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Theories & Approaches

All Theories & Approaches

Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA)

by Nicole Lezin

Welcome to the Theories and Approaches section on the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA). In this section, you will find the following:

Introduction and Definitions

Many theories in health education and health promotion seek answers to the fundamental question of why people behave the way they do. More specifically, theories are used to try to understand and predict how and why people change their unhealthy behaviors to healthier ones.

ReCAPP has reviewed some of the important health education and health behavior theories in past editions including Social Learning Theory, the Health Belief Model, and Stages of Change. This edition of ReCAPP is dedicated to better understanding the Theory of Reasoned Action.

The Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA),1 first developed in the late 1960s by Martin Fishbein and revised and expanded by Fishbein and Icek Azjen2 in the decades that followed, is a theory that focuses on a person's intention to behave a certain way. An intention is a plan or a likelihood that someone will behave in a particular way in specific situations — whether or not they actually do so. For example, a person who is thinking about quitting smoking intends or plans to quit, but may or may not actually follow through on that intent.

To understand behavioral intent, which is seen as the main determinant of behavior, the TRA looks at a person's (or population's) attitudes towards that behavior as well as the subjective norms of influential people and groups that could influence those attitudes.

Let's say, for example, that you intend to read this article to find out more about the TRA and how it could apply to your work. In order to try to predict whether or not you would actually read the article, the TRA would explore your attitude about reading the article (whether your attitude is positive or negative) and the norms that you perceive from people around you (e.g., your colleagues) about whether or not this would be a good thing to do. According to the TRA, attitudes and norms are the main influences on intention, which, in turn, is the main motivator of behavior.

Where do our attitudes and norms come from? According to TRA, our attitudes toward a particular behavior are influenced by a combination of two related factors: our beliefs about the outcome of the behavior (i.e., is the outcome likely or unlikely?) and our evaluation of the potential outcome (is the outcome a good thing or a bad thing?).

In this example, your attitude would be shaped by whether or not you think reading the article is likely to be relevant to your work (the outcome of the behavior) and whether or not you think learning something new that could be relevant to your work would be beneficial to you and to your organization (your evaluation of the outcome).

Your attitude could be based on a number of different factors — your past experiences reading health education articles, your sense of whether or not you can learn something from reading versus going to a training about TRA, etc.

From the TRA perspective, the important aspect of your attitude is whether or not it is positive, negative, or neutral. For example, if you strongly believe that reading the article (or getting a mammogram, or using a condom, or whatever the behavior might be) will lead to a desirable outcome, then one could say that you have a positive attitude toward that behavior. Likewise, if you strongly believe that the behavior will lead to an undesirable outcome, you are likely to have a negative attitude about it.

Subjective norms are influenced by our perceptions of the beliefs of those around us: parents, friends, colleagues, partners, etc. According to the TRA, we have a sense or belief about whether or not these individuals and groups would approve or disapprove of the behavior. But we also have to factor in how motivated we are to comply with their views. This can vary from one situation to another.

By focusing on attitudes and norms, TRA provides a framework for identifying and measuring the underlying reasons for a person's intent to behave a certain way (or not). It is called the Theory of Reasoned Action because of the emphasis on understanding these reasons — not because the beliefs and attitudes themselves are necessarily reasonable or correct. (It's not the Theory of Reasonable Actions, after all!)

The more we understand about the attitudes and norms that influence intent, the more accurately our interventions can be designed to influence these in a desired direction — toward a healthier behavior, for example. The flip side is that by ignoring these factors, we may inadvertently doom an intervention because it overlooks the attitudes and norms that influence intent and motivate behavior.

Next: Key Concepts

1 TRA is often discussed in tandem with an expanded version called the Theory of Planned behavior or Planned Behavior Theory, which is described briefly in this article.

2 Fishbein, M and Ajzen, I. Belief, Attitude, Intention and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975.

Nicole Lezin, a technical writer based in Aptos, California, consults regularly with ETR Associates. Ms. Lezin has researched and written about many different aspects of public health and is the co-author, with Marshall Kreuter, Matt Kreuter, and Larry Green, of Community Health Promotion Ideas that Work: A Field-book for Practitioners.