Behind the Numbers: Examining Social Norms Around Alcohol, Substance Use and Sex at VCU


Blog Post written by Amy Adkins
Illustration by Chris Kindred
Data presented by the Spit4Science

Does it ever seem like everyone else has all of the fun? Has that kind of thinking ever influenced your decisions around alcohol, substance use or sex?

During Welcome Week I was lucky enough to catch Dr. Linda Hancock’s famous Love ‘n’ Liquor sessions.  Dr. Hancock is the Director of the VCU Wellness Resource Center and a strong ally of both Spit4Science and our new COBE initiative. Using her own unique blend of humor and science, she talks to students about alcohol and substance use, sex and how to stay safe during your first year at university.

One of the more popular and eye-opening aspects of her sessions is grounded in social norms theory.  My rough translation (warning: I’m a geneticist, not a clinician!) is the theory holds students think others drink more, smoke more, have sex more, etc. than they actually do.  Based on these overestimations, a student may manipulate his or her own activities to match this “norm.”

Dr. Hancock asks a series of 5 paired clicker questions covering frequency of alcohol use, frequency of energy drink consumption, number of lifetime cigarettes smoked, number of lifetime e-cigs used, and number of sexual partners in the past 3 months. The first time each question is presented, students are asked to report what they think the usual VCU student does.  Next, students are asked to report their own behavior.

Time after time, students overestimate the number of drinks/cigarettes/sexual partners their peers actually have.  Dr. Hancock goes on to explain that this is because those doing “things alot” are the people that stick out.  (Her example: you’ll remember the severely drunk person who vomited on your shoes at that party last weekend.) In reality, most VCU students use substances in moderation and had 0-1 sexual partners in the past 3 months.  Multiple VCU datasets back up these numbers.

Below I present the Spit4Science-related statistics Dr. Hancock showed at her sessions. Spit4Science is a longitudinal survey launched in 2011 that enrolled 4 cohorts (sets) of VCU freshmen from 2011-2014.  Over 9,000 students enrolled! Each spring we follow-up with past participants. The purpose of the project is to understand how genes and the environment interact to influence substance use and emotional health.  Each figure below shows our data, sometimes including multiple waves for all those data geeks like myself out there.

So what do all of those figures mean? Here are the bottom lines…

In the spring survey, 85% of freshmen (n=5704) report drinking 4 times a month or less. 83% of sophomore participants (n=2470) also report drinking 4 times a month or less.


85% of freshmen participants (n=2052, Fall 2011) reported not having had an energy drink in the past month.


Over 50% of all participants (n=7829) have never smoked.


70% of freshmen participants (n=1829) and 78% of both sophomore (n=1185) and junior (n=978) participants have never used e-cigarettes in their lifetime.


85% of junior participants (n=950) report having 0-1 sexual partners in the past 3 months.