Theory’s role in shaping behavioral health research for population health

The careful application of theory often is used in the behavioral health field to enhance our understanding of how the world currently works. But theory also can help us visualize what the world can become, particularly through its potential impacts on population-wide health. Applying a multi-level ecological perspective can help in expanding the field’s focus upward toward the population at large. While ecological frameworks have become increasingly popular, arguably such perspectives have fallen short of their potential to actively bridge conceptual constructs and, by extension, intervention approaches, across different levels of population impact. Theoretical and conceptual perspectives that explicitly span levels of impact offer arguably the greatest potential for achieving scientific insights that may in turn produce the largest population health effects. Examples of such “bridging” approaches include theories and models that span behavioral + micro-environment, behavioral + social/cultural, and social + physical environment constructs. Several recommendations are presented related to opportunities for leveraging theories to attain the greatest impact in the population health science field. These include applying the evidence obtained from person-level theories to inform methods for positively impacting the behaviors of community gatekeepers and decision-makers for greater population change and reach; leveraging the potential of residents as “citizen scientists”–a resource for enacting behavioral health changes at the individual, environmental, and policy levels; using empirical observations and theory in equal parts to build more robust, relevant, and solution-oriented behavior change programs; exploring moderators and mediators of change at levels of impact that go beyond the individual; and considering the circumstances in which applying conceptual methods that embrace a “complexity” as opposed to “causality” perspective may lead to more flexible and agile scientific approaches that could accelerate both population-relevant discoveries and applications in the field. The commentary closes with suggestions concerning additional areas to be considered to facilitate continued advances in the health behavior field more generally to attain the greatest impacts on population health.

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