Social Cognitive Theory in Public Health

Possible Interventions

Recycling has become an important part of citizens’ daily life in many major cities because today citizens are more aware of their impact on the environment and climate change. Moreover, people also recognize the impact that the environment has on their health. One of the most popular interventions is the placement of plastic recycling bins in education or any other facilities. Placing bins in high-traffic locations increases the chance that individuals will use it (O’Connor, Lerman, & Fritz, 2010). Another intervention is a promotion of self-efficacy and awareness of recycling and its outcomes on an individual’s health and the community they live in. This promotion can be done using small ads, flyers, and postcards that will be placed near recycling bins in a particular facility.

How Social Cognitive Theory Can Be Applied

The social cognitive theory focuses on reciprocal determinism, i.e. the concept that stresses the relation between person’s characteristics, behavior, and the environment, and how these variables can determine the behavior or behavioral patterns of an individual (Byrd-Bredbenner, Abbot, & Cussler, 2011). The key concepts of this theory include “outcome expectations, self-regulation, […] self-monitoring, self-reward, environmental structuring, [and] observational learning” (Byrd-Bredbenner et al., 2011). During the first intervention, observational learning will be used by the intended audience: some of the students will use bins to place plastic bottles in them, encouraging others, especially those who are not familiar with recycling, to try this method.

Another important part of the social cognitive theory is self-regulation and self-efficacy. When participants are presented with flyers and ads that encourage them to use not only recycle bins but other means of recycling as well, for example at home or in the streets, the chance that these people will try to become more self-efficient is higher (Tabernero & Hernández, 2011). Some researchers also believe that proenvironmental behavior can be seen as a type of prosocial behavior; to perform prosocial activities, individuals need to have or generate intrinsic motivation as well. If intrinsic motivation is present, self-efficacy is also capable of focusing the individual on a specific action (i.e. recycling).

Three Results

The intervention is expected to foster recycling practices among the students and staff in an educational facility or employees in an office, depending on where it will be implemented. First, the participants will use recycling bins more often than they did before because there were no or very few recycling bins in the facility. Second, the participants will encourage their colleagues or classmates to use recycling bins as well. Third, the participants will place one or several recycling bins in their house or community, promoting this activity to family members or neighbors.

One Intervention

Responsible energy use can be encouraged by providing information to local communities about the unreasonable use of electronic devices, including computers, notebooks, and TVs, and explaining how they can increase their electricity bills. Moreover, the concept of a smart city can also be presented to the participants to indicate how smart use of energy can influence a whole city – these results can be compared to the community’s use of energy, showing how energy can increase expenditures and influence living conditions of participants.

Additional Insights

Social cognitive theory constructs can be measured with a different tool, e.g. the Likert scale or other scales suitable for the research (Tavares, Plotnikoff, & Loucaides, 2009). It is important to understand that not only reciprocal determinism, self-efficacy, and observational learning are the constructs that can be used during the intervention. The behavioral capability of a person is also important, as it would be unreasonable to expect that a two-year-old would understand the importance of recycling, moreover try to encourage others to recycle. Expectations are also significant because they should be neither too low nor too high; in both cases, participants’ motivation might decrease (Rimer & Glanz, 2005). To ensure that it does not happen, reinforcements are obligatory: for example, a mother can reinforce her teenage children by allowing them to play video games if they agree to put three items into a bin every day.

When implementing interventions, it should be noted that a specific behavior of an individual will be repeated only if this individual has “a sense of personal agency or self-efficacy”; in this case, the individual will also overcome obstacles connected to the innovation (Rimer & Glanz, 2005, p. 20). Otherwise, the intervention might fail.


Social cognitive theory can be a helpful tool in understanding and assessing how health and environment-connected behaviors. In the proposed intervention, observational learning and self-efficacy are the main concepts that will be used to achieve efficient results. However, it would also be helpful to understand what obstacles an individual cannot overcome even if they have a sense of self-efficacy.


Byrd-Bredbenner, C., Abbot, J., & Cussler, E. (2011). Relationship of social cognitive theory concepts to mothers’ dietary intake and BMI. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 7(3), 241–252.

O’Connor, R. T., Lerman, D. C., & Fritz, J. N. (2010). Effects of number and location of bins on plastic recycling at a university. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(4), 711-715.

Rimer, B. K., & Glanz, K. A. (2005). Web.

Tabernero, C., & Hernández, B. (2011). Self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation guiding environmental behavior. Environment and Behavior, 43(5), 658-675.

Tavares, L., Plotnikoff, R., & Loucaides, C. (2009). Social-cognitive theories for predicting physical activity behaviours of employed women with and without young children. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 14(2), 129–142.

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