What Is Behavioral Science & How Does It Relate to Public Health?

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A behavioral scientist takes notes on a clipboard while sitting with a troubled-looking child playing with a toy chalkboard.In their quest to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life, public health experts study and apply specialized concepts to address public health issues. These concepts range from environmental health, to biostatistics, to epidemiology.

Social and behavioral sciences also play a role in public health. In fact, that role is essential. Understanding what behavioral science is, and knowing how to apply it, offers an important tool for those who develop public health initiatives. Behavioral science aims to better understand human behavior and the driving forces behind it.

What Is Social and Behavioral Science?

Social and behavioral science is the study of how human behavior impacts personal thoughts, decisions, interactions, and actions. A developed understanding of human behavior can serve as a powerful tool for those who wish to influence people’s health choices.

For example, many chronic diseases are the result of personal behaviors. By addressing those behaviors, many leading risk factors for illnesses can be prevented or controlled.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in three adults has high blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Changing a personal behavior to eat less sodium can lower high blood pressure.

By examining what influences people’s decisions about their sodium consumption, public health professionals can better address an important health risk factor. They can also examine other disease risk factors brought on or aggravated by people’s behaviors, then use behavioral health science to encourage people to make healthier choices.

Activity levels, diet, alcohol use, sleeping habits, seatbelt use: all of these factors and many more affect people’s well-being. It helps to understand the psychology and other motivations behind people’s actions. With such knowledge, public health professionals can develop strategic initiatives that shift people’s choices and behaviors, and ultimately improve their health.

Influences on Behavior

Many factors influence people’s choices. Social and behavioral scientists study factors such as the following.

Psychological Influences. Factors such as motivation can determine what a person chooses to do or not do. Unmet needs tend to motivate people into action and affect their behavior. A belief in one’s ability to achieve a task also plays a role in influencing choices and behavior.

Behavioral influences. People’s values, their assessment of risk, the extent to which a choice conflicts with their beliefs or attitudes, and their culture can all play a role in how people behave and the choices they make.

Biological Influences. Factors such as age, sex, and genetics can influence people’s behavior and emotions. For example, people inherit characteristics that influence behavior traits such as impulsiveness or reticence.

Societal Influences. People may change their behavior and ideas to fit into a social group. People may also shift their decisions or attitudes to meet the demands of their own social roles or perceived authority.

The Role of Psychology and Neuroscience

The fields of psychology and neuroscience contribute important insights into human behavior and why people think and feel certain ways.

Psychology offers many theories that shed light on human behavior. These theories explore topics including the stages of human development and social conditioning. Different stages of cognitive and physical development can influence how people are likely to think and act. This offers useful information for those working to design programs that effectively speak to people at different points in their lives.

Social conditioning theories, on the other hand, can lend understanding to how people develop behaviors through building associations, as well the role of “rewards” and “punishments” in influencing behaviors.

Additionally, public health professionals can apply the insights of psychology to understanding people’s perceptions and the social dynamics that influence people’s behavior.

Neuroscience, which focuses on the brain’s influence on behavior and thinking, can also help public health experts understand human behavior. This multidisciplinary science has shown the importance of brain functions in affecting people’s emotions, thoughts, and actions.

Behavioral neuroscience, for instance, explores the interplay between the brain, a person’s environment, and behavior. In this way, it offers insight into how to best assess, predict, and influence human behavior. Public health professionals can benefit from neuroscience research that helps explain the neurobiology of issues they address, including the following.

  • Trauma
  • Addiction
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism
  • Aging

Which Disciplines Are Included in the Field of Behavioral Science?

Behavioral science is a broad field, with many disciplines under its umbrella that all address human actions in some way. Regardless of the discipline, any area that seeks to understand the connection between the human mind and behavior relies on the study of behavioral science.

Psychology

Psychology, the scientific study of the mind and behavior, according to the American Psychological Association, explores human development, health, cognition, and social behavior. Psychology strives to achieve four principle goals.

  • Describe people’s behaviors, as well as the behaviors of subsets of people, to identify normal and abnormal behavior and gain insight into people’s thoughts and actions
  • Explain why people think and react as they do, and understand what influences their personalities and states of mind
  • Predict how behaviors will appear in the future by observing past behaviors, and better understand why, when, and how behaviors might appear in the future
  • Change or positively influence people’s behaviors to improve their lives

Sociology

Sociology examines how societies develop, organize themselves, and function. It involves studying the interactions between the people within a society and the processes which maintain and change society. Sociology looks at different segments within a society to understand their dynamics, such as its:

  • Institutions
  • Populations
  • Gender groups
  • Communities
  • Age groups

Other points of interest in sociology include the study of:

  • Social status
  • Social movements
  • Social problems

Social and Cultural Anthropology

Social and cultural anthropology explore the many aspects of culture, including:

  • Rules of behavior
  • Language
  • Customs
  • Belief system
  • Social structures

This branch of anthropology considers how such aspects, along with principles that organize a culture’s social life, can influence people’s behavior. Social and cultural anthropology also examine what can challenge those principles and break down different aspects of a culture.

Criminology

Criminology seeks to understand crime. Specifically, it analyzes how, why, and when crime happens. In addition to understanding the causes of crime, criminology also examines its impact on victims, society, and the criminals themselves.

