Correcting distorted beliefs about the extent to which college students both drink and abuse alcohol has proven to be a highly effective way to reduce both the consumption and the abuse of alcohol among students.
Students going off to college almost always believe that "everyone" is drinking heavily and abusing alcohol. This "reign of error" is one of the most consistently-found facts in social research. By conducting surveys of actual student use of alcohol on a campus and then widely publicizing the results, misperceptions are eliminated and students, thus liberated and empowered by the real facts, tend to drink less or not at all.
Called social norms marketing, the technique is highly effective, inexpensive, and the positive results occur quickly. Report after report has demonstrated its clear effectiveness.
However, Henry Wechsler asserts in his book, Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses, 1 that social norms marketing is based on unproven assumptions, in spite of the fact that those assumptions are among the most consistently-supported in all of social research. Ironically, some of Mr. Wechsler's own research has been supportive! 2
Based on a later study that he co-authored, Henry Wechsler incorrectly asserted that most college students underestimate the extent of heavy drinking, thus presumably invalidating a basis on which social norms marketing rests. 3 However, that conclusion was completely discredited by a scholar who demonstrated that the logic and methods used by Henry Wechsler were systematically erroneous and biased in a way that "created" the apparently non-supportive findings. Most elementary school children would call that cheating. In reality, most students in the Wechsler study greatly overestimated the extent of heavy drinking. 4 Thus, Henry Wechsler's own data again actually support a major basis of social norms marketing!
"Wechsler's "disparaging remarks exhibit an inexplicable lack of knowledge about social norms theory and its associated published research base."
The key to social norms marketing is telling the truth. Any exaggeration or distortion of the actual extent of alcohol use and abuse actually contributes to the problem....is a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. But for whatever reason, Henry Wechsler repeatedly attacks this effective technique. For example, in Dying to Drink, Wechsler quotes his interview with the vice-president of a company that sells an alternative alcohol education program of apparently unproven effectiveness. Social norms marketing would seem to be a major threat to his business profits because it's both free for the taking and highly effective. The business executive bashed social norms marketing, presumably to help both himself and Henry Wechsler who, in turn, has great things to say about the company's products. Could Mr. Wechsler have a financial or other interest in promoting the company and its products?
Wechsler's inconsistently tries to have it both ways. For example, Mr. Wechsler's dim view of the potential of social norms runs contrary to his view of the power of alcohol-related advertising. In some passages of his new book, students are described as if they were prey who needed protection from "insidious" television commercials and other forms of advertising that can "seduce young people already drunk at the bar with solicitous sounds, shapes, and colors."
So while Mr. Wechsler believes that media-driven messages are a bad influence on student drinking, he refuses to concede that positive messages, delivered through campus media campaigns, may have the power to help change students' behavior. 5
The title of one of Henry Wechsler's press releases asserted that binge drinking continued unabated on college campuses. That conclusion was widely reported to the press. However, the study in question actually found that so-called binge drinking had dropped significantly on college campuses!
The key to social norms marketing is promoting knowledge of the truth. Unfortunately, Henry Wechsler has popularized in the media the very misleading term "binge" in describing collegiate drinking. Bingeing actually refers to a period of extended intoxication lasting at least two days during which time the drinker neglects usual life responsibilities. That's what it means to physicians and other clinicians and that's what it tends to mean to the public as well.
To refer, as Wechsler does, to consuming four drinks on an occasion (five for men) as a binge is deceptive and misleading. As The New York Times observed, such "bingers" might very well have no measurable blood alcohol content (BAC), because the typical college social event lasts about six or seven hours, according to research. 6
The Times is right. For example, a study of estimated blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) reached by so-called "binge drinkers" in a survey of 500 young adults age 18-24 revealed that 63% (nearly two of every three) did not reach a BAC of .10 and 48% did not reach a BAC of .08 during their last "binge." 7
To use a term suggesting that 44% of college students become intoxicated for days on end is useful only if the intent is to inflate the extent of the problem and mislead the public.
Any bingeing is too much, is totally unacceptable and is dangerous. But the real rate of binge drinking on US college and university campuses is not 44%, as Henry Wechsler claims, but appears to be less than one-half of one percent! Most important is the fact that such gross exaggeration contributes to the problem of abusive drinking. Those who insist on misusing the term "binge" are actually doing more harm than good.
Unfortunately, Henry Wechsler seems to have a vested interest in using that deceptive term. Reporting that 44% of college students "binge" gets him press attention, TV appearances and highly-paid speaking engagements; reporting that fewer than one-half of one percent binge would be greeted with yawns and no attention or income. But it would be honest and wouldn't cause anyone any harm.
