The Normative Underpinnings of Population-Level Alcohol Use: An Individual-Level Simulation Model

Charlotte Probst, Tuong Manh Vu, Joshua M. Epstein, Alexandra E. Nielsen, Charlotte Buckley, Alan Brennan, Jürgen Rehm, Robin C. Purshouse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background. By defining what is “normal,” appropriate, expected, and unacceptable, social norms shape human behavior. However, the individual-level mechanisms through which social norms impact population-level trends in health-relevant behaviors are not well understood. Aims. To test the ability of social norms mechanisms to predict changes in population-level drinking patterns. Method. An individual-level model was developed to simulate dynamic normative mechanisms and behavioral rules underlying drinking behavior over time. The model encompassed descriptive and injunctive drinking norms and their impact on frequency and quantity of alcohol use. A microsynthesis initialized in 1979 was used as a demographically representative synthetic U.S. population. Three experiments were performed in order to test the modelled normative mechanisms. Results. Overall, the experiments showed limited influence of normative interventions on population-level alcohol use. An increase in the desire to drink led to the most meaningful changes in the population’s drinking behavior. The findings of the experiments underline the importance of autonomy, that is, the degree to which an individual is susceptible to normative influence. Conclusion. The model was able to predict theoretically plausible changes in drinking patterns at the population level through the impact of social mechanisms. Future applications of the model could be used to plan norms interventions pertaining to alcohol use as well as other health behaviors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)224-234
Number of pages11
JournalHealth Education and Behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2020


  • alcohol use
  • individual-level simulation modeling
  • social norms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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