Psychology of Health Behavior


Have you ever wondered why clients continue to smoke, fail to exercise, make unhealthy dietary decisions, or otherwise refuse to engage in practices they know will improve their health? Despite decades of educational campaigns teaching us the importance of smoking cessation, physical activity, a balanced diet, we continue to make poor health related decisions. 

Why? If we know that these behaviors are harmful, why do we continue to engage in these practices?

Health Behavior Theories

The answer to that question is found in the study of human health behavior. Over the last few decades, researchers have studied how to quantify health behaviors, identify patterns of behavior, and improve overall health outcomes. Collectively, these findings are referred to as health behavior theories and health behavior models. Health behavior theories and models attempt to explain health behavior and to guide health  professionals in the identification, development, and implementation of interventions that promote overall health.

The most successful health programs and services are based on health behavior theories and models. These are interdisciplinary tools which draw from a diverse range of fields, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, marketing, epidemiology, and of course, public health.

“A theory is a set of interrelated concepts, definitions, and propositions that present a systematic view of events or situations by specifying relationships among variables, in order to explain and predict the events or situations.” (Glanz et al 2007)

For the holistic health professional, theories answer the who, what, and how of health behavior. Theories help clarify why an individual or group of individuals are disregarding behaviors or habits that are known to boost outcomes. Theories help to identify what a health professional needs to know or accomplish in order to achieve success with empowering a client or group of individuals, and they provide details on how to address a situation or group of situations with an individual or group of individuals.

Explanatory Theories and Change Theories

Theories and models help to explain behavior as well as to suggest how to develop more effective ways to influence and change behavior. As a result, there are two types of health behavior theory: explanatory theories and change theories.

Explanatory theories, also known as theories of the problem, identify and clarify why the problem exists. Why is this individual uninterested in smoking cessation? Why does this individual insist on fast food twice a day?

Change theories, also known as theories of action, identify and clarify the course of action to take to address the problem. How will we help this group of individuals improve self efficacy for smoking cessation? A theory can be used as both an explanatory theory and a change theory, depending on the needs and setting.

There are multiple health behavior theories and models which are used in health promotion. The ideal theory or model for a given situation will depend on the specific health problem being addressed, the priority population being served, and even the context in which the intervention takes place. Health promotion professionals typically integrate multiple theories into an intervention.


Meet Dr Hawkins

Dr. Hawkins brings 20 years of expertise in the integrative health field to her role as Executive Director of the Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences and the leader of our clinical research team.

She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Health from Union Institute and University, a Master’s Degree in Health Education & Promotion from the University of Alabama, a post-graduate certificate in epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a PhD in Health Research from Middle Tennessee State University, and is completing the post-doctoral Global Scholars Research Training Program at Harvard Medical School. She also holds certifications in numerous natural health fields including aromatherapy, aromatic medicine, herbalism, childbirth education, and labor support.