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Introduction to Behavior Models

Originated by: Dominika Murphy

Submitted: 23 May 2011

Last updated on: 23 May 2011

Related Health Topics:


Health is influenced by a variety of factors including an individual’s genetics, social circumstances, social and physical environment, behavioral patterns, and access to health care. When it comes to reducing the number of premature deaths, medical care plays a rather small role (Shroeder, 2007).

Research suggests that one of the greatest opportunities to improve health and reduce premature deaths is rooted in personal behavior. In fact, behavioral causes account for nearly 40% of all deaths in the United States. (Mokdad, 2004). Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, substance abuse, and the choices people make regarding them have a tremendous impact on health and well being. As health professionals, behavior models and theories should play a central role in all of the public health interventions we develop—from working with a community on cancer prevention activities to helping patients adhere to a medication regimen that was just prescribed (Glanz, 2008).

Below is a brief overview of theories and models, reasons to use them, and tools and resources to learn more.

What are theories and models?

Theories and models explain behavior and suggest ways to achieve behavior change (NIH, 2005). Theories and models also:

  • Help present systematic understanding of events or situations (NIH, 2005)
  • Are a set of concepts, definitions, and propositions that explain or predict these events or situations by illustrating the relationship between variables (NIH, 2005))

Examples: What is the relationship between age and diabetes? Between attitudes and adherence to a medication regimen? )


Why should we use them?

Programs to influence health behavior are more likely to succeed if guided by a theory of health behavior (Glanz, 2008). The use of theories and models also:

(NIH, 2005)

  • Helps serve as a road map
  • Helps explain and predict people’s actions
  • Clarifies the processes for changing the behavior
  • Aids us in recognizing the effects of external influences on behavior
  • Provides tools for moving beyond intuition and generalizations
  • Helps us identify the most suitable targets for programs, the methods for accomplishing change, and the outcomes for evaluation
  • Helps health educators step back and see the bigger picture

How should theories and models be used?

Because different theories are suited for different areas of health practice such as individuals, groups, or communities, the theories must be matched appropriately.

To choose an appropriate theory, it is a good idea to start by identifying the problem you are trying to solve and then reading different theories to see which one may work best for your intervention. It may also be helpful to research which theories and models have been used in the particular area you are working in and whether or not they have been successful.

Below are a few examples of some of the most popular models that can be used when dealing with individual and interpersonal health behavior, and with communities and groups. It is also important to note that thousands of models exist and new ones are created every day. For detailed information and to learn about additional models, please see the “Resources for Healthcare Providers and Health Educators” section.

Models of individual health behavior (ie, people learn through their own experiences):

  • Health Belief Model
  • The Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change
  • Theory of Reasoned Action and the Theory of Planned Behavior
  • Precaution Adoption Process Model

Models of interpersonal health behavior

Social cognitive theory:

  • People don’t learn in a vacuum
  • People learn by observing others’ actions and the results of those actions
  • Multidimensional learning: self (personal factors and one’s behavior as a result of these factors) and the environment
  • Self-efficacy: empowerment and building competency and confidence

Community and group models (used with comprehensive health promotion efforts to solve a health problem or reach entire populations)

  • Diffusion of Innovations
  • Theories of Organizational Change

(Glanz, 2008)


Glanz K, Rimer BK, Viswanath K. Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice Wiley, John & Sons, Inc; 2008.

Mokdad AH, Marks JS, Stroup DF, Gerberding JL. Actual causes of death in the United States, 2000. JAMA. 2004;291(10):1238-1245. http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/291/10/1238.abstract

Theory at a Glance: A Guide for Health Promotion Practice 2nd ed. NIH publication 05-3896. September 2005.

Schroeder SA. Shattuck Lecture. We can do better—improving the health of the American people. N Engl J Med. 2007; 357(12):1221-1228. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17881753


John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Tools for Behavior Change Communication.

This issue of INFO Reports offers tools that can be used when planning and developing a behavior change communication component in family planning programs. The same tools can be used, however, for any health program with this component.

Stanford University. Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change.

A slideshow that goes over 10 mistakes that are often made when working towards behavior change, and some ways to change them.

The BEHAVE Framework tool

The BEHAVE framework is a strategic planning tool for improving behavior change communication. It can also help managers decide what data is needed at each step in a project and to focus on the target group’s point of view.


Thefuntheory.com is a Volkswagen initiative. It is a site dedicated to the idea that something as simple as making a project fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better. Offers examples and inspirations of ways to incorporate fun in behavior change that can be used in public health, that can help lead to better outcomes.

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