College Consortium: Utilizing a Social Norms Approach for Sexual Assault Prevention

Aug 22nd, 1970

By Rachel Yehoda, Program Coordinator (Prevention and Education)

Colleges and universities are always looking for new ways to expand their on-going efforts to prevent sexual assaults from occurring on their campuses. Often times, our prevention work is focused on addressing individual-level change rather than focusing on the larger environment. An important matter to consider is how we can strategize the necessary steps to take to address community-level changes for primary prevention of sexual assault. More specifically, it is important to understand what social norms exist in our campus community surrounding this issue.

What are social norms?

It is first important to know what social norms are. Social norms “refer to the explicit or implicit rules that guide behaviors that occur in a social context” [1]. A good example to outline when discussing social norms is the concept of a standing ovation after a performance or play. In this situation, the behavior that is expected would be to stand up and clap after a great performance. By observing others around us participating in this behavior, we tend to follow suit by participating in the behavior to gain approval of others around us. In this example, we see the actual norm (people participating in said norm of the standing ovation by standing up and clapping, and cheering) agrees with the perceived norm (people think that the norm is to stand up, clap, and cheer). There are times, however, that the actual and perceived norms do not match up. This is where norms become misperceived. These are important concepts to understand, especially when addressing misperceived norms surrounding the topic of sexual violence prevention on campus.

In the context of preventing violence, Dr. Alan Berkowitz describes the social norms approach as a “theory and evidence-based methodology for addressing health and social justice issues that can be used to foster environments that resist and intervene to prevent violence” [2]. Research has shown that the social norms approach has been tested extensively on the issue of alcohol and tobacco use in teens and college-aged students [2]. More studies have started to focus on how social norms and misperceived norms can influence sexual assault prevention. A study conducted by Brown & Messman-Moore focused on how college-aged men can play a role in intervening to prevent a sexual assault from occurring found that men who held the belief that other men were not likely to intervene were then less inclined to intervene themselves [3]. In this case, the actual norm of intervening in a bystander situation differs from the perceived norm of college men thinking that their peers would potentially intervene. Misperceived norms that exist surrounding bystander intervention prove to be a challenge for those who work to prevent sexual assault.

A question you may be asking yourself at this point is: are these social norms programs and campaigns shown to be effective? Why should we be paying attention to social norms? Preliminary research has suggested that social norms campaigns show great promise for the prevention of sexual violence—an example being the “A Man” Campaign that was implemented at James Madison University, where norms surrounding non-coercive sexual behaviors were examined [4]. Bruce found that through this campaign, they were able to successfully bring about change in men’s attitudes and behaviors regarding norms on consent [4]. Even though more research is needed to examine these types of interventions, it is clear that utilizing social norms campaigns on campus is a step in the right direction to combat these misperceived norms. Below are some examples of social norms campaigns in action and resources that can help you get started on starting your own social norms campaign at your school.

Example of Social Norms Campaigns in Action

Know Your Power Social Marketing Campaign

This national-level campaign draws on the social norms approach in that is aims to raise awareness of the problem of sexual and relationship violence in the college setting. It looks at changing the norms on campus surrounding bystander behaviors and working to increase participants’ knowledge on using bystander skills to prevent sexual assaults. The campaign also strives to promote participants’ willingness to intervene. To learn more about the Know Your Power Campaign, click here.

Michigan State University and the “Duck Campaign”

In 2006, a group of students at Michigan State University (MSU) developed The “Duck Campaign” to address social norms surrounding alcohol consumption on their campus. Through this campaign, students came together to produce messages and develop events that focus on educating the student body on the myths surrounding alcohol use on campus. Although this particular campaign is not focused on sexual violence prevention, it serves as a great example of how to utilize the social norms approach in the college environment. For more information on this campaign, check out their Facebook page. 


The National Social Norms Center at Michigan State University (NSNC)

The National Social Norms Center at Michigan State University (NSNC) serves as a resource for college campuses and other organizations who are interested in starting their own social norms campaign. The website provides information on best-practices for creating campaigns, including resource links that give guidance for the process of designing a social norms campaign. NSNC also provides consultation for free, and for a small fee to provide more in-depth information and guidance. Some examples of topics they typically consult on are the following: • Issues regarding the evaluation of social norms campaigns (e.g. survey design, logic model creation, data analysis, etc.) • Providing feedback on campaign materials • Feedback on how to best involve the audience in the development of the campaign For more information on NSNC, visit

The Center for Changing Our Campus Culture

The Center for Changing Our Campus Culture is an online resource center that provides information to colleges and universities on topics such as sexual assault prevention, dating violence, stalking, and domestic violence. It includes information and examples on how to change social and cultural norms on campus regarding sexual violence prevention. For more information, visit    

  [1] "FAQS: What Are Social Norms?" National Social Norms Center. Accessed September 28, 2016. [2] Berkowitz, A. "Fostering Healthy Norms to Prevent Violence and Abuse: The Social Norms Approach." Alan Berkowitz. Accessed September 28, 2016. Sexual Violence Chapter - Revision.pdf. [3] Brown, A. L., and T. L. Messman. "Personal and Perceived Peer Attitudes Supporting Sexual Aggression as Predictors of Male College Students’ Willingness to Intervene against Sexual Aggression." Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25, no. 3 (2009): 503-17. [4] Bruce, S. The “A Man” Campaign: Marketing Social Norms to Men to Prevent Sexual Assault. Working paper. No. 5. Garfield, NJ: Paperclip Communications, 2002.

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