Volume XIX | Issue 2 | Fall 2019
Anthony Biglan, author of The Nurture Effect

Nurture our well-being

Author argues that to make society more successful, we need to use human behavior to create change

Behavioral scientist Anthony Biglan’s premise is simple: Nearly all problems of human behavior are due to a failure to ensure that people live in environments that nurture their well-being. Abuse, drug problems, violence, mental health problems and dysfunction in families — these are the conditions that plague society.

In order to make society more successful, we need to use the science of human behavior to create change. Cultivating a positive environment in the home, the classroom or other social contexts, will help young adults develop the background they need for productive and happy lives. It’s a do-able proposition, and The Nurture Effect offers a road map and plenty of examples to get started down that road.

Public health achievement

Biglan points to the tobacco control movement, one of modern history’s most important public health achievements, as a model for how to achieve massive societal changes. In 1965, over 50% of men and 34% of women smoked. By 2010, only 23.5% of men and 17.9% of women were smoking. When public health officials, epidemiologists and victims of the cigarette industry united to mobilize opposition to the marketing of a product that was killing almost half a million each year, Biglan says, “they moved a mountain.”

“Just as we have created a society in which it would be unthinkable to light up a cigarette in the Kennedy Center lobby, we can create a society where it is unthinkable that a child suffers abuse, fails in school, becomes delinquent, or faces teasing and bullying.”

The book is evenly split between the science behind Biglan’s strategy and case studies that spotlight success. He provides a variety of examples of successful prevention programs and practices. All of them have one common characteristic — they make people’s homes or schools or workplaces more nurturing. Families learn how to avoid conflict. Schools encourage students to contribute. People are guided in ways to follow their dreams while avoiding negative self-talk.

Prosocial behavior

In schools, for example, researchers have identified the problem of how to help teachers move from escalating punishment to using positive reinforcement. That approach nurtures what Biglan calls “prosocial” behavior, or behavior that is positive, helpful and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship. Significant progress toward positive reinforcement strategies has occurred, including school programs such as Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support.

Teenage mothers could benefit from programs such as parenting education and home visiting, which matches teens with nurses from pregnancy through birth and beyond. Teens get the support they need to succeed with their baby, which helps them in every aspect of their lives. In Washington state, a cost benefit analysis concluded that for every dollar spent on the program, $3.23 was saved, a 223% return on investment.

“I am confident that, if we marshal the evidence for nurturing environments and use the advocacy techniques that worked so well for the tobacco control movement, we can truly transform society,” Biglan concludes. “Not only will we have smoke-free gatherings, we will have communities that see to the well-being of every member. We will have less crime, mental illness, drug abuse, divorce, academic failure and poverty.”

Residents of Oregon and Siskiyou County, California, can get this book for free from The Ford Family Foundation Select Books Program

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