Chapter Twenty

Ecological Models of Health Behavior

James F. Sallis Neville Owen and Edwin B. Fisher

Ecological models of health behavior emphasize the environmental and policy contexts of behavior, while incorporating social and psychological influences. Ecological models lead to the explicit consideration of multiple levels of influence, thereby guiding the development of more comprehensive interventions.

In the past two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in interest in, and application of, ecological models in research and practice, due in part to their promise for guiding comprehensive population-wide approaches to changing behaviors that will reduce serious and prevalent health problems. The combination of environmental, policy, social, and individual intervention strategies is credited with the major reductions in tobacco use in the United States since the 1960s (Institute of Medicine, 2001), and this experience has stimulated the application of multi-level models and interventions to many health problems.

The core concept of an ecological model is that behavior has multiple levels of influences, often including intrapersonal (biological, psychological), interpersonal (social, cultural), organizational, community, physical environmental, and policy. Ecological models are believed to provide comprehensive frameworks for understanding the multiple and interacting determinants of health behaviors. More importantly, ecological models can be used to develop comprehensive intervention approaches that systematically target mechanisms of change at each level of influence.