“Many alcohol-prevention experts and researchers challenge the validity of his studies, arguing that his interpretations of the data overstate the severity of the drinking problem,” For this reason he is often called "Doctor Doom" and "Chicken Little." 8
Because of the damage caused by exaggerating the extent of heavy drinking, 21 higher education associations have called for a stop to the inappropriate use of the term binge. 9 The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has rejected Henry Wechsler's misleading definition of binge, as has the leading journal of alcohol studies, and the federal government's Higher Education Center on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse.
Not only most young people but most Americans in general believe that alcohol abuse is much more common than it really is and they also incorrectly believe that it's a growing problem. But government survey after survey tell a different story. Alcohol-related problems continue to drop and it's clearly important to spread that news in order to accelerate the reduction.
The temperance-oriented Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has poured about $6,500,000 into Mr. Wechsler's College Alcohol Study project to date. One million of that sum has been used to buy publicity. Wechsler and his group quickly become intoxicated with the heady feeling of publicity after they hired their first publicity marketing company:
"That blew it out of the box," says Marianne Lee, project director of the College Alcohol Study at the time. "We came out one day, and there were seven TV cameras outside the School of Public Health. We were taking calls from Australia."
Mr. Wechsler made the media rounds, appearing on TV shows, including Nightline and Good Morning America, wrote newspaper editorials, and issued news releases on his studies. 10 Wechsler is very effective and “knows how to speak in the foreboding tones that catch the ears of parents and college presidents.” 11
The practice of “mining” ones research is frowned upon by ethical researchers. However, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that “Mr. Wechsler and his research team have repeatedly mined their work, publishing dozens of articles in various journals -- and prompting charges that he has flogged the material for maximum publicity.” 12
What an addiction! Mr. Wechsler had found the way to get his intoxicating highs and appears to be hooked. Smarter than most others, he has someone else pay to support his expensive $1,000,000 habit.
Although most people don't realize it, collegiate drinking has actually been declining gradually for over 20 years. But along comes Henry Wechsler with a provocatively-titled book, Dying to Drink, the dust jacket of which proclaims that "Wechsler warns that drinking on campus is taking a bigger toll than most of us realize." It cautions that "Perhaps more chilling than the cold facts and figures are the personal confessions gathered through interviews," a fact that reflects the anecdotal, unscientific nature of the book. The blurb continues "But Dying to Drink doesn't just aim to scare" because it presents Wechsler's proposals to address the problem.
"When you have the Harvard name and a large grant for media publicity, you can use some very questionable data and still make your work sound definitive in the media."
Some of Wechsler's recommendations for changing colleges and their surrounding communities have already faced legal challenge for violating rights guaranteed all citizens under the United States Constitution.
Many parents will reject his implication that they should quit drinking to be good role models. And it's certainly inconsistent with his recommendation that we respect cultural heritages. Italians, Greeks, Jews, Portuguese and many others around the world have found that their cultural heritage of being good role models by drinking in moderation reduces the incidence of alcohol abuse.
Wechsler argues that he is not a prohibitionist in spite of all of his statements that suggest a very strong abstinence sentiment, at the very least. For example, he urges parents to "model good behavior," citing the example of a mother and father who gave up their evening glasses of wine for fear that the after-work ritual was giving their college-age daughter the message that drinking is necessary for relieving stress. 13
Most people recognize the importance of personal responsibility. In fact it's a foundation of our social and legal systems. But Wechsler labels as a myth the fact that "As an individual, it's up to me to drink responsibly" if I choose to drink. Arguing that personal responsibility is a myth is a dangerous idea to promote and provides a handy excuse for engaging in inappropriate behaviors when intoxicated. Our society has rejected intoxication as an excuse and now Wechsler comes along and undermines our hard-won progress, perhaps setting us back decades.
Attempting to enforce prohibition on adults aged 18, 19, and 20 is not likely to be highly successful. In fact, it's probably counter-productive. By not promoting social norms marketing and other effective programs, Henry Wechsler has failed to make a positive contribution to the health and safety of our young adults. To the contrary, he has contributed to the problem.
Pragmatism rather than rigid adherence to ideology should guide our efforts to reduce alcohol-related problems. Our young people deserve nothing less.
Henry Wechsler has received many millions of dollars from the temperance-oriented Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and his writings have been consistently temperance-oriented.
After a casino-industry-funded group, the National Center for Responsible Gaming, gave Mr. Wechsler money, he then asserted that college gambling worries are overblown. 14
That's news to a lot of people. Wechsler's conclusion is inconsistent with other evidence and "surprising" to the Director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities, who follows research on the subject very closely.
Perhaps Mr. Wechsler's conclusion isn't that surprising. Many would say “just follow the money.”
Henry Wechsler has a reputation for publishing widely publicized studies what are later found to be weak, inadequate, or misleading.
