Why do community-based education and social persuasion programs for promoting healthy lifestyle and preventing chronic disease sometimes fall short of our expectations? Why are population effects so difficult to engineer and why are they so ephemeral? This research carried out at USC, the Claremont Graduate University, and collaborating institutions in China integrates across social, behavioral, and neurocognitive sciences to address those questions.
We conclude tentatively that the answer to each of the questions may lie in individual and context variability relative to program response, and that in order to more fully address the question of prevention program response variability requires engagement and integration across several levels of science to consider the roles of social groupings, environmental selection and design, social influence processes, and brain biology. What works in one social, cultural or organizational setting may not be so effective in another. What works for persons with certain genetic and experiential backgrounds may be totally ineffective for persons with different dispositional or personality characteristics. In a series of community/school based prevention trials carried out in markedly different southern California and central China settings, we have uncovered domains of consistent response, and other domains of substantial environment- and disposition-based response variability. A social influences based smoking prevention program framed in collectivist values and objectives worked to prevent smoking in one cultural setting but not another. And an individualist framed social influences program worked in the setting where the collectivist program did not. But the characteristics of the particular settings which defined program success or failure were different from what conventional (e.g., cultural psychology) wisdom would have led us to expect. Furthermore, both within and across cultural settings, the same individual dispositional characteristics moderated or determined program effectiveness, again in ways not predicted by the common cultural and behavioral science wisdom. In recent studies carried out both in China and the U.S. we have found affective decision deficits, with known neural underpinnings, to account for rapid progression to regular smoking and binge drinking. These deficits are akin to the dispositional characteristics found earlier to moderate prevention program effects. Subsequent brain imaging studies confirm the hypothesized regions of neural involvement. Together these findings hold promise for more effective – situation and phenotype specific – approaches to engendering and sustaining more optimal individual and population health behavior.