Page last updated:October 18, 2017

Anti-drinking campaigns aimed at young people often backfire

According to new research published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory, campaigns designed to dissuade young people from so-called bolting (rapidly drinking an alcoholic drink) an alcoholic drink appear to be completely ineffective, and in certain cases, may have the opposite effect.

For the study, researchers analysed participants’ reactions to a poster warning of the consequences of bolting and they discovered that the message had virtually no effect on people’s future intentions.

Furthermore, when a statement was added to the poster expressing how other people disapprove of bolting, it made participants want to bolt in the future. However, when the statement was changed to a message saying that most people “do not bolt drinks on a night out,” the message was far more effective

“Many young people overestimate the extent to which their peers both approve of and engage in risky drinking behaviours,” said study author Dr Joanne Smith of the University of Exeter. “One way to tackle risky drinking is to try to correct these misperceptions through health campaigns, such as posters.”

“In our research, we wanted to explore what kinds of messages are more effective in changing people’s intentions to bolt. Our results highlight the potentially harmful effects of exposure to what’s called an ‘injunctive norm’ — a message about the approval or disapproval of others. Meanwhile, a ‘descriptive norm’ — telling people what others do rather than what they think — had a positive impact.”

The researchers point out that beliefs about how other people behave are often the “best predictor” in terms of general drinking behaviour and binge drinking. However, they say that using these beliefs to change behaviour needs to be done carefully to ensure campaigns have the desired effect.

“This demonstrates how careful we need to be in selecting the right message in campaigns, and evaluating them before wider dissemination, as poorly designed campaigns, however well-intentioned, can backfire,” said Professor Charles Abraham of the University of Exeter Medical School.

Source: When and how does normative feedback reduce intentions to drink irresponsibly? An experimental investigation. JR Smith, WR Louis & C Abraham, Addiction Research and Theory, Published online: 17 Aug 2017.

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