Can social norms alleviate tension following sweeping Greek life policy changes at Penn State?


Following the death of a 19-year-old student at Pennsylvania State University, the institution has issued new rules affecting each of the 82 fraternities and sororities on campus. The changes, which include deferred recruitment, a ban on day-long parties and beer kegs, and a reduction in the maximum number of parties in which alcohol can be served (from 45 per semester down to 10) have drawn both praise and criticism.

Many of the comments suggesting that the changes are too harsh resemble the sentiment outlined through the first of Dr. Alan Berkowitz's four paradoxes of fraternity and sorority culture:Others see fraternity/sorority members differently than they see themselves. Specifically, members generally believe the positives of being in the organization greatly outweigh the negatives, and that chapters on campus are not appreciated for the good things that they do.

Reactions declaring the new rules unjustified call out the philanthropic component of Greek Life at Penn State, mentioning THON and other charitable contributions. Others challenge why all fraternities and sororities should be impacted by the actions of one organization.

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But to many outside of Penn State, the changes do not seem so outrageous. Some of the new rules, such as deferred recruitment, have a strong basis in research literature. Could a social norms approach be used to alleviate the disconnect on campus?

Research shows that individuals overestimate the prevalence of unhealthy beliefs and behaviors while underestimating the healthy. These misperceptions are even more pronounced in fraternities and sororities, and their impact can perpetuate dangerous behavior. Yet time and time again we see predominantly healthy attitudes held by fraternity and sorority members. Vector Solutions (formerly Everfi's Campus Prevention Network) GreekLifeEdu data (n=83,000) shows that 77% of members feel they can play a role in preventing sexual assault in their organizations, and that 80% place a high value on their partner giving consent before sex.

However, we have also learned that despite these healthy attitudes, fraternity and sorority members want to do the right thing but often don't. 79% of Greek-affiliated participants in Vector's climate survey stated they would support others who confront harmful or problematic behavior, but when asked how likely they think most students at their school would be to support others who confront such behavior, the number drops to 47%. Misperceptions such as these greatly influence behavior; the single strongest predictor of whether or not a man intervenes to prevent a sexual assault is what he thinks other men would do.

Developing an evidence based, social norms intervention to address the disconnect between attitudes and behaviors can help alleviate the tension affecting a high-risk community suddenly needing to accommodate large policy changes. Clarifying norms and providing normative feedback can bring brothers and sisters together and lead to a deeper understanding of their membership. Through engaging fraternity and sorority leaders in this process and empowering them to join the conversation about how to bring about positive culture change through policy, the institution can improve student buy-in and allow individuals to act in accordance with their actual beliefs and Greek values.

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