There is little question that social influence is an important determinant of health-related behaviors, including not only cigarette smoking and alcohol use but a range of other behaviors as well. Thus the basic question for new research on health behavior is not necessarily whether social influence should be studied, but what aspect should be measured. This section provides a few simple suggestions about research in the area, to augment the investigator's reading of primary literature and theory in his/her area of interest.
Including multiple measures. It can be suggested that multiple measures, assessing different aspects of social influence, are preferable to a single measure. If assessment space is limited and actuarial prediction is the only research goal, then items indexing peer behavior (smoking, alcohol, etc.) are a reasonable choice because they typically have strong correlations with respondent behavior. However a single measure of peer behavior may provide little understanding of how social influences operate: for example is it through explicit pressure, normative perceptions, or social image processes? For this reason it is desirable to include two or more measures of social influence processes, in order to understand more about how social networks influence individual behaviors.
Choosing the dimensions. A number of social measures are potentially available so a researcher needs to consider which ones may be most relevant for a given population. For example measures of peer influences may be very relevant for younger persons who commonly spend their time in large school populations, but less relevant for older samples where primary networks are more important. Social processes may operate differently for behaviors that are common vs. rare in the general population, and researchers should consider how social influence mechanisms may differ in these conditions. Similarly, asking about whether the health-related behavior is simple or complex to adopt suggests ancillary questions about what aspects of the social environment may be involved in either supporting or deterring the adoption (or cessation) of the behavior. Through asking these kinds of questions, the investigator may construct a preliminary model of the causal chains that produce or inhibit the behavior, and this kind of thinking can suggest what measures will be most relevant for the research.
Doing descriptive research. Existing measures of general
social influence processes may be supplemented with descriptive
studies to gather detailed information about social
processes as they occur in the investigator's population.
For example qualitative studies of adolescent smoking have
been informative in providing perspectives about smoking onset
that differ somewhat from common expectations about why teens
smoke (see Friedman,
Lichtenstein, & Biglan, 1985; Lucas
& Lloyd, 1999;
et al., 1993). Preliminary
research using individual open-ended interviews for focus
groups may be helpful for evaluating the applicability of
proposed measures and suggesting new facets or dimensions
that are not precisely represented in existing scales.
Thinking about subgroups. The measures described in this
section were validated in epidemiologic research but there
is always the possibility that social influence processes
may have differential impact in subgroups of the population.
It is desirable for investigators to consider what they know
about a given population (students, community residents, or
clinic patients) and anticipate how measures might be focused
or adapted for these persons. For example there is some evidence
that peer influences processes may differ by ethnicity (Landrine,
Richardson, Klonoff, & Flay, 1994; Vaccaro
& Wills, 1998). Hence in planning a new study the investigator
may use existing knowledge about the population to consider
what types of subgroup effects (by gender, age, ethnicity,
etc.) there may be in the population and to consult literature
on cultural variables (e.g., Catalano,
Hawkins, Krenz, Gillmore, Morrison, Wells, & Abbott, 1993). As suggested
above, qualitative research and pilot studies may also be
useful in this regard.
Considering the larger environment. Recent research has drawn
attention to the effect of larger environments on health and
et al., 2003; Gibbons
et al., 2004;
et al., 1997;
& Cubbin, 2002). Investigators planning
research on health-related behavior might be advised to consider
including measures of environmental-level variables
relevant to the behaviors they wish to study, either measures
of specific environments for younger persons (Novak
& Clayton, 2001)
or measures of larger social environments for research with
et al., 2001). The measures are relatively brief
ones and can provide an increment in predictive power, above
and beyond the contribution of individual-level characteristics,
so the research balance can be a favorable one.