The Science of Healthy Behaviors
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The Science of Healthy Behaviors

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Teacher's Guide

Information about the Science of Healthy Behaviors (Page 1 of 2)

photo of boy reading  photo of boy lifting weights  photo of girl eating an apple
Figure 1. Some behaviors are instinctual and others are conscious choices.

1 What Is Behavior?

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines behavior as “the way a person behaves or acts.”28 Behavior effectively includes anything and everything an individual or group does. Behaviors play key roles in survival, long- and short-term health, and emotional and physical well-being. Some behaviors are instinctual, and others are conscious choices. Behaviors result from a complex interaction between genetics and the environment, and they include emotional and physical actions and reactions. Some behaviors are learned and vary from culture to culture. Some behaviors are social, involving interactions with others. Behaviors change based on an individual’s age, education, social status, and situation.

Given the inclusiveness of the term, it should not be surprising if students have difficulty defining behavior. One of the goals of this curriculum supplement is for students to gain a more complete understanding of what constitutes behavior. Students will also begin to analyze the causes and effects of behaviors and think about the process and results of modifying behaviors. Ideally, this information will provide students with tools to evaluate their own behavioral choices, with the goal of improved health.

2 Studying Behavior

2.1 Behavioral and Social Sciences

The goal of the behavioral and social sciences is to better understand human behaviors and apply this understanding to improving the quality of life for people. Because so many behaviors have an impact on health, social and behavioral sciences are an important component of studying individual and group health.

Social and behavioral sciences are an important component of studying individual and group health.

Developing a valid scientific method for studying behavior is a challenge because behavior is so broadly defined. Virtually any activity, from language to walking, constitutes behavior, and behavior may be studied in an individual or in groups. In addition, the requirement of detaching emotionally from the subject and not projecting personal beliefs or feelings onto the study is difficult to meet. It becomes more difficult when one is studying, ultimately, oneself. Tools and measurable variables for the accurate and reproducible study of behaviors have been designed and identified, however.

The limits of behavioral and social science are difficult to draw since any behavior is a legitimate topic of study. In addition, the subjects of the field of study range from the individual to the global and include internal behaviors, interactions between people, and interactions between people and their environments.22

In this curriculum supplement, behavioral and social science refers to a large number of fields involved in studying behavior, including traditional fields such as psychology and sociology. The term also includes fields that are based on behavioral and social science methods such as epidemiology, anthropology, and the relatively new field of biopsychosocial research. Biopsychosocial research (also known as biobehavioral or biosocial research) involves the study of the interactions of biological factors with behavioral and social variables and of how they affect each other.

Behaviors include not only cognition, attitudes, emotions, sensation, motivation, perception, and communication but also eating, drinking, sexual, aggressive, and parental behaviors. Biopsychosocial research includes research on basic mechanisms as well as clinical research, and it is not restricted to humans. It includes normal as well as pathological function. It reflects an understanding of the relationship between behavior and health and combines traditional behavioral sciences with clinical and applied biology fields, as in psychoneuroimmunology (the scientific study of the interactions among behavior, the brain, and the immune system).8 Virtually any field that involves humans makes use of behavioral and social science to some degree.

These combined sciences have brought many changes to the way we live, from fundamental shifts in how society views and copes with mental illness to the design of ergonomically improved environments. Since behavior affects so many aspects of society, behavioral or social science research may contribute to conclusions in other fields such as politics and medicine. For example, polls are a form of survey, and epidemiology relies heavily on behavioral and social science methods for collecting reliable information.

Behavioral and social science research plays an increasing role in health care. By examining the human factors involved in successful treatments, researchers can identify ways to improve the effectiveness of those treatments. In our society, where lifestyle-induced chronic illnesses are affecting an increasing percentage of the population, developing effective behavioral modification therapy and behavior-based disease prevention is essential. Effective behavioral treatments, just like traditional medical treatments, are based on rigorous scientific research.

2.2 Types of Research

Effective behavioral treatments, just like traditional medical treatments, are based on rigorous scientific research.

Behavioral and social science researchers can conduct basic or applied research. Basic research examines general questions, which may or may not have an immediate and obvious application. For example, studying how a rat learns to perform a task does not necessarily have an immediate application in humans, but research of this type often leads researchers to new ideas about human behaviors. People doing applied research often use ideas derived from basic research to develop useful tools for society. For example, applied research in ergonomics led to the design of the more-visible fluorescent-green fire engines.

