The earliest recorded uses of the word “behavior” have been traced to 15th century English. The noun was a variation on the English verb “to have” (Oxford English Dictionary online, 1989). The term was first used to indicate a person’s self-possession or refinement, but it was later expanded to include the conduct of non-human actors (Oxford English Dictionary online, 1989). Contemporary definitions typically account for three types of subjects, as in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definitions below:
  1. “a manner of conducting one’s self” (subject: a person),
  2. “anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation” (subject: an organism), and
  3. “the way in which something functions or operates” (subject: a thing) (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, n.d.).

The Meaning of “Behavior” in Communication Studies

In Communication Studies, scholars have generally focused on the behavior of persons, rather than the behavior of organisms or things. Communication scholars may study different types of behavior depending upon their specific interests. Those interested in message production might study how individuals use “verbal and nonverbal means” to “stimulate meanings in the mind of another” (Knapp & Daly, 2010, p. xxi). Such scholars might use constructs like verbal behavior, nonverbal behavior, or communication behavior. None of these categories represents a fixed set of behaviors; in all three cases, it is the researchers’ responsibility to identify the specific behaviors that they wish to study (for an example of a well-defined “communication behavior” construct, see Overall, Sibley, & Travaglia, 2010, p. 127-128).

Other scholars are interested in the outcomes of communication processes (in the definition cited above, “stimulat[ing] meanings in the mind of another”). Behavioral outcomes may be studied in the form of observations (what researchers observe people doing), self-reports of behavior (what people say they have done), or self-reports of behavioral intentions (what people say they will do in the future). In health communication, for example, recent studies have explored how exposure to different kinds of online information influenced teenagers’ reported intentions to use condoms (Noar, Pierce, & Black, 2010) and how personality traits associated with risky health behaviors could be better addressed in health campaigns (Miller & Quick, 2010). Recent studies have also looked at the effects of identical behaviors between the opposite sexes. Hall, Roter, Blanch-Hartigan, Mast, & Pitegoff (2015) used observational research to examine how satisfied patients were with a female doctor versus a male doctor's patient centeredness when given the same script to follow. Male doctors were perceived to have a higher level of patient centeredness, providing insight that patient-centeredness is not considered a skill, but rather an inherit female behavior, therefore, it is expected from a woman in a health care setting. This brings to light that behavior is not always the sole reason for a specified outcome in communication processes.

The behaviors of interest vary by the topic area. Consider, for example, interpersonal communication. Knapp and Daly organized their 2010 Interpersonal Communication handbook around central topic areas like processes, messages, development and maintenance of relationships, attraction and initial interaction, commitment and comfort, conflict, persuasion, and competence. Within each topic area and within each study, different behaviors constitute the interaction and its outcomes. For example, the “Development and Maintenance of Relationships” section includes a study in which participants associated communication behaviors with relationship labels (as in, which communication behaviors exemplified what people expected from a “friend”?) (Knapp, Ellis, & Williams, 1980). In contrast, the “Persuasion” section includes a meta-analysis of research on fear appeals to resolve conflicting reports about whether or not fear appeals motivate behavioral changes (Witte & Allen, 2000). These are just two examples of how behavioral considerations might vary by topic area in Communication.

Behavior, Behaviorism, and the Social Scientific Movement in Communication Studies

In the early 20th century, the study of communication was primarily the study of speech, speeches, and speech-making (Gray, 1964, p. 343-344). The first incarnation of what is now the National Communication Association (NCA) was a group that broke off from the National Council of Teachers of English in 1914 and called themselves the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking (Gray, 1964, p. 345).

In Psychology, experimental psychologists such as Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, Clark Hull, Edward C. Tolman, and B. F. Skinner were gaining recognition for their rigorous empiricism based on stimulating and observing behavior. These scholars and their followers were dubbed “behaviorists” because they regarded behavior – animal and human – as a set of conditioned responses (Science Encyclopedia online, n.d.). In 1957, B. F. Skinner published a book called Verbal Behavior, which described verbal communication as behavior dependent on reinforcements from past and current environments (Skinner, 1957, p. 3).

