Diffusion of Innovation/Social Diffusion Theory

The social diffusion theory (Rogers, 1983) is based on the premise that behavior change in a population can be initiated and then will diffuse to others if enough natural and influential opinion leaders within the population visibly adopt, endorse and support an innovative behavior. Based on this model, early adopters of any given population are systematically identified, recruited, and trained to serve as behavior change “endorsers” within their community and sphere of influence, resulting in a shift in the targeted attitudes and behaviors within that community. In other words, opinion leaders shape social/ behavior changes by making it easier for others to initiate and maintain certain “new” behaviors. Diffusion of innovation theory and the influence of early adopters to establish new behavioral trends has been studied extensively for decades and proven widely successful across settings and content areas (Kelly, 2004). For example, Kelly et al. (1997) has demonstrated the effectiveness of training early adopters in increasing safe sex practices among populations of gay men. One study targeting gay men in four cities implemented five, weekly training sessions and found at the one-year follow-up an increase of more than 25% in condom use. Additionally, Sikkema (2000) focused on safe-sex practices among impoverished, inner-city women. At the one-year follow-up they found a 12.5 % drop in unprotected sex and an increase of 17% in condom use. The strength of the community-wide behavior shift was further demonstrated; in populations where changes were made – the population still demonstrated the documented improvement at the three-year follow-up (despite that the actual intervention had ceased within the first year). Though there is evidence that over-use or misuse of early adopters can backfire, an appropriate utilization of Social Diffusion Theory has been consistently demonstrated to be an effective and efficient method for creating culture change.

Application to Violence Prevention: Given that sexual, domestic and stalking violence in our communities exists on a scale that clearly reaches the scope of a public health concern that requires broad-based, community level change, it is imperative that a critical mass of individuals endorse and engage in targeted behaviors that are proactively and visibly intolerant of violence. Since few organizations have the resources to provide direct training to enough individuals to obtain this critical mass, strategically targeting the most socially influential individuals becomes necessary, as these “popular opinion leaders” can then most effectively and efficiently impact the attitudes and behaviors of their peers through modeling, endorsing and engaging in the targeted behaviors. Furthermore, social diffusion theory suggests that we take an approach different from the peer education and mentoring models we have historically used, finding that peers are most influential in their natural, social environments rather than when placed in paraprofessional roles.