Research Develops New Framework for Understanding Cognition, Affect, and Behavior

Published August 31, 2017

“We would argue that only by more fully understanding the complexities of the relation between thoughts and feeling can we better understand health behavior and design effective public health interventions to change behaviors.”
School of Public Health and Health Professions

Both research on health behavior and public health interventions to change behavior should consider the possible complex relations between people’s thoughts about behaviors and their feelings about those behaviors, according to a new framework for understanding cognition, affect, and behavior developed by an expert team led by University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions researcher Dr. Marc Kiviniemi.

Social and behavioral sciences research in public health has long recognized that both people’s thoughts about health behaviors (e.g., the benefits that someone sees to eating a healthy diet) and their feelings about those behaviors (e.g. feelings of disgust about certain food options) influence people’s decisions about health promotion and disease prevention behaviors. Historically though, these thoughts and feelings have been treated as separate and distinct influences on behavior. This is true for both health behavior theories and for public health interventions to change behavior.

But, according to Dr. Kiviniemi, associate professor in the department of community health and health behavior, this separate treatment oversimplifies the complexity of individuals’ decision-making about health behavior in ways that limit both public health science and public health intervention.

“We would argue that only by more fully understanding the complexities of the relation between thoughts and feeling can we better understand health behavior and design effective public health interventions to change behaviors,” explains Dr. Kiviniemi.

In their paper, recently published in the journal Psychology and Health, Dr. Kiviniemi and other researchers develop a framework for explaining different types of relations amongst thoughts and feelings. The paper explicates how the different types of relations in this framework advance our understanding of the complex dynamics at play in determining behavior of public health relevance. It also gives suggestions for how to use the types of relations in the framework when designing interventions to change behavior.

“This kind of joint understanding of the mechanisms involved in people’s health behaviors and the effectiveness of interventions to change behavior has the ability to advance both basic science and public health,” said Dr. Kiviniemi.

In addition to Dr. Kiviniemi, authors on the paper include researchers from the National Cancer Institute (Dr. Erin M. Ellis, Dr. Jennifer L. Moss, and Dr. William M.P. Klein), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Ms. Marissa G. Hall, and Dr. Noel T. Brewer), and the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs healthcare system (Dr. Sarah E. Lillie).