By the 1950s, scholars in other disciplines were also developing epistemologies for the study of human behavior, and they were becoming interested in a broad array of communication-related phenomena. A multi-disciplinary group with a shared interest in communication theory met in Palo Alto, California, and developed theories that spawned the 1967 book Pragmatics of Human Communication (West & Turner, 2007, p. 7; Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967). “According to the Palo Alto team,” summarized West & Turner, “when two people are together, they constantly communicate because they cannot escape behavior. Even silence and avoidance of eye contact are communicative” (West & Turner, 2000, p. 7). In the now-famous words of Watzlawick et al., “you cannot not communicate” (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967, p. 48).

Within Communication, some members of the Speech Association of America (now the National Communication Association) formed a separate group that would eventually become the International Communication Association. Wilbur Schramm characterized the instigators as dissidents who wanted to prevent splintering in academic departments by reframing communication as “a unifying umbrella, the discipline that would analyze generic communication behaviors, rather than teach formal declamation” (Schramm, 1997, p. 171).

Late 20th Century: Changing Perspectives on Behavioral Research in Communication Studies

By the early 1980s, however, scholars began to critique the behavioral approach. Pearce and Foss proposed, at the 1975 NCA conference, that humans should be studied as “volitional, reflective, choice-making beings” (Carter & Presnell & Carter, 1994, p. 4). In 1983, Rogers & Chaffee concluded that there was “not so much agreement today on the unique promise of behavioral research” (Schramm, 1997, p. 22). In the same year, Schramm wrote that mass media research had moved from a behavioral perspective to an ideological perspective (1997, p. 114).

One perspective on today’s climate can be found in Knapp & Daly’s preface to their Sage Benchmarks in Communication: Interpersonal Communication handbooks. They explain that, today, “[i]nterpersonal communication scholarship focuses on more than simply behaviour. People have different attitudes and personal goals that affect how they communicate. They sometimes come from different cultures, they vary in personality dispositions, and they have different life-histories” (2010, p. xxiii). Behavior is still relevant to the work of communication scholars, but the field remains skeptical of context-free determinism.

Theory of Planned Behavior

The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB), developed by Ajzen, is an extension of the Theory of Reasoned Action created by Fishbein and Ajzen (1975). TPB is often studied by persuasion and health communication scholars in studies that try to predict or better understand the intentions or behavior of inidividuals (Betts et al., 2011; Turchik & Gidycz, 2012; Vallance et al., 2011). TPB assumes that attitudes, subjective norms, beliefs, and self-efficacy can predict an individual’s intentions to partake in a certain behavior (Turchik & Gidycz, 2012). Perceived behavioral control is another factor that impacts an individual’s likelihood to perform an action (Ajzen, 1991). The expectation that an individual has about his or her control of an outcome is Perceived Behavioral Control (Pickett et al., 2012). However, it has been said by Vallance et al. (2011) that perceived behavioral control may influence behavior through behavior intentions or directly.

The Transtheoretical Model: Stages of Change Theory

The Transtheoretical Model (TTM), also known as the Stages of Change Theory, was created by DiClemente and Prochaska (1982) to better understand the behavior change of smoking cessation. There are six stages that comprise the TTM as listed below:

  1. Precontemplation: this indicates a point in time where an individual's intention to change a behavior is non-existent.
  2. Contemplation: an individual in this stage is highly considering taking action, but his or her commitment to change has not been established. Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross (1992) capture this stage as “…knowing where you want to go, but not quite ready yet” (p. 1103).
  3. Preparation: an individual is past the mere desire to change and actually take the steps right before they delve into their behavior change.
  4. Action: the most visible of the stages. This is marked by the first day of the modification of the behavior in need of change and this period continues up to 6 months. The primary features of this action are either the individual altering their behavior, or by altering their environment that may be nurturing the problematic behavior (Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross, 1992).
  5. Maintenance: a continuation of the efforts that have been made in the action stage (Norcross, Krebs, & Prochaska, 2011).
  6. Termination: transformation of an individual’s behavior is permanent (Prochaska and Velicer, 1997).

It is essential to know that the stages do not necessarily represent a period of time, but tasks that need fulfilled before progressing to another stage toward overall behavior change (Norcross, Krebs, & Prochaska, 2011). Although these stages are presented in a chronological, linear fashion, how individuals proceed through the stages is not always a straightforward process. When it comes to behavior change efforts, Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross (1992) ensure that “…relapse is the rule rather than the exception…” (p.1104).

Minor revisions by Kala Finley (August 2012).

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