” I agree. I was hugely surprised with the statistics, showing that my perception was far from reality too.

When I asked other students, explaining to them what the basic premise was behind the signs, many were still suspicious, with one freshman claiming that “they’re all lies.” Another freshman pointed out that, “By giving these statistics, it seems like they’re trying to cover things up, and in that way it almost does the opposite of what it’s supposed to.” And while this is not the case, as was revealed in my interview, sometimes rumors are even more influential than fact.

Additionally, a majority of the students I asked about the social norming signs speculated that the facts may have been exaggerated. Are our perceptions so skewed that we believe the statistics themselves are made up or that the people surveyed were not truthful? Regardless, the general suspicion seems to indicate that the signs raise important and sensitive issues. And as for the outcome of the social norming, only time will tell. Two years, to be exact, when the Upper School will take the survey again and see if the signs have had any influence on the numbers of students cheating and drinking alcohol. If that’s the case and the numbers go down, then I’d start getting used to the signs because social norming just might become a major part of life at Latin.