Primary author: Stephanie Moles

Problem Behavior Theory

Problem Behavior Theory (PBT) by the definition of Jessor (1987) is any behavior that deviates from both social and legal norms or behavior that is socially disapproved from those of authority and tends to “elicit some form of social control response whether mild reproof, social rejection or incarceration (Jessor, 1987).” PBT was initially developed to use with the study of alcohol abuse minority communities (Jessor, 1987) by acting as an psychosocial model that attempts to explain behavioral outcomes such as substance abuse (Zamboango et al., 2004) by focusing on three systems of psychosocial influence: personality system (all social cognitions, personal values, expectations, beliefs and values), perceived environment system (family and peer expectations) and the behavior system (problem and conventional behavioral structures and that work in opposition to each other) (Zamboango et al., 2004).

Each of the three systems of psychosocial influence that are comprised in the Problem Behavior Theory (PBT) (personality, perceived environment and behavior) utilized different variables that either influence the problem (such as substance abuse) to occur or decrease the likelihood of a behavior to take place (Donovan et al., 1991). When researchers examine an individual and analyze the likelihood of a risk behavior to take place, the conventional-unconventional behaviors of the individual is taken into consideration. Donovan et al. (1991) defined conventional behaviors as actions such as church attendance, involvement in extracurricular activity, other socially approved behaviors; while unconventional behaviors are defined as anything that deviates negatively from social norms such as underage drinking, substance abuse and other risk behaviors. Through analyzing conventional-unconventional behaviors in each of the three psychosocial systems in the individual, researchers can make predictions on future behaviors.

Since the original study of Richard and Shirley Jessor was published in 1977 Problem Behavior Theory (PBT) has expanded to include research that tests other factors that may strengthen the predictive process of PBT. In a study designed by Jessor, R. et al. (1995) several protective factors such as positive orientation of school, adult relationships and health, attitude toward deviant actions, and perception of social controls were analyzed independently in order to determine their effect on risk behaviors talking place in relation to PBT. Similar to conventional behaviors, protective factors are absent of risk and act opposite of risk factors or unconventional behaviors (Jessor, et al.,1995). Through analyzing middle school children in this longitudinal study researchers concluded that protective factors had a strong effect on adolescent behavior over time and certain factors even influence gender and ethnicity more directly (Jessor, et al.,1995).

Problem Behavior Theory (PBT) is not the only theory that is used in Public Health to predict behaviors; the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) as well the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) were also developed to look at the relationship between attitudes and intentions toward behaviors (both positive and negative) (Glanz et al.,2008). Self-esteem is also an important aspect of the model that can be associated with self-efficacy which is also seen in the Health Belief Model (HBM). Today the application of the Problem Behavior Theory is used in the Public Health profession to predict what actions an individual may take that can lead to addictive and other lifestyle behavior changes such as sexual behavior, smoking and overeating. For example, PBT was used in study by a group of students to determine what factors contribute to the likelihood of adolescents smoking (Banerjee et al., 2008). Through applying simultaneously the three system of psychosocial influence, researchers where able to determine that in the two middle schools examined in the study, peer influence, a weaken family structure and or relationships, other history of delinquency and poor academics all contributed to the likelihood of an adolescent individual to start smoking. The powerful tool of prediction that PBT provides can be applied to all aspects of public health including intervention design that can allow health programs in the future to not only be more efficient but also effective in the populations it is applied to.

Work Cited

Banerjee, S. & Greene, K. (2008) Adolescent Cigarette Smoking: An Application of Problem
Behavior Theory to Examine Systems of Influence. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Retrieved from

Donovan, J.E., Jessor, R. & Costa, F. M. (1991). Adolescent Health Behavior and
Conventionality-Unconventionality: An Extension of Problem-Behavior Theory. Health Psychology, 10(1), 52-61.

Glanz, K., Rimer, B.K., & Viswanath, K. (2008). Health Behavior and Health Education. San
Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jessor, R. (1987). Problem-Behavior Theory, Psychosocial Development, and Adolescent
Problem Drinking. British Journal of Addiction, 82, 331-342.

Jessor, R., Bos, J.V.D., Vanderryn, J., Costa, F.M.& Turbin, M.S. (1995). Protective Factors in
Adolescent Problem Behavior: Moderator Effects and Developmental Change. Developmental Psychology, 31(6), 923-933.

Jessor, R.& Jessor, S. (1977). Problem Behavior and Psychosocial Development: A Longitudinal
Study of Youth. New York: Academic Press.

Zamboanga, B.L., Carlo, G., & Raffaelli, M. (2004). Problem Behavior Theory: An
Examination of the Behavior Structure System in Latino and non-Latino College Students. Interamerican Journal of Pschology, 32(2), 253-262.