By David Lee on October 16, 2009 · tagged as , ,

Is Behavior Change Contagious?

I have been reading the New York Times Magazine article Are Your Friends Making You Fat? about how behaviors can be “contagious” — that behaviors “pass” from friend to friend just like a virus.  If this true about obesity and happiness, what are the implications for the prevention of sexual violence and domestic violence?  Can we have active bystander actions and willingness to interrupt sexist behavior spread from person to person?  Wouldn’t it be great if someone’s friends’ friends are taking actions to prevent rape, that people would then adopt positive behaviors?

I am skeptical that individual-oriented approached actually create change.  Here is a common model for individual change known as KABB:


Yet, this is not how I see very many people change, especially around difficult changes.  For example, let’s look at eating healthy.  Many people know they should eat healthy, they have the attitude that they should eat healthy, they believe they should eat healthy, but that is not enough to actually eat healthy.  It seem even harder to adopt the behaviors we are seeking in violence against women prevention.

But if people do change when they see their friends and their friends’ friends doing that action, then we are working toward prevention. To create the culture change necessary to create communities that actively promote equality and respect, we need to consider people’s social networks to influence change.

David Lee

More Posts by David Lee

David S. Lee, MPH, is the Director of Prevention Services at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault where he provides training and technical assistance on prevention. David manages the national project PreventConnect, an online community of violence against women prevention practitioners, funders, researchers and activists. For over 27 years David has worked in efforts to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

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