A Structural Model of Health Behavior

A Pragmatic Approach to Explain and Influence Health Behaviors at the Population Level

Published in: Preventive Medicine, v. 30, no. 2, Feb. 2000, p. 146-154

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2000

by Deborah Cohen, Thomas Farley, Richard Scribner

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BACKGROUND: Behavior is influenced by individual-level attributes as well as by the conditions under which people live. Altering policies, practices, and the conditions of life can directly and indirectly influence individual behavior. This paper builds on existing ecological theories of health behavior by specifying structural mechanisms by which population-level factors effect change in individual health behaviors. METHODS: This paper moves ecological theory from model building to a pragmatic characterization of structural interventions. The authors examined social and environmental factors beyond individual control and mechanisms as to how they influence behavior. RESULTS: Four categories of structural factors are identified: (1) availability of protective or harmful consumer products, (2) physical structures (or physical characteristics of products), (3) social structures and policies, and (4) media and cultural messages. The first three can directly influence individuals through facilitating or constraining behavior. The fourth, media, operates by changing individual-level attitudes, belief, and cognitions, as well as group norms. CONCLUSION: Interventions that target the four identified structural factors are a means to provide conditions that not only reduce high-risk behavior but also prevent the adoption of high-risk behaviors. Structural interventions are important and underutilized approaches for improving our nation's health.

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