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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

What are behavior change influencers? How can we use them to impact behavior?

sphere with the word behavior in red surrounded by related words

When you hear the word “influencer,” what comes to mind? In today’s social media-saturated world, the word influencer has come to mean someone on YouTube or Instagram with thousands of followers.


However, that is a narrow view. To influence means much more than having a social media presence.


The dictionary definition of influence is “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.”


Things as well as people can exert influence and can impact a single action, moment, or person as well as thousands.


In today’s post, we will continue our series covering the concepts from Chapter 12 in Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide and explore the many factors that influence behavior change.


What factors influence behavior?

The influencers of behavior change can be grouped into three categories: those in an audience’s personal sphere, those in their social environment, and those in their physical environment. See Figure 12.4 below.


Source: “Use Behavior Change Theories to Create Effective Communication” by Carol Byrd-Bredbenner and Virginia Stage, Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide, Chapter 12, Page 183, ©2020

Notice how each sphere exerts influence on not only behavior but also exerts influence on the other two spheres. This concept is referred to as reciprocal determinism.  


Let’s take a closer look at what factors are found in each sphere.


Personal Sphere

This sphere is composed of an audience’s personal intellectual, psychological, and physical resources including:

  • Attitudes – beliefs, feelings, and values surrounding a behavior

  • Outcome Expectations – perceptions about the potential positive or negative results of exhibiting a behavior

  • Internal Resources – knowledge, skills and abilities, and personal characteristics including mindset, personality, biology, and lifestyle

  • Personal Agency – capacity, both real and perceived, to influence other factors affecting behavior including personal control, self-efficacy, self-regulation, and coping capacity

  • Social Norms – written and unwritten rules that dictate the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors considered to be appropriate, including social expectations and perceived norms.


Social Environment

This sphere is composed of the interactions an audience experiences with others whether family, friends, colleagues, or fellow members of institutions or organizations. These factors include:

  • Culture – characteristics that distinguish a group of people including socially transmitted knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values, hierarchies, roles, and behaviors

  • Social Support – emotional support, aid, information, and constructive feedback

  • Social (In)equality – whether the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges in a society provides equal or unequal access and rights

  • Economic Environment – the power to purchase goods and services based on one’s employment, income, prices, and the overall economy

  • Political Environment – laws and regulations that impact behavior


Physical Environment

This sphere is composed of everything in an audience’s physical surroundings that impact behavior and can include those that serve as barriers as well as those that are facilitators of positive behaviors. The authors of Chapter 12 describe four key physical environments:

  • Information Environment – the availability and accessibility of information, including sources and channels of information, as well as its overall tone and quality

  • Health Behavior-Specific Environment – for nutrition-specific behaviors this includes both barriers and facilitators to accessing a variety of healthy foods and being physically active

  • Technological Environment – access to new technologies including advances in medicine

  • Health Care Environment – access to quality health care as well as educational and social support programs.


How can understanding these factors help us influence behavior change?

  1. First, we acknowledge the wide variety of factors potentially influencing behavior.

  2. Equipped with this knowledge, we design audience assessments to measure relevant factors.

  3. These findings can then be used to craft targeted messages as well as modify policies and procedures that impact an audience’s environment.


For example, your role may include promoting and supporting the decision to breastfeed. During pregnancy, rather than assume an audience’s positive or negative inclination to breastfeed, assess it.


Find out what they know, believe, and intend. Assess their level of social support, cultural norms, and whether aspects of their environment such as a location to pump at work will be barriers or facilitators of breastfeeding.


Use what you learn to provide the education and support needed to allow the audience to make the most informed decision possible. It takes more than knowing that breastfeeding is the recommended way to feed an infant to choose breastfeeding and more importantly, to succeed.


As nutrition communicators, we can become positive influencers of behavior change when we understand the many and varied behavioral influencers in an audience’s life. We can accentuate the positive influencers and minimize or overcome the negative influencers.


Now that we agree that utilizing behavior change theories in practice is essential,

that understanding the stages in which behavior change progresses is key, and we recognize the importance of understanding the factors that influence behavior change, our next post will explore several decision-oriented behavior change theories.


“Behavior is the end result of a prevailing story in one’s mind: change the story and the behavior will change.” ~ Dr. Jacinta Mpalyenkana


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