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  • A Hierarchy of 21st Birthday Drinking Norms
  • Megan E. Patrick (bio), Clayton Neighbors (bio), and Christine M. Lee (bio)

Social norms, at the most abstract level, represent society's expectations for appropriate behavior. For most individuals, behavior, attitudes, and self-esteem are heavily influenced by one's perceptions of others' opinions, expectations, and behaviors (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004; Sherif, 1936). Individuals are not equally influenced by everyone, but rather are more influenced by those with whom they more closely identify (Festinger, 1954; Tajfel, 1982; Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987) and whose opinions are of greater value to them (Latane, 1981). For example, previous research has shown that college student drinking is more strongly associated with perceived approval of friends relative to other students (Baer, Stacy, & Larimer, 1991). The present paper offers preliminary evidence for a hierarchical organization of normative social influences on 21st birthday drinking.

21st Birthday Drinking

In recent years, 21st birthday celebratory drinking has received increasing attention, due largely to the propagation of dangerous and sometimes fatal drinking traditions, such as attempting to drink one shot for each year of life, sometimes in a single hour (Hembroff, Atkin, Martell, McCue, & Greenamyer, 2007; Neighbors, Spieker, Oster-Aaland, Lewis, & Bergstrom, 2005; Rutledge, Park, & Sher, 2008). Intervention strategies designed to curb dangerous 21st birthday drinking have incorporated social norms components and have been met with varying degrees of success (Hembroff et al., 2007; Lewis, Neighbors, Lee, & Oster-Aaland, 2008; Neighbors, Lee, Lewis, Fossos, & Walter, 2009; Smith, Bogle, Talbott, Gant, & Castillo, 2006). A better understanding of the relative influence of social norms on 21st birthday drinking may offer practical suggestions for more effective interventions.

Hierarchical Norms Theory

According to this perspective, social networks and associated norms can be thought of as being hierarchically arranged, with smaller and more proximal networks existing within larger and more distal networks. According to this conceptualization, close friends can be thought of as a subset of the people with whom one is acquainted. One's acquaintances, in turn, can be thought of as a subset of members of the subpopulation with which one identifies. The subpopulation is, in turn, a subset of the global population. Although this admittedly is an oversimplified model, as there are likely to be many networks at each of multiple levels for any given individual, it offers unique concrete predictions regarding [End Page 581] the relative influence of norms on personal behavior. Moreover, we propose that the influences of more distal norms on behavior are mediated by the influence of more proximal norms. That is, the influence of perceptions of societal beliefs regarding a particular behavior will be due, at least in part, to their association with more subpopulation norms, which will, in turn, be due in part to their association with more proximal norms. In the present paper, we provide preliminary evidence for the hierarchical influence of norms at varying levels of specificity by considering the influence of norms for 21st birthday drinking among college students at three levels (friends, other college students, and society).

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Table 1.

Descriptive Statistics and Correlations of 21st Birthday Perceptions and Behavior (N = 293)


Participants were college students turning 21 years old at a large university in the Northwestern United States (N = 293; 58.0% female, 42.0% male; 67.5% Caucasian, 21.2% Asian/Pacific Islander, 2.4% African American, 2.4% Hispanic American, and 6.5% Other). The study took place over a 3½-month period. One week prior to their birthday, college students were asked to complete an online screening survey about their intentions regarding their upcoming 21st birthday celebration; the response rate was 48%. The study focused on assessing a web-based intervention designed to reduce risky drinking during 21st birthday celebrations (see Neighbors et al., 2009 for details). Eligible students were those who intended to engage in alcohol use during their birthdays (i.e., intending to consume at least two drinks during their birthday celebration) and were directed to the baseline survey immediately following the screening. The baseline survey included questions about their societal beliefs, their subpopulation-perceived norms of college students, and their proximal norms of friends' expectations for their own 21st birthday...


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pp. 581-585
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