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Shock to the (Stable) System - Applying Dynamics to Smokeless Tobacco Use

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This past weekend at the Western Communication Association Convention in Spokane, WA, a colleague of mine, Josh Nelson, presented a paper titled, Toward the Scientific Study of Dynamic Communication Processes. Along with Josh, Professor John Sherry, and Esther Paik, I was fortunate enough to be one of the paper's co-authors, and I have been thinking quite a bit about what this paper can offer applied researchers and practitioners.

Although the paper is primarily theoretical, its ideas offer some food for thought when approaching public health issues. As with any applied endeavor, before translating the paper's ideas into practice, some explanation is needed.

What are dynamics?
Dynamics refer broadly to phenomena that display time-changing patterns—in other words, dynamic processes are those that unfold and change over time. Though you might not think about it, such processes are all around us. Whether it's something as massive as the movement of the planets in our solar system over the course of a decade or something as small as trying to persuade a friend to join you for happy hour through a series of text messages, we encounter dynamics every day.

Much about dynamics has to do with how stability is interrupted through some "shock," such that there is movement from one state to another state. Think about Newton's laws of motion ("an object at rest tends to stay at rest…for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction…") and the game of pool. The eight-ball is not going to go into the corner pocket all on its own; it will stay in its stable state of motionlessness until you introduce a shock in the form of hitting it with the cue-ball.

Consider the example of trying to persuade a friend to join you for happy hour. In this case, the text messages are the shock that interrupts stability in an effort to bring about change: You are trying to move your friend from their current state of sitting in front of their computer to a new state of sitting next to you at the bar. In other words, you are using text messages containing your very best persuasion techniques in order to change your friend's mind about joining you. (A good friend of mine likes to say that I should join him because, "Dave, come on, dude, you could go out and get hit by a bus tomorrow!")

Change can occur in many ways. Let's go back to your friend's initial reluctance to join you. He or she might be the type of person who is very easy to persuade. If so, getting them to change their mind would be easy and you would witness a simple change from "No, I will not join" to "Yes, I will join." On the other hand, he or she might be the type of person who goes back and forth and back and forth before finally making up their mind. If so, actual change could be occurring pretty rapidly—from wanting to join you at happy hour, to deciding against it, to being open to it again, and so on—even though they would appear to exhibit no change because they are ultimately not on their way to the bar. In short, thinking about people's social behavior from a dynamic perspective also means considering the simple and complex ways that change is likely to occur over time.

How do we apply dynamics to public health issues?
If we think about promoting public health in terms of attitude and behavior change, it is clear that a dynamic perspective is relevant. Many health communication campaigns, for example, are designed to modify people's behavior in order to get them to stop one pattern of behavior (like using a tobacco product) and to start another (like avoiding tobacco products). Thinking about campaign development and rollout dynamically, then, would mean identifying messaging strategies that would aid in moving the largest number of people from one state to another.

To give a concrete example of current events that can illustrate how dynamics are relevant to public health, let's consider the case of smokeless tobacco (SLT) use and Major League Baseball, a topic we've discussed before. SLT use has historically been associated with baseball, such that players can still be seen spitting tobacco juice during games. However, in recent years, approval of the behavior in baseball has started to decline—especially following the death of Tony Gwynn. Tony Gwynn Smokeless Tobacco

As we've talked about in a previous post, Tony Gwynn died of salivary gland cancer in June of 2014, and he had previously stated publicly that he believed his cancer was the result of SLT use. Immediately following his death, some baseball players—such as Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals—went on record saying that they vowed to give up the habit. In addition, in the months after Tony Gwynn passed away, the head of the MLB player's union and the commissioner of the league both stated in interviews that the subject was at the top of many players' minds and that a complete ban of SLT use in the major league could be up for discussion in the near future.

This recent example shows that even remarkably stable patterns of behavior, such as the unhealthy habit of SLT use which is deeply ingrained in the DNA of baseball, can be impacted and changed—all it takes is the right shock to interrupt the stability of a person's (or a league's) behavior. As applied health researchers and practitioners, it is our job to identify such shocks and to incorporate them into the messages that we design to promote public health.

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