green tiled background pattern

School Announces New Department to Study Behavior and Health

By Brian W. Simpson

Among global health threats, there are the usual suspects: the viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens that infiltrate the human body and cause sickness and death. Yet it doesn’t require a microscope to see one of the greatest hazards to human health: people themselves.

Human behavior—whether it leads to smoking, injuries, obesity, or substance abuse—is responsible for half of all morbidity and mortality in the world. Yet persuading people to change their behavior is notoriously difficult.

“As any number of Nobel Prize laureates have said, molecular biology is simple. Behavior is tough,” says Dean Alfred Sommer. “Changing behavior is the hardest of all interventions.”

Charged with discovering the secrets that can tilt human behavior to favor health, the School’s 10th and newest department, Health, Behavior and Society, was announced in May. And a $20 million gift from an anonymous donor enabled Sommer and other faculty to imagine a bold new direction for the department.

While existing behavior-oriented departments at other schools have traditionally focused on educating people to make healthy choices, the new department will have a more innovative approach. “While health education is clearly one component, it’s clearly only one,” says Sommer, MD, MHS ’73. “More coordinated and integrated approaches are needed.” As an example, he points to significant reductions in U.S. tobacco use that occurred only after a full-court press of education, taxation, regulation, and litigation.

The new department will be shaped by a year of research and discussion, says Biostatistics chair Scott Zeger, who led the committee that recommended the department’s creation. The School will take the first steps toward creating the department this fall and spring by hosting six major symposia. The workshops will draw on the experience of scientists, advertising executives, businessmen, politicians, and others to illuminate human decision-making and behavior. Successful programs will be examined for clues. White papers will be written examining topics within the evolving science. A University-wide committee as well as an external advisory committee will chart directions for the new department. “It’s a very diverse set of people, bright creative thinkers,” says Zeger, PhD. “We want them to help us think out of the box.”

The plans for Behavior and Health actually mark the return of a behavior-oriented department to the School; Behavioral Sciences and Health Education was a department until it became a division within Health Policy and Management in 1988.

The new department will also create synergies among researchers and students already working in behavior but dispersed into different “nooks and crannies” around the School, says Zeger. “We can do better in creating the next generation of scientists looking at behavior and health by having a rigorous academic program that brings together strengths from many different departments,” he says.

Sommer says he expects to hire a chair for the new department within two years. A considerable objective awaits. “With the gift, this new department should become the center of gravity for these activities around the world,” says Sommer. “I expect it will transform research and training in the field at institutions globally.”