Research and Evaluation

Theoretical Framework

Over the last 50 years, social scientists have advanced various theories of how communication can affect human behavior. Theories and analytic models of such processes as learning and behavior change provide family planning communicators with indicators and examples of what influences the behavior of individuals, couples, and groups, in what ways, and under what conditions. These theories and models offer foundations for planning, executing, and evaluating communication projects. A brief description of particularly relevant theories is as follows:

Cultivation theory of mass media, proposed by George Gerbner at the University of Pennsylvania, specifies that repeated and intense exposure to distinctive, deviant definitions of "reality" in television and other mass-media messages lead to perception of that "reality" as normal. The result is a social legitimization of the "reality" depicted in the mass media, which can affect behavior (Gerbner 1973 & 1977; Gerbner et al. 1980).

Diffusion of innovations theory, pioneered in 1943 by Bryce Ryan and Neil Gross of Iowa State University, traces the process by which a new idea or practice is communicated through certain channels over time among members of a social system. The model describes the factors that influence people's thoughts and actions and the process of adopting a new technology or idea (see Ryan & Gross 1943 & 1950; Rogers 1962 & 1983; Valente 1994).

The input/output persuasion model, advanced in 1969 by William J. McGuire of Yale University, emphasizes the hierarchy of communication effects and considers how various aspects of communication, such as message design, source, and channel, as well as receiver (audience) characteristics, effect the behavioral outcome of communication (McGuire 1969 & 1987).

Stages of change theory, a cycle of change delineated by psychologists James O. Prochaska at the University of Rhode Island, Carlo C. DiClemente at the University of Houston, and John C. Norcross at the University of Scranton, identifies psychological processes people undergo and stages they reach as they adopt new behaviors. Changes in behavior result when the psyche moves through several iterations of a spiral process that starts with precontemplation, continues with contemplation, preparation, and action, and finally ends with maintenance of the new behavior (Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992).

Social learning theory, formulated by Albert Bandura at Stanford University, specifies that mass-media messages give audience members an opportunity to identify with attractive characters who demonstrate behavior, engage emotions, and allow mental rehearsal and modeling of new behavior. The behavior of models in the mass media also offers vicarious reinforcement to motivate audience members' adoption of the behavior (Bandura 1977 & 1986).

Theory of reasoned action, proposed by Martin Fishbein of the University of Illinois and Icek Azjen of the University of Massachusetts, specifies that adoption of a behavior is a function of intent, which is determined by a person's attitude (beliefs and expected values) toward performing the behavior, and of perceived social norms (importance and expectations that others expect one to perform the behavior) (Fishbein and Azjen 1975).

Social influence, social comparison, and convergence theories, proposed by several social scientists, specify that one's perception and behavior are influenced by the perceptions and behavior expressed by members of groups to which one belongs and by members of one's personal networks. People rely on the opinions of others, especially when a situation is highly uncertain or ambiguous and no objective evidence is readily available. Social influence can also have vicarious effects on audiences by depicting in television and radio programs the process of change and eventual conversion of behavior (Sherif 1935; Festinger 1954; Asch 1955; Suls 1977; Latane 1981; Rogers & Kincaid 1981; Moscovici 1986; Kincaid 1987 & 1988).

Theories of emotional response, propose that emotional response precedes and conditions cognitive and attitudinal effects. This implies that highly emotional messages in drama, music, and humor in Enter-Educate approaches to communication would be more readily accepted by audience members and more likely lead to behavior change than would messages low in emotional content (Zajonc 1984; Zajonc, Murphy & Inglehart 1989; Clark 1992).


  • Bandura, A. 1986. Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall.

  • Bandura, A. 1977. Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

  • Fishbein, M. and Azjen, I. 1975. Belief, attitude, intention, and behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing.

  • McGuire, W. J. 1969. "Attitudes and attitude change." In G. Lindzey and E. Aronson (eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology (Vol. 2). Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.

  • Prochaska, J. O., DiClemente, C. C., and Norcross, J. C. 1992. In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47 (9): 1102-1112.

  • Rogers, E. and Kincaid, D. L. 1981. Communication networks: A paradigm for new research. New York: Free Press.

  • Ryan, B. and Gross, N. 1943. The diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa communities. Rural Sociology, 8 (1): 15-24.

  • Zajonc, R. B. 1984. On the primacy of affect. American Psychologist, 39 (2): 117-123.