What Public Health Professionals Can Learn From Behavioral Models

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Consumer habits are a primary factor contributing to poor health. [1] For issues such as smoking, obesity, and unsafe sex practices, healthy personal behavior is critical for consumers.

Healthy behavior has effectively alleviated or prevented the symptoms associated with many illnesses. However, encouraging healthy habits among consumers can prove challenges for medical professionals.

The Health Belief Model, developed by social psychologist Irwin Rosenstock, states that a consumer will improve poor health habits if they believe they might contract a condition. If the potential illness poses a serious threat and the change process seems realistic to the consumer, they feel that if they change their unhealthy habits, it will result in a positive reward.

However, consumer decision-making processes vary according to factors such as demographics, social and internal influences, and internal belief in the ability to change. The following three examples highlight the decision processes experienced by consumers while considering whether to adopt healthy habits.


A study titled “Smoking cessation among transit workers: beliefs and perceptions among an at-risk occupational group”, revealed that transit workers smoke disproportionately compared to the general population. [2] Over a four-month period, the researchers interviewed seventy-one transit employees, of which 45 percent were women and 83 percent were minorities. The researchers found that transit workers’ behavior related to smoking and smoking cessation corresponded with the Transtheoretical Model, which suggests that individuals go through several stages when attempting to change personal habits.

The researchers suggested that knowledge about smoking cessation was an important factor for transit workers in establishing whether they were ready to quit smoking. Those who were unfamiliar with smoking cessation facts felt as though quitting was impossible. This led to the researchers recommending that smoking cessation program developers include relevant information to encourage participant success. Additionally, the researchers suggested that program developers quantify results from other cessation programs to establish realistic expectations and objectives.


The Health Belief Model has remained popular since its creation in 1966 and well into the early 1990s. [1] However, public health professionals used the model and failed in an attempt to curb childhood obesity.

Researchers cite that one problem with using the model to mitigate childhood obesity is that it focused on the perceptions of the children that officials wanted to help. For instance, part of the initiative resulted in several schools issuing letters to the parents of obese children alerting them to the condition, which only served to alienate the intended benefactors. The exercise revealed that direct intervention is, and will most likely remain, ineffective.

Later, the National Institutes of Health recognized that quelling childhood obesity was an undertaking that required an all-inclusive effort by parents, schools, government agencies, and other stakeholders to change the environment that influences eating habits among children. Part of this initiative might include parents encouraging positive eating habits and food establishments providing healthy meal choices for kids. Additionally, food manufacturers should place more emphasis on producing and advertising healthy, affordable food products for children. Finally, the public’s perception about obesity must change to one of compassion and tolerance regarding the condition; the public must come to an understanding that obesity is a challenge that many people want to overcome, just like any other threatening health condition.

Safe Sex

Researchers conducting a survey about sexual behavior among adolescents learned that youth belief models demonstrate the belief that safe sex practices offer positive health benefits. [3] Despite this belief, respondents felt that contraceptive devices posed certain challenges; some males believed that condoms lessened sensation and other respondents found it embarrassing to discuss safe sex practices with their partners. Additionally, some juveniles felt that it is embarrassing to visit a clinic and undergo testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). To counter these beliefs, the study concluded that youth need encouragement and alternatives such as:

• Discussing ways to appear less obvious when travelling to STD clinics
• Distributing literature and memorabilia with the “No Glove, No Love” message
• Publishing safe sex marketing materials such as brochures, pamphlets, and posters
• Teaching adolescents how to discuss safe sex

Such initiatives, suggest researchers, can help shape the belief systems of youth when making decisions regarding safe sex.

Among consumers, health behavioral models change over time and are impossible to predict with accuracy. [1] Human behavior is a complex and unpredictable characteristic. Despite this, behavior models help public health professionals understand the reasons people practice specific habits and provide a road map to creating initiatives that improve community wellness.

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[1] Research Gate
[2] BioMed Central
[3] University of Twente