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J Health Commun. 2016 Oct;21(10):1079-87. doi: 10.1080/10810730.2016.1222030. Epub 2016 Sep 26.

Tapping Into Motivations for Drinking Among Youth: Normative Beliefs About Alcohol Use Among Underage Drinkers in the United States.

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a Annenberg School for Communication , University of Pennsylvania , Philadelphia , Pennsylvania , USA.
b Department of Prevention and Community Health , George Washington University , Washington , DC , USA.
c Department of Health, Behavior, and Society , Johns Hopkins University , Baltimore , Maryland , USA.
d Department of Community Health Sciences, School of Public Health , Boston University , Boston , Massachusetts , USA.


Social norms affect human behavior, and underage drinking is no exception. Using the theory of normative social behavior, this study tested the proposition that the association between perceptions about the prevalence of drinking (descriptive norms) and underage drinking is strengthened when perceived pressures to conform (injunctive norms) and beliefs about the benefits of drinking (outcome expectations) are high. This proposition was tested on a nationally representative sample of underage drinkers ages 13-20 (N = 1,031) in relation to their alcohol consumption, expanding on research with college-age youth. On average, males and females reported drinking 23 and 18 drinks per month, respectively. The main effect of descriptive norms (β = .10, p < .01) on alcohol consumption was modified by interactions with injunctive norms (β = .11, p < .01), benefit to self (β = .12, p < .001), and benefit to others (β = .10, p < .01). Underage drinkers are most vulnerable to excessive drinking if they believe that most others drink, that they themselves are expected to drink, and that drinking confers several benefits. Norms-based interventions to reduce youth alcohol use need to focus on changing not only descriptive norms but also injunctive norms and outcome expectations.

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