Social Norm Influences on Evaluations of the Risks Associated with Alcohol Consumption: Applying the Rank-Based Decision by Sampling Model to Health Judgments

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Abstract

Aims: The research first tested whether perceptions of other people's alcohol consumption influenced drinkers' perceptions of the riskiness of their own consumption. Second, the research tested how such comparisons are made—whether, for example, people compare their drinking to the ‘average’ drinker's or ‘rank’ their consumption amongst other people's. The latter untested possibility, suggested by the recent Decision by Sampling Model of judgment, would imply different cognitive mechanisms and suggest that information should be presented differently to people in social norm interventions. Methods: Study 1 surveyed students who provided information on (a) their own drinking, (b) their perceptions of the distribution of drinking in the UK and (c) their perceived risk of various alcohol-related disorders. Study 2 experimentally manipulated the rank of ‘target’ units of alcohol within the context of units viewed simultaneously. Results: In both studies, the rank of an individual's drinking in a context of other drinkers predicted perceptions of developing alcohol-related disorders. There was no evidence for the alternative hypothesis that people compared with the average of other drinkers' consumptions. The position that subjects believed they occupied in the ranking of other drinkers predicted their perceived risk, and did so as strongly as how much they actually drank. Conclusions: Drinking comparisons are rank-based, which is consistent with other judgments in social, emotional and psychophysical domains. Interventions should be designed to work with people's natural ways of information processing, through providing clients with information on their drinking rank rather than how their drinking differs from the average.

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