Behavior change (public health)

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Behavior change has become a central objective of public health interventions over the last half decade, as the influence of prevention within the health services has increased. The increased influence of prevention has coincided with increased multi-lateral and bi-lateral aid in the area of human development, and the increased need for the international development community to show cost-effectiveness for allocated dollars spent.

Many health conditions are caused by risk behaviors, such as problem drinking, substance use, smoking, reckless driving, overeating, or unprotected sexual intercourse. The key question in health behavior research is how to predict and modify the adoption and maintenance of health behaviors. Fortunately, human beings have, in principle, control over their conduct. Health-compromising behaviors can be eliminated by self-regulatory efforts, and health-enhancing behaviors can be adopted instead, such as physical exercise, weight control, preventive nutrition, dental hygiene, condom use, or accident prevention. Health behavior change refers to the motivational, volitional, and actional processes of abandoning such health-compromising behaviors in favor of adopting and maintaining health-enhancing behaviors.

Behavior change programs, which have evolved over time, encompass a broad range of activities and approaches, which focus on the individual, community, and environmental influences on behavior.Behavior change, a relatively recent public health-related term, should not be confused with behavior modification, a term with specific meaning in a clinical psychiatry setting.

Behavior change programs tend to focus on a few behavioral change theories which gained ground in the 1980s. These theories share a major commonality in defining individual actions as the locus of change. Behavior change programs that are usually focused on activities that help a person or a community to reflect upon their risk behaviors and change them to reduce their risk and vulnerability are known as interventions. See also "The Transtheoretical (Stages of Change) Model of Behavior Change," "The Theory of Reasoned Action," "The Health Belief Model" and the Health Action Process Approach.

Behavior Change Tools[edit]

  • Care groups are groups of 10-15 volunteer, community-based health educators who regularly meet together.
  • Barrier Analysis is a rapid assessment tool used in behavior change projects to identify behavioral determinants.

Behavior Change Communication[edit]

Behavior Change Communication, or BCC, is an approach to behavior change focused on communication. The assumptions is that through communication of some kind, individuals and communities can somehow be persuaded to behave in ways that will make their lives safer and healthier. BCC was first employed in HIV and TB prevention projects. More recently, its ambit has grown to encompass any communication activity whose goal is to help individuals and communities select and practice behavior that will positively impact their health, such as immunization, cervical cancer check up, employing single-use syringes, etc.


One criticism is that its practitioners have on several occasions developed new terms to describe their approach (e.g. Strategic Behavioral Communication (SBC); Information, Education, Communication (IEC); and Communication for Social Change (CSC).) This suggests that BCC is an evolving area, rather than a mature field. Other criticisms are that behavior change encompasses conflicting approaches, insufficient impact measurement, variety of theories, and overly mechanistic approaches. Theories emerging from the West reflect change ideologies rooted in rational choice, individual transformations, and the role of reason and knowledge. Practices emerging in developing countries illustrate the role of the community, social acceptance, emotion, and emulation in personal change.

For example, villagers in a Kenyan community offered this theory of behavior: experiences trigger emotions, positive or negative, which in turn shape attitudes that lead to behavioral choices. One person's behavior can become another person's experience. It suggests that if a person's experience is the key to his or her behavior, then one way to stimulate new behavior might be to expand this pool of experience. NGOs in Kenya, such as PATH, have designed ways to bring about experience-sharing through deep dialogue in groups and theater processes. In India, participatory community-driven theater among sex workers led to passionate and heartfelt dialogue. In many cases, the critical reflection triggered by these discourses has led participants to self-driven behavior changes.

One school of thought argues that BCC that focuses on "target" audiences and fixed, externally determined behavioral outcomes can violate the very principles that underlie work in the community: dignity, participation, and choice. Focusing on community involvement can lead to deep and durable changes. If BCC practitioners can support communities in understanding their risks, and helping them design behavior change solutions that will work for them, they may be able to demonstrate transformational power of BCC.


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