Numerous behavioral theories and models include "environment" as a construct. For example, social cognitive theory posits that behavior is influenced by individual factors in combination with the social and physical environment (Bandura, 1986). A social ecologic perspective acknowledges multiple levels of behavioral determinants, including individual, interpersonal, organizational, and community, as well as both social and physical environments at various levels (McLeroy et al., 1998). Health decisions are made, and behaviors occur, in environmental contexts (Stokols, 1992).
The types of environments that affect behavior may be physical (e.g., weather or climate, community resources, the built environment, the information environment) or social (e.g., social support, norms, beliefs, and attitudes) as well as objective (actual) or subjective (perceived) (Sallis & Owen, 2002). The environment can be a particularly strong behavioral determinant for behaviors that are directly shaped through environmental constraints and supports, such as physical activity (Owen et al., 2004; Bandura, 1986). This entry focuses mainly on the built environment related to eating and physical activity. The final two sections present brief overviews of tobacco control environments and alcohol environments, two other major public health issues in which ‘environments’ have been the focus of study in recent years.
As the widespread prevalence of obesity has been poorly explained by individual-level psychological and social correlates of diet and physical activity behaviors, researchers have increasingly turned their attention toward understanding environments that may shape eating and activity (Glanz et al., 2005). Recently, much attention has turned toward measuring and understanding the "built environment," which many experts now agree must be considered in any effort to understand or reduce obesity (Sallis & Glanz, 2006). Consistent with theoretical foundations, environments are likely to have broad effects. They are also expected to have reciprocal determinism (Bandura, 1986): they may reflect individuals’ influence on their environments as much as environments affect individuals’ behaviors.
Loosely defined, the built environment consists of the neighborhoods, roads, buildings, food sources, and recreational facilities: the places in which we live, work, are educated, eat, and play. The built environment affects many of our daily decisions. Whether we walk to work or school, eat frequently at fast-food restaurants, or take our children to parks depends in part on how our neighborhoods are built. The built environment is multidimensional, and thus presents significant challenges for measurement. Although it is possible to collect verbal reports of features of people’s environments, and of their perceptions of their environment, the most objective assessments are likely to include observation of the actual features of environments. This presents challenges: for example, in addition to being valid, the measures must have a high degree of inter-rater reliability; and if the assumption that environments influence behavior over the long term is to be supported, then the measures should have good test-retest reliability (or stability) as well.