Health Belief Model

Use of a condom may hinge on your perceived risk of STDs

Couple kissing at night
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The Health Belief Model (HBM) is a tool that scientists use to try and predict health behaviors. It was originally developed in the 1950s, and updated in the 1980s.


The model is based on the theory that a person's willingness to change their health behaviors is primarily due to the following factors.

Perceived Susceptibility

People will not change their health behaviors unless they believe that they are at risk. For example, those who do not think that they are at risk of acquiring HIV from unprotected intercourse are unlikely to use a condom. Young people who don't think they're at risk of lung cancer are unlikely to stop smoking.

Perceived Severity

The probability that a person will change his/her health behaviors to avoid a consequence depends on how serious they consider the consequence to be. For example, if you are young and in love, you are unlikely to avoid kissing your sweetheart on the mouth just because they have the sniffles, and you might get their cold.

On the other hand, you probably would stop kissing if it might give you Ebola. Similarly, people are less likely to consider condoms when they think STDs are a minor inconvenience. That's why talk about safe sex increased during the AIDS epidemic. The perceived severity increased enormously. 

Perceived Benefits

It's difficult to convince people to change a behavior if there isn't something in it for them. People don't want to give up something they enjoy if they don't also get something in return.

For example, a person probably won't stop smoking if they don't think that doing so will improve their life in some way. A couple might not choose to practice safe sex if they don't see how it could make their sex life better. 

Perceived Barriers

One of the major reasons people don't change their health behaviors is that they think that doing so is going to be hard. Sometimes it's not just a matter of physical difficulty, but social difficulty as well. Changing your health behaviors can cost effort, money, and time.

For example, If everyone from your office goes out drinking on Fridays, it may be very difficult to cut down on your alcohol intake. If you think that condoms are a sign of distrust in a relationship, you may be hesitant to bring them up. 


One of the best things about the Health Belief Model is how realistically it frames people's behaviors. It recognizes the fact that sometimes wanting to change a health behavior isn't enough to actually make someone do it.

So, it incorporates two more elements into its estimations about what it actually takes to get an individual to make the leap. These two elements are cues to action and self-efficacy.

Cues to Action

Cues to action are external events that prompt a desire to make a health change. They can be anything from a blood pressure van being present at a health fair, to seeing a condom poster on a train, to having a relative die of cancer. A cue to action is something that helps move someone from wanting to make a health change to actually making the change.


Self-efficacy is an element that wasn't added to the model until 1988. Self-efficacy looks at a person's belief in their ability to make a health-related change. It may seem trivial, but faith in your ability to do something has an enormous impact on your actual ability to do it.

Thinking that you will fail will almost make certain that you do. In fact, in recent years, self-efficacy has been found to be one of the most important factors in an individual's ability to successfully negotiate condom use.

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