Background: Theory-based health behavior change programs are thought to be more effective than those that do not use theory. No previous reviews have assessed the extent to which theory is used (that is, operationalized and tested) in empirical research.
Purpose: The purpose of this study was to describe theory use in recent health behavior literature and to assess the proportion of research that uses theory along a continuum from: informed by theory to applying, testing, or building theory.
Methods: A sample of empirical research articles (n = 193) published in ten leading public health, medicine, and psychology journals from 2000 to 2005 was coded to determine whether and how theory was used.
Results: Of health behavior articles in the sample, 35.7% mentioned theory. The most-often-used theories were The Transtheoretical Model, Social Cognitive Theory, and Health Belief Model. Most theory use (68.1%) involved research that was informed by theory; 18% applied theory; 3.6% tested theory; and 9.4% sought to build theory.
Conclusions: About one third of published health behavior research uses theory and a small proportion of those studies rigorously apply theory. Patterns of theory use are similar to reports from the mid-1990s. Behavioral researchers should strive to use theory more thoroughly by applying, testing, and building theories in order to move the field forward.