By Oliver Gladfelter
So much of what we do here at One Twenty Seven is try to explain student behavior. What influences sleeping behaviors? What causes Denisonians to vote against their own party? What encourages students to attend campus events? In any scenario, it’s clear our behavior is massively influenced by that of others. This is known as normative influence – the idea that we conform to the norms of society…or at least, what we believe is normal. As such, someone’s perception of campus or other students – and what they believe is the norm – should strongly align with their behavior.
This is especially true on Denison’s campus, where freshmen typically look to the guidance of upperclassmen to learn how to “do college.” For example, it’s no coincidence that Shorney water fountains get ripped out of the wall every single year – each new cohort of freshmen learn this behavior from observing and hearing the tales of upperclassmen. Our perception of campus norms influence our views, opinions, what we care about, and what issues we’re willing to spend time on – whether that’s ripping water fountains out of walls or participating in social activism on campus.
Yet, perceptions might be altered by a student’s identity, past experiences, whom they surround themselves with, and more. Measuring the gaps between perception and reality may be useful to see if students are out of touch with what’s really going on.
Time Spent Studying
Let’s start with a basic one – homework. Students were pretty damn accurate with their perceptions on this one. The average amount of hours a student spends doing homework or studying is 3.9 hours a night. When asked how many hours they think others spend doing homework or studying, the average answer was 3.85.
Unsurprisingly, these two variables are strongly related – the more (or less) a student spends studying, the more (or less) they think others are doing the same (or perhaps this is just wishful thinking?). This is some pretty strong evidence for student behavior being affected by normative influence – most students tend to do as much homework as they anticipate others are.
Figure 1 – The Correlation Between Self and Perception of Time Spent Studying
This relationship isn’t entirely linear yet still powerful. Students doing miniscule amounts of work know they’re doing a lot less than others, however are still inclined to underestimate the actual average. Students doing exuberant amounts of work know they’re doing more than normal, yet still overestimate the average – although only by a slight amount, they’re a heck of a lot closer in their estimation than those blowing off their homework.
Next up is a fun one – alcohol consumption. Students definitely overestimate how much campus actually drinks. On an average night of drinking, students typically drink between 4-5 drinks (4.24; the median is 4), yet when asked how much other students are drinking, the average answer was closer to 6 drinks (5.84). The same trend emerged when asked about frequency of drinking – students drink at least one alcoholic beverage an average of 1-2 nights a week (1.7), yet believe others are drinking closer to 3 nights a week (2.68).
Do these discrepancies diminish when I exclude students who don’t drink at all from the averages? A little over 20% of the student body doesn’t drink at all – perhaps because they don’t partake, they don’t have a firm understanding of what alcohol usage on campus really looks like. This is not the case, however – there was no statistical difference between drinkers’ and non-drinkers’ perception of how many drinks are typically consumed. Non-drinkers actually had a slightly more accurate view of how often students drink (although still overestimating, at 2.64 days a week).
Involvement with fraternity/sorority life, athletics, and gender all have no effect on a student’s perception of alcohol consumption on campus – varying groups or identities all view drinking rates fairly equally. Seemingly, the only thing that affects one’s perception of campus drinking is how much and often they personally drink (Figure 2).
Figure 2 – Reality and Perception of Drinking
Finally, facing discrimination is another aspect of life where I suspected there might be some gaps between reality and student perception. Discrimination was measured by asking survey respondents how often they experienced being treated with less respect, receiving poorer service, being thought of as unintelligent or scary, and being threatened or harassed.
20.5% of students reported experiencing discrimination at least a few times a month. That leaves the remaining 79.5% of the student body experiencing discrimination a few times a years or less and never in some cases.
When asked what percentage of students face discrimination in their life, the average answer was that 49.2% of the student body experience discrimination more often than never. Race had an impact on this perception – white students averaged an estimate of 44.6% of the student body, while non-white students averaged 50.7% (the difference is statistically significant). Interestingly, neither a student’s gender nor sexual orientation had any impact – all genders and sexual orientations gave indistinguishable answers, on average.
In congruence with the results above, the strongest predictor of someone’s perception of discrimination is how much they personally have experienced it. Those who are fortunate enough to face discrimination less than once a year or even never were the most likely to underestimate how many other students have dealt with it, while those experiencing it on a monthly basis or even more were the most likely to overestimate.
Figure 3 – Reality and Perception of Discrimination
So what we found across the board is that the strongest determinant in predicting student perception is their own experiences. Or perhaps I should say the strongest determinant in predicting student experience is their own perception? While it’s hard to say if one truly conforms their behavior to fit campus norms, or if they just simply expect others to lead lives similar to their own, it’s clear there’s a strong correlation here – whether it’s time spent drinking, amount of alcohol consumed, or being discriminated against, most students’ expectations for others are related to their own reality. These results highlight the benefit of big, diverse social networks: each new addition to your network comes with their own experiences and stories, so restricting yourself to just a small, homogeneous network means you miss out on the perspectives other students have to offer.
Oliver Gladfelter is a huge advocate of procrastination and spends most of his time finding new ways to waste time. He also studies political science on the side.
1. Additionally, some students may have not accounted for the 20% who don’t drink when answering questions about others’ alcohol consumption. Naturally, omitting those who don’t drink increase the reality averages, but to a point still lower than apparently expected by students – the averages become 5.12 drinks a night (up from 4.24), and 2.22 nights of drinking a week (up from 1.7).
2. There’s reason to suggest that the strongest predictor of discrimination perception is not one’s own race or ethnicity, but the race of ethnicity of the people they spend the most time with. If all of your friends are white males, you probably will perceive discrimination as occurring less often than if you spent most of your time with individuals who are likely victims of discrimination. Unfortunately, One Twenty Seven doesn’t really have a measure for the racial make-ups of students’ social networks in this survey. Of course, it’s no secret that people tend to surround themselves with those who look similar to them, so perhaps measuring a student’s own race (which we do) is the best way to guess what their social network may look like.