July 12-14, 2009

2009 National Conference on the Social Norms Approach

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Misperceptions of Sweet Drink Consumption Norms as a Risk Factor for Personal Consumption and Overweight Status among Secondary School Students

Jessica Perkins, M.S., Department of Health Policy

Harvard University

H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D., Dept. of Anthropology and Sociology

David W. Craig, Ph.D., Dept. of Chemistry

Hobart & William Smith Colleges


Overweight and obesity are significant health concerns regarding adolescents in the United States. The consumption of sweet beverages has been linked to weight gain. Erroneous perceptions of peer norms regarding sweet beverage intake may be an important risk factor for being overweight. Anonymous surveys were conducted among youth in grades 6 through 12 in five secondary schools in two Western states in Fall 2008 (n=3,715) providing data to assess the accuracy of perceived peer norms regarding sweet drink consumption and whether erroneous perceptions are associated with being overweight. Students’ perceptions of the norm for sweet beverage consumption by their same grade peers in the local school cohort are compared to aggregate self-reports of sweet beverage intake for these same gender and grade cohorts in each school. Over three-quarters of students (76% of males and 77% of females overestimated peer sweet drink intake norm of peers with 20% overestimating the norm by 3 or more sweet drinks (only 2% underestimated the peer norm). Overestimating the peer sweet drink norm was significantly associated with greater personal consumption of sweet drinks for both males and females and was a much stronger predictor of personal consumption than the actual local norm in one’s grade and demographic characteristics of students and schools. Personal consumption, in turn, was associated with risk for being overweight or at risk for overweight for both males and females. Pervasive misperceptions of sweet beverage intake may contribute to unhealthy sweet beverage intake amounts and help perpetuate the status of overweight students.