Ecological Models of Behavior Change

See more Change Theories »Summary written by Rebecca Sansom, Brigham Young University,

Ecological models have been widely used in public health. Ecological models focus on changing personal behaviors while accounting for the influences of social, physical, and political environments. The underlying principle is that if we can change the person's environment, we can change their behavior. Therefore, there is an emphasis on policy and structural changes to produce new behavior while maintaining an individual's agency.


There isn't one "ecological model", but rather a family of models that people have found useful in supporting behavioral changes. A thorough review of the history of different models and explanations of how they differ from each other can be found in Sallis, Owen, & Fisher (2008). These models take ideas from biology and apply them to behavior modification. In biological ecology, we acknowledge individuals of a species interacting with members of the same species in a population, with other living species in communities, and with physical abiotic factors in an ecosystem. At each level of organization within these ecological systems, there are emergent properties as different components interact with each other. Like these biological ecological models, the behavioral ecological models that we are discussing here acknowledge these different levels of organization and how they interact in complex ways.

All ecological models have some characteristics in common.

  1. The assumption that there are multiple levels of influence on a particular behavior. These may include intrapersonal (i.e., one's own experiences and attitudes), interpersonal (i.e., influence of family members or cultural traditions), organizational (i.e., how things are done in a workplace), community (i.e., presence of walking trails in local parks), and public policy (i.e., laws about smoking in public) levels. 
  2. The assumption that there are interactions across different levels of the system. For example, a smoker might view a commercial on TV about a smoking cessation program sponsored by the state, and that might influence the person's attitudes about smoking. 
  3. Domain specificity is a key characteristic. In public health this makes sense because we can imagine different influences on an individual's smoking behaviors vs. exercising or eating or disease-prevention behaviors. This is one reason why ecological models are so adaptable to the Change in STEM Education space–the specific factors that we are interested in might be different, but the broad ideas about ecological models can help frame our thinking.
  4. Interventions that intend to promote change should target as many levels of the system as possible. For example, asking faculty to teach in a new way (personal level) while university structures reward the old way of teaching (policy/organizational level) is much more challenging than asking faculty to teach in a new way that is also rewarded by the university. 

Figure 1. Individuals exist within social and contextual environments. Project activities can target multiple levels of the system to achieve the desired outcome. Inspired by figure 20.2 from Sallis, Owen, & Fisher (2008).

Example of Use

The STEM Faculty Institute project at Brigham Young University used the ecological model to help us design a more effective professional development program for STEM faculty at our university. The model informed our research because as we did interviews, we asked faculty to think about personal, social, and contextual influences on their teaching behaviors. It informed our practice because we designed activities to target personal factors (attitudes, self-efficacy), social factors (peer mentoring, letters for tenure & promotion packets), and contextual factors (strategies for addressing heterogeneous student preparation, inflexible teaching spaces). See Sansom (2019) for a complete description of our work.

Assumptions & Limitations

Ecological models are by nature flexible and context-specific. So, while they can help us think about broad categories like personal, social, or contextual factors, local research is required to understand the specific factors that are influencing faculty behavior. As an example, at our institution, engineers felt a lot of pressure to cover more content due to accreditation practices, while faculty from other colleges generally did not have that problem. Even within the same university, the context of an individual or a department can vary significantly.

Because these models stem from public health domains, they make an assumption that a change agent has the power to make changes at all levels of the system (e.g., by creating a high-level policy change to ban the advertising of smoking). While a multi-level approach is best, one may also encounter factors that are influencing faculty behaviors that you have no control over, such as an accrediting organization. When we encountered areas where we (the PI team) could not change the context, it was helpful to brainstorm strategies to help faculty manage the environment differently.

While changing a person's environment can help support behavioral change, it is never a guarantee.

Application in STEM Higher Education

Sansom, R.L. (2019). Understanding STEM Faculty Members' Decisions About Evidence-Based Instructional Practices [Doctoral Dissertation, Brigham Young University].


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Harvard University Press.

Leonard, J. (2011). Using Bronfenbrenner's ecological theory to understand community partnerships: A historical case study of one urban high school. Urban education, 46(5), 987-1010.

Sallis, J.F., Owen, N., Fisher, E.B. (2008). Ecological Models of Health Behavior. In K. Glanz, B.K. Rimer, & K. Viswanath (Eds.), Health behavior and health education: Theory, research, and practice (4th edition) (pp. 465-486). Jossey-Bass.

Stokols, D. (1996). Translating social ecological theory into guidelines for community health promotion. American Journal of Health Promotion, 10(4), 282-298.

Note: This summary is written as a secondary resource to help researchers and practitioners learn about potentially relevant change theory. We encourage authors to read the original references rather than citing this summary in published work or grant proposals.