Eat your five serves of fruit and vegetables! Get your 30 minutes of exercise! Drink responsibly!
There’s no shortage of messages telling us how to be healthy. But do we action them?
Health habits solidify during young adulthood and have knock-on effects for later life. University students may be particularly vulnerable to forming bad habits. Young people are responsible for their diets for the first time, but also under time pressure and economic strain. University students also experience other pressures, such as peer pressure to drink excessively or to engage in other risky behaviours.
So are young people building healthy habits at University?
Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. Students’ engagement in health behaviours actually declines over the course of their studies. The link between students and excessive drinking is also well-known.
If students are so smart, why do they do so many dumb (unhealthy) things?
When students identify with the student group, they may act in line with the norms of that group. Because student norms tend to favour unhealthy behaviours, students end up engaging in unhealthy behaviours.
In a recent book chapter, we distilled key lessons from social psychology and discussed how these insights could be used to change behaviour.
People engage in behaviours seen to be central or defining of their group
Health behaviours are not simply personal choices but rather reflect habits that are part and parcel of belonging to particular groups. These behaviours can have negative or positive consequences depending on which behaviours have become tied up with group membership. As an example, consider how the central role in the national psyche of the full English breakfast or the meat-laden Australian BBQ determines day-to-day food choices and compare this to the classic Mediterranean diet or the abundance of fresh fish and vegetables in Japan.
Students often describe behaviours with negative implications for health – such as excess alcohol consumption – as ‘normal’ within the university context. Many have expectations about these norms even before they step foot on campus. So, when students are thinking about themselves as a student, being healthy is not at the forefront of their minds – in fact, the opposite is clearly the case.
Efforts to change student behaviour that make student identity salient may backfire because student identity does not promote health behaviour.
Those who want to change student behaviour need to encourage students to see themselves in terms of another identity for which healthy behaviour is expected – such as athletic identities – or make health behaviour more central to what it means to be a student.
Changing group norms is no easy task
If unhealthy behaviours are seen as central to what it means to be a group member – such as students and drinking – group members may be very resistant to attempts to change their behaviour, even if such change would improve their health.
Norms themselves are quite complex. They have both a descriptive element (what is commonly done) and a prescriptive element (what should be done). And these two elements don’t always align. For example, students might approve of more responsible drinking but still go out and binge drink anyway!
When these descriptive and prescriptive elements are in conflict, people tend to go along with what their group actually does, rather than what their group thinks should be done. So, if people try to change one element without paying attention to the other, these efforts may be ineffective or even counterproductive.
If you want to encourage health behaviours, you need to communicate that the group both approves of healthy behaviour and actually engages in that behaviour.
Change agents should try to frame identities and norms in ways that communicate that being a student means being healthy. And work with students on health messages to ensure that these are credible and acceptable.
We believe that bringing a stronger understanding of how social factors shape students’ choices about their health allows us to unlock the full potential of groups so that these become a positive – rather than a negative – force for students’ health behaviours. Stay tuned for more updates on our progress!
- Joanne Smith (Guest blogger and Social Change Lab collaborator)
Read the full article:
Smith, J. R., Louis, W. R., & Tarrant, M. (2017). University students’ social identity and health behaviours. In K. Mavor, M. J. Platow, & B. Bizumic (Eds.), Self and social identity in educational contexts (pp. 159-174). London: Routledge.
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.