Behavior Science

Photo by Austin Price

Why It Matters  |  What We Are Doing  |  Who Is Involved


Why It Matters

Health behaviors, and the social and built environments that helps shape those behaviors, have dramatic impacts on health outcomes across individuals and populations. To name just a few examples, modest increases across populations in practicing safe sex, obtaining prenatal care, getting vaccines, engaging in regular physical activity, and washing hands regularly can increase quality of life and reduce premature disability and death for millions around the globe. Yet making low-cost, effective resources available to millions is not enough. Even with such incentives, many still won’t use condoms regularly, adhere to medication regimens, get vaccines, or wash their hands after using the toilet. In Health Behavior, researchers identify the complex reasons why such health-protective behaviors may be difficult to adopt or maintain and then develop, implement, and evaluate behavioral and social change interventions that make a difference in health across populations.

What We Are Doing

Faculty, students and research staff in HB combine the social and behavioral sciences with health education to deliver practical research and solutions that improve the health of individuals and communities.  Read More

Both in the U.S. and in global contexts, faculty, researchers and students in HB use their expertise to:

  • investigate causes, consequences and strategies to prevent and manage HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and injuries and interpersonal violence;
  • Develop and assess policies and programs focused on tobacco control, reducing risky sexual behavior, preventing violence, increasing physical activity and reducing obesity.
  • Create interventions to promote health across the life course, from adolescents to older adults, for men and for women.
  • Devise programs, including those that draw on peer support, lay health advisors, and community-based participatory methods, for reducing health disparities and protecting the health of vulnerable populations.
  • Evaluate interventions and policies that create safe, healthier communities, schools and worksites.
  • Conduct research on effective health communication methods and social media messages.


Our social and behavioral science research findings and interventions have been adopted the world over, such that we are making a difference by:

  • Accelerating best practices in peer support in the U.S. and around the world. As some have noted, 95% of health care is self care. In Health Behavior, faculty have carried out ground-breaking research and scale-up of interventions that leverage peer support to help people in vulnerable communities in the U.S. and around the world better manage and protect their own health. In the U.S., our research on lay health advisors has helped close the gap in breast cancer screening rates among black and white women in the rural southeast. Around the world, scale-up of effective peer support interventions has helped reduce the toll diabetes takes on a global scale. Such low-cost, high-impact approaches both strengthen communities and measurably improve health outcomes and quality of life for those at risk for, or living with, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and many other health problems.
  • Reducing and preventing HIV/AIDS among extremely vulnerable populations. Faculty working in sub-Saharan Africa (Tanzania, South Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo), India, Central America, the Caribbean, and in the southeastern U.S. are protecting the health of extremely vulnerable populations – including sex workers, pregnant women, immigrants and incarcerated populations – through interventions aimed at the nexus of HIV/AID, stigma, and gender-based discrimination and violence. Examples include:
    • Identifying and reducing the barriers (including gender-based violence and social isolation) that prevent pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa from using HIV counseling and testing services;
    • Evaluating violence prevention programs in the U.S. and in global settings (Democratic Republic of the Congo) while simultaneously building stakeholders’ capacity to design and evaluate their own interventions;
    • Preventing gender-based violence among social networks of young men in sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa, Tanzania);
    • Using social network approaches to increase condom use among men-who-have-sex-with-men and among male-clients-of-female-sex workers (Dominican Republic, El Salvador, China, southeastern U.S.);
    • Preventing teen dating violence through school-based programs around the world; and
    • Increasing HIV testing and supporting better HIV medication adherence among vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, men who have sex with men, and incarcerated populations (Malawi, South Africa, India, China, Vietnam, southeastern U.S.).
  • Using monitoring and evaluation and well-designed information systems to protect and improve health globally. Our experts in monitoring and evaluation are able to measure how small changes in organizations and programs can produce major health benefits (better birth outcomes; less gender-based violence; increased uptake of HIV/AIDS prevention strategies). They then develop and evaluate approaches to program scale-up that help ensure widespread adoption of those changes.

In addition to making significant contributions to health behavior research, HB trains some of the world’s finest analytic practitioners and researchers in the social and behavioral sciences in public health. For almost 75 years, we have been producing leaders skilled in developing and evaluating interventions and policies to promote health, prevent disease and injury, and reduce health disparities.

Who Is Involved

Our leaders in health behavior come from across the Gilling School, and include our world-class faculty, staff, post-docs and students. This overview only captures a fraction of the important research, teaching, and public service efforts in health behavior at the Gillings School. Please explore the individual leader descriptions to learn more about their work.