While reading recently about the US Department of Agriculture's new MyPlate campaign, I couldn’t help but wonder... This is an important message, but will a campaign that focuses only on awareness and the "how to" actually make a difference in the US obesity epidemic? Will it get the American public to eat better?
One of the first things we as health educators learn about behavior change—a core focus of our profession—is that increasing knowledge is only the first step. On its own, knowledge is not enough to cause the behavior change “tipping point” that Malcolm Gladwell describes so well in his best-selling book.
An educational piece, program, or intervention must address the barriers, motivators, and other influences that are keeping the individual or community from moving toward the behavior we wish for them to adopt. This is where models and theories of behavior change come in.
Why use theories and models?
Theories and models are important because they are backed by research and evidence. They also help make our jobs easier and more effective by serving as a road map for the steps we need to take. And they help keep health educators accountable when we evaluate the outcomes of tactics or programs.
When developing educational materials, programs, or campaigns, it is critical that theories and models serve as a foundation and weave throughout all aspects of our work. Otherwise, we simply develop content based on intuition rather than evidence. Using intuition alone can result in a campaign that may waste resources because it will have little chance of creating real behavior change.
Social cognitive theory (SCT) is a popular theory often used in behavior change programs. Its main focus is on how people and their social and physical environments influence each other to affect behavior. Programs that use SCT:
- Inspire people to believe that they have the ability to change their behavior
- Help people understand why changing a certain behavior is in their own best interest
- Explain to people how their current behavior is affecting their health
- Provide people with relevant and accurate information about the behavior and its impact
- Explain to people how they have control over their behavior
- Help identify personal, social, and environmental barriers to behavior change
- Assist with developing a plan on how to overcome the barriers
Behavior-change programs that incorporate SCT also:
- Provide examples and success stories of those who have successfully changed their behavior
- Teach the skills necessary to achieve the desired behavior change
- Encourage people to reach out for support from family, friends, and others
- Focus on incremental changes
- Reward each milestone of change
If you would like to learn more about theories and models and their application, a terrific, free downloadable book called Theories at a Glance is available from the National Cancer Institute.
Dominika Samojlik, MPH, CHES
Community Manager, Health Education