To improve the health and safety of people in the United States and around the world, we have to influence and change behaviors. It can be difficult to try new things, or stop old things as behaviors range from simple to complex, but one way to consider behavior change is to think of any change as a passive or active choice.
Public health practitioners must think about interventions in terms of the behaviors they are asking people to adopt, stop or continue. What would encourage someone to change what they are currently doing? Before you can influence someone’s behavior or change their choices about a behavior (risky or protective) you need to know how their judgments and decisions are made about that behavior in the first place.
Behaviors are rooted in traditions
During the Ebola response behavior change was critical to prevent people from getting sick and ultimately stop a disease threat. In the wake of the outbreak, communities in West Africa were encouraged to give up or change their traditional burial practices. Some of these longstanding rituals, like washing the body, proved dangerous because the virus can live on the skin of a victim after death. Communicators developed public health messaging to help change social norms and customs for burials. It was important to understand behavioral science and anthropology in order to communicate about safe burial practices in a way that would make people choose to change a behavior that was ingrained in their culture.
The 2016 Zika virus outbreak is the first time in more than 50 years that a virus has been linked to serious birth defects. Due to the impact of Zika virus infection during pregnancy, social norms and perceptions around provider visits had to be addressed to alleviate concerns about the cost of screening. Clinicians were educated about the risks associated with Zika virus, how to prevent infections, and reporting suspected cases to their state, local, or territorial health departments and women were offered free clinical services, education, and access to Zika prevention kits.
Behaviors are rooted in beliefs
The fight to eradicate polio teaches us the importance of beliefs in behavior change during a response to a public health threat. Creating an effective polio vaccine was only the first step in the effort to eradicate polio. Of course an effective vaccine was necessary to prevent polio virus infections, but getting communities to accept the vaccine was equally important. Public health practitioners created messages that build on cognitive, developmental, and social psychology to persuade parents to bring their children into clinics to get vaccinated.
Behaviors inform preparedness and response
Responding to emergencies effectively requires combined expertise in many fields, including behavioral science. Epidemiology, for example, allows us to understand how many people have a disease and characterize the disease, while behavioral science identifies the role of human behavior and psychosocial factors. Behavioral science expertise can identify methods to communicate and design campaigns to change behavior that are culturally and socially acceptable.
It is important that we maintain humility when we try to understand why people do or think what they do. We often assume that we understand human behavior, but we must remain open-minded when working with people from all different backgrounds and cultures. Who’s to say that what our culture considers right and true necessarily translates to the same belief systems elsewhere? Thus public health ethics is also an important consideration when suggesting behavioral change interventions. When we are in situations that are particularly dangerous or stressful, our assumptions about other people’s behavior can lead to recommendations or actions that seem counterintuitive or wrong to them. Careful application of behavioral science is critical to any mission that seeks to improve public health and safety, here and around the world.
The Communication Research and Evaluation blog series highlights innovative research and evaluation methods used at CDC to improve behavior change campaigns.