Some additional focus areas in criminology include:

  • Types of crimes
  • Location of crimes
  • Governmental, individual, and societal reactions to crime
  • Frequency of crimes

Biology

Biology is the study of living things and the processes that keep them alive. The discipline examines the structure, growth, reproduction, and behavior of people, animals, plants, and organisms. Biology also looks closely at how genetics, adaptation, and environment affect living things.

Political Science

Political science analyzes the systematic methods used by governments at all levels. The discipline explores what influences the relationship between a government and the people it governs by considering the following.

  • Societal factors
  • Psychological factors
  • Cultural factors

Political science also examines how these factors affect the way government functions.

Psychiatry

Psychiatry involves the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders. This discipline studies the connections between the mind and the brain (i.e., the connection between thoughts, feelings, and actions and neural functioning). Psychiatry also examines the effect of the environment on people with mental illnesses.

What Are Some Behavioral Science Examples?

Behavioral scientists study many types of health issues across many types of populations. After conducting their research and gathering data, they analyze and communicate their findings. Behavioral scientists search for a better understanding of many problems that are particularly relevant to public health professionals, including:

  • Health risks
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Violence
  • Trauma
  • Stress
  • Personality disorders
  • Depression

Clinical solutions to health issues matter. Important questions like who will trust the science behind a vaccine and under what circumstances, also matter. Social science can deliver some of the answers to such questions. For example, in the COVID-19 pandemic, social scientists are researching questions that are key to the work of public health experts, such as:

  • What motivates people to wear or not wear masks during a pandemic?
  • How does COVID-19 affect people differently based on their socioeconomic backgrounds?

Behavioral Science and COVID-19

Alice Fothergill, a sociologist and disaster researcher, is studying how social isolation during the pandemic affects children and seniors. Her work strives to better understand the public health crisis to reduce suffering in the future when disasters unfold. Fothergill’s research involves engaging the elderly and children in journal writing, and keeping detailed descriptions of their daily schedules while in social isolation.

Evaluating Trauma Interventions

The Center for Injury Recovery and Prevention as well as Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are both working together to conduct behavioral science research related to injury prevention. The study evaluates a trauma intervention program for youth who are injured by assaults.

Child and Family Traumatic Stress Intervention is an approach that strives to lessen the severity of post-traumatic stress that youth experience after an assault. It combines trauma-informed case management and a violence intervention program. The research offers useful information about effective methods and programs that reduce trauma in youth who have been assaulted.

Substance Abuse Prevention for Adolescents

To better understand substance abuse among adolescents, behavioral scientists from the Oregon Research Institute reviewed the evidence about the risk factors that can lead to substance abuse disorders. One risk factor mentioned is aggressive behavior in children and adolescents. The research also discussed factors that reduce the likelihood of adolescents developing substance abuse disorders.

For example, addressing aggressive behavior when it appears can prevent subsequent issues such as depression, academic failure, and substance abuse. Additionally, the researchers discuss the challenges to implementing successful substance abuse prevention programs, providing even more information to public health professionals and others about how to tackle substance abuse among teens.

Public Health and Behavioral Science

Public health issues such as preventable diseases, obesity, and mental health problems have significant behavioral components. This creates a strong connection between behavioral science and public health.

Social and behavioral sciences help illuminate public health concerns, and therefore can play a critical role in achieving public health goals. By applying behavioral science to public health challenges, those in the field can more successfully reduce health inequities, prevent disease, and promote health.

Additionally, behaviors that contribute to several public health challenges are closely linked to social determinants of health — the conditions in which people grow up, work, and live. Obesity, a risk factor for both diabetes and heart disease, for example, can result from poor eating habits. Poor eating habits can result from living in food deserts, which are areas that have little access to affordable fresh food.

Public health seeks to address the social determinants of health that create health inequities and prevent people from achieving their optimal health. The field also strives to implement community interventions. As a result, public health experts have focused more and more on disciplines such as sociology, political science, and anthropology.

Applying Behavioral Science to Public Health

Public health professionals study behavioral science research and data to understand public health issues that affect individuals. In this way, they learn about behavioral science-based interventions that can help prevent persistent health concerns such as sexually transmitted diseases, heart disease, and cancer. They also address issues such as homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health.

Public health professionals then apply this knowledge to promote health awareness and prevent disease in the communities they serve.

For example, public health professionals who are tackling homelessness among urban youth can develop programs that are informed by behavioral science research. Some research shows that low executive functioning (memory, self-control, flexible thinking) increases high-risk behavior among homeless adolescents. Knowing this enables public health professionals to design programs that identify youth with low executive functioning. Additionally, it helps them target interventions for curbing young people’s risky or dangerous behaviors.

Public health professionals can also apply behavioral science to promote sexual health. For example, they can research behavior change techniques that are effective for sexual health issues based on behavioral science. They can then integrate those techniques into programs to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

Pursuing an Advanced Education in Public Health

Innovating solutions to public health challenges call for a multidisciplinary approach. Public health experts must harness the power of what behavioral science is, along with their advanced understanding of the determinants of health.

Cultivating the expertise to develop and implement health interventions that integrate the power of several disciplines takes the right education. Ohio University offers a comprehensive public health curriculum that is designed to achieve a targeted goal: to deepen one’s knowledge of public health principles and establish a strong foundation in behavioral science.

Inspired to make a difference in public health and help eliminate health disparities in vulnerable communities? Explore the benefits of earning an online Master of Health from Ohio University.

Recommended Readings

Public Health vs. Medicine: What’s the Difference?

3 Lucrative MPH Career Opportunities for Graduates

What Is Health Informatics, and How Does It Affect Public Health?

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