Laboratory or clinical research is often tightly controlled to allow researchers to answer specific questions. For example, if researchers want to study the effect of a certain vitamin in a group of patients, they can control the dosage of the vitamin and observe effects in a small group. For a variety of reasons, animals are sometimes studied instead of humans:

Behavioral and social science research is also carried out in a variety of other settings. The concept of “laboratory” research has expanded to include field research, in which humans or animals are studied in their natural settings. This provides a rich source of information about complex behaviors and group interactions that may not be available in the traditional laboratory. For example, nonhuman primate studies in the animals’ natural habitat provide a great deal of information about societies and how social structures affect individual and group well-being.

photo of mouse research  photo of primates used for research
Figure 2. Many behavioral scientists work with rats or nonhuman primates.

2.3 Behavioral and Social Science Tools

All science is based on the collection of measurable data. Behavioral scientists might measure the number of times a behavior is repeated, the degree to which a subject agrees or disagrees with a question, or the rapidity with which a new behavior is learned. Two tools commonly used in behavioral and social sciences are observation and surveys. The students using this curriculum will be introduced to these tools, including their applications and limits.

Two tools commonly used in behavioral and social sciences are observation and surveys.

Observation. Effective observation requires attention to detail, careful note taking, and detachment. These skills make comparison of observations across time possible. It is important to observe what is actually happening, or to watch for specific behaviors, while remaining detached from the situation. For example, primatologists studying nonhuman primate behavior must be careful not to allow their own values and judgments to color their observations. Observations are often converted into numbers—for example, the number of times a behavior was observed or the degree to which a behavior was exhibited. These numbers can be analyzed. Alternatively, observation may lead the scientist to ask new questions, such as why a behavior was exhibited or how the behavior developed.

photo of a group of middle school students
Figure 3. The Add Health Study is a national survey of middle school students that relates behaviors to health.

Survey. Another common tool of social and behavioral science is the survey. It allows collection of data from a larger number of individuals than would be possible with observation. A well-designed survey also reduces the impact of the researcher’s bias. However, designing an effective survey is very difficult. Questions must elicit useful answers that aren’t misleading. For example, if one were to ask, “What did you eat today?” the answer might be a very detailed list of food, but without any quantities. So although two people answered, “Cereal,” one might have eaten one bowl of cereal and the other, three bowls.

Two other aspects of surveys are representative sample and sample size. They both affect the validity of survey results. Representative sample refers to the idea that different groups of people will respond differently to a survey, so each group should be represented in the study population. For example, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, also known as the Add Health study, is a national survey of middle school students.18 Because the survey could not be administered to every middle school student in the United States, a smaller population of students representing the different socioeconomic groups in the general population was surveyed. The results can then be extrapolated to the general middle school population. Another approach to surveys is to target a particular group and administer the survey to that group. This limits the results of the survey to only that group.

Sample size affects how accurately a population is represented by a survey. The larger the sample, the more accurate the survey will be. Everyone has heard a story about a friend or family member who smoked or did other unhealthy things and lived to be very old. But even though one hears about these exceptional people more often than others, the reality is that they are exceptions and do not represent the most common experience. Looking at many people, or a “large sample size,” ensures that those unusual people do not skew, or influence, the results too much.

2.4 Careers in Behavioral and Social Sciences

While people who have a background in behavioral and social science contribute to society through a variety of careers, some individuals train specifically as social scientists or behavioral scientists. Some of these professionals conduct basic research—for example, studying animal models to gain insight into human behaviors or studying mechanisms underlying normal behaviors in humans to understand disordered behaviors caused by disease. These studies can occur in laboratories or in the field. Others may develop practical applications based on research.

Sample size affects how accurately a population is represented by a survey. The larger the sample, the more accurate the survey will be.

Behavioral and social science is used in many other fields as well. For example, in the healthcare profession, studies of risks and behaviors can help healthcare providers better understand and more effectively serve their patient populations. Community leaders, politicians, and government workers in a variety of fields can use social science to help them design better policies for their constituents. Ergonomics is a field dedicated to studying how people behave in their environments and then using that information to improve the environments by adapting them to human needs and limitations. Educators may also find behavioral and social science helpful in developing educational models to address academic and nonacademic issues.


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