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Social and Behavioral Theories

7. How Theory is Used

The social and behavioral science theories used as a basis for health interventions reflect the field, which is both eclectic and in a relatively early stage of development. The question of how theories are used (or not used) in research and practice is as important as researchers try to ascertain the role of theory in intervention development and evaluation. In a recent review of theory use from 2000 to 2005, we classified articles that employed health behavior theory along a continuum:

  1. Informed by theory: a theoretical framework was identified, but no or limited application of the theory was used in specific study components and measures;
  2. Applied theory: a theoretical framework was specified, and several of the constructs were applied in components of the study;
  3. Tested theory: a theoretical framework was specified, and more than half the theoretical constructs were measured and explicitly tested, or two or more theories were compared to one another in a study; or
  4. Building/creating theory: new or revised/expanded theory was developed using constructs specified, measured, and analyzed in a study.

More than two-thirds of the studies in the review used theory to inform a study; 17.9 percent of theories were applied; 3.6 percent were tested, and only 9.4 percent involved building/creating theory (84). These findings underscore the importance of more thorough application and testing of health behavior theories to advance science and move the field forward.