Many alcohol abuse prevention researchers would like to question him about his research, conclusions, and assertions in a panel forum at a professional conference where public debate is possible. This is the way scientists typically address such matters. Unfortunately, Mr. Wechsler has consistently refused all such invitations.
Henry Wechsler's behavior reminds one of a person who responds to congressional investigators with "I refuse to answer on grounds that it may incriminate me." This is the way junk science, not real science, operates.
No investigator has ever paid publicists one million dollars to promote his writings and then refused to meet with other scientists to discuss his work and answer their questions. 15
Henry Wechsler has again attempted to discredit the social norms marketing technique. In a new article and press release, he has argued that the technique fails to work. 16 However, even a casual reading reveals that his effort is unsuccessful.
As noted by Dr. H. Wesley Perkins, "Wechsler first provided a biased and limited review of the research literature." He ignored controlled experiments demonstrating the effectiveness of correcting exaggerated student misperceptions about drinking norms, and he ignored the most recent compendium of case studies on college campuses that have correctly implemented social norms marketing with dramatic success. Wechsler even failed to mention his own previous research which demonstrated that incorrectly perceived norms are the strongest predictor of alcohol abuse! 17
Wechsler's study suffers from a number of fatal inadequacies in both research methods and logic. First, it had very small samples at each college, with as few as 50 or 60 students representing institutions with tens of thousands of students.
Second, Wechsler's study fails to identify and separate for comparison the colleges that have actually been conducting intensive social norms interventions. As Dr. Perkins explains,
Wechsler simply asks a single administrator on each campus whether or not the school had conducted a "social norms" campaign on their campus between 1997 and 2000 -- with no definition or control for what that phrase meant. In the late 1990s, although the social norms approach to substance abuse prevention was gaining attention and a couple dozen projects had been initiated with U.S. Dept. of Education and other government funding, there was still much ignorance about what this approach entailed. Back in that time period one would have been hard pressed to identify more that a hundred schools nationwide implementing an actual model of normative feedback about the true positive norms that exist among the majority of students and not compromised by including the traditional model of scare tactics. 18
Yet the Wechsler et al. study of 98 schools found almost 40 percent of administrators saying they had done some sort of social norms campaign during that period. If correctly identified, that would translate into an unbelievable 1,500 schools nationwide doing such campaigns in the 1990s. This is truly an absurd figure...." 19
Other leading experts have pointed out that "For an administrator to report that his or her institution has 'ever conducted a social norms campaign' is not the same as saying that the school has conducted a comprehensive social norms marketing campaign." Wechsler admits that neither he nor any of his fellow-researchers made any efforts to "to determine the content, scope and duration" of what were reported to be social norm marketing programs. 20
Professor Perkins explains that the approach is still a minority alternative to traditional abuse prevention efforts. Only about 200 (of the 3,000 colleges in the US) have actively engaged in any kind of significant social norms effort, and even then the projects are sometimes compromised by scare campaigns that contribute to inflated misperceptions about the typical attitudes behavior of most students. 21
There are numerous other technical, logical and methodological errors in Wechsler's study too numerous to describe, but the errors identified above are sufficient to destroy the credibility of Mr. Wechsler's claims. 22
On the other hand, nearly 40 studies of properly conducted social norms marketing projects have demonstrated their effectiveness on college campuses across the country.
Readers might wish to use caution and not necessarily accept at face value assertions made by Henry Wechsler.
"So long as he (Henry Wechsler) continues to insist that everyone agree with him about everything, he will remain a divisive force in our field, which we can ill afford."
"He (Henry Wechsler) hasn't evolved. In the beginning it was appropriate to scare people. He's an advocate. He feels very passionately about the issue. But what Henry hasn’t grasped is that you can change your message and still be heard. It's been 10 years. You don't go out and sing the same songs for 10 years and change everyone’s behavior."
Henry Wechsler uses "watered down logic."
"Henry Wechsler believes in scare tactics and an authoritarian approach."
To Henry Wechsler, "Trivial matters like truth are secondary at best."
Henry Wechsler takes "a strict anti-alcohol stance." Critics see him as "too strict, too absolutist" and call him "Doctor Doom" and "Chicken Little."
"Henry Wechsler is guilty of playing a dishonest 'neo-prohibitionist numbers game'."
Henry Wechsler engages in "problem amplification" (that is, in exaggeration).
"It is unethical to artificially inflate statistics" as Henry Wechsler does as one of his "scare tactics."
"When you have the Harvard name and a large grant for media publicity, you can use some very questionable data and still make your work sound definitive in the media."
Henry Wechsler appears to be "trying to make the problem worse than it is."
Henry Wechsler is a "crackpot."
This is the personal web site of Dr. David J. Hanson, who has received no financial support or other consideration from any agency, company, organization, group or person to post or maintain it.