Challenging Dogma

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Self-Efficacy, Social Norms and Framing: Why Domestic Violence Campaigns Have Failed to Disengage Victims From the Cycle of Violence – Gretchen Flack

Domestic Violence (DV), often referred to as “intimate partner abuse” or “interpersonal violence,” is most broadly defined as violence within a home (1). DV can be perpetrated in the form of physical, sexual, psychological or economic control or abuse and takes place in the context of an intimate relationship and is remarkable for long patterns of domination and emotional upheaval (2). While victims of DV are ostensibly women, victimization is not gender-specific, and recognition is now appropriately given to male victims of intimate violence as well. According to the CDC, approximately 5 million cases of interpersonal violence against women are reported each year, usually categorized as minor physical assaults. The CDC also reported in 2003 that interpersonal violence results in nearly 2 million injuries and 1,300 deaths each year. Because of the cycle of intimidation and hopelessness created by violence that is perpetrated by an intimate partner, most incidents of DV are not reported to the police. Therefore although these figures are staggering, the CDC and many other DV and women’s health organizations acknowledge that these statistics grossly underestimate the true cost of this problem to public health (3).

Given the multifactorial nature of the cycle of DV, this problem can be considered from a number of different perspectives. However, this critique focuses on two reasons that DV campaigns, which have traditionally focused on highlighting the existence of abuse and have encouraged victims to seek help, would likely fail to disengage victims from the cycle of violence. The first reason for the likely failure of these campaigns is their lack of specific focus on improving victims’ belief that they can actually disengage themselves from the violent relationship (i.e. victims’ self-efficacy). The second reason for the likely failure of these campaigns is the location of their focus: many campaigns have focused too far downstream, at the individual level, rather than on domestic violence as a societal problem perpetuated by cultural cycles. Thus, DV campaigns that have not incorporated the major aspects of Social Cognitive Theory and Social Learning Theory, or have failed to provide a Landscape Frame though which we can consider DV as a problem with societal-level causes will likely not be as effective as possible in disengaging victims from the cycle of DV.

Social Cognitive Theory and Self-Efficacy

The Social Cognitive Theory states that individuals will attempt to change their behavior if they believe that they are capable of doing so (4). Individuals’ belief in their capabilities, or self-efficacy, relies heavily on self-esteem. Thus, people with low self-esteem will be less likely to believe that they are capable of changing their behavior, and, as posited by the Social Cognitive Theory, these individuals will not change their behavior. Therefore, we may use this theory as the basis for empowering victims of DV whose self-esteem is ravaged by the cycle of violence. This theory would suggest that the key to empowering victims to leave an abusive relationship is to provide actionable steps that will allow them to believe they can make a change. In this way, providing tangible steps for victims to take will improve their self-efficacy. DV interventions that do not offer practical action steps that instruct victims how to initiate a change in their behavior – i.e. interventions that do not incorporate the principles of Social Cognitive Theory – will not be as effective as possible in disengaging victims from the cycle of violence.

“There’s No Excuse for Domestic Violence”

An example of a campaign that fails to incorporate the principle of self-efficacy in this way is the Family Violence Prevention Fund’s “There’s No Excuse for Domestic Violence.” This campaign, run as a series of public service announcements for television, radio and print, shows a child listening to his angry father threatening his mother. Following this image or scene flashes the words, “Children have to sit by and watch. What’s your excuse?”(5) Although these images are emotionally salient, it is unclear to whom the PSA is directed, whether it is directed towards the victim or the perpetrator. Regardless of its intended focus, this campaign fails to offer specific action steps for victims or perpetrators to disengage themselves from this cycle. Further, given the effects of DV on self-esteem, victims may perceive this campaign as one that blames them for being unable to stop the cycle of violence.

The role of community resources in self-efficacy

In further support of the important role of self-efficacy in DV campaigns, a number of studies that have been conducted to understand the specific needs of victims of DV have found that victims report favoring interventions that offer multiple specific options that they may pursue in attempting to leave a relationship (6). Further, in a study of female victims of DV who were in contact with a visiting healthcare provider, many reported that they did not disclose to the visiting healthcare provider that they were being victimized due to their belief that resources for support and protection were not available (7).

Extrapolating from these examples, one of the actionable steps that effective DV campaigns should offer to victims who are considering leaving is shelter and housing options. In order for victims to have self-efficacy, they must believe that resources are available to them should they be able to get out. Sadly, as illustrated in a piece done by National Public Radio, affordable housing and long-term shelter shortages pose an additional challenge to victims’ belief that they are capable of having safe longer-term housing options once they leave (8). Following the tenets of the Social Cognitive Theory, because individuals’ belief in available resources improves their self-efficacy, even those interventions which offer strong emotional support will fail if they do not highlight the strong network of resources available to victims. Thus even in the face of strong emotional support, the barriers to leaving remain high if community resources are not available to victims (9).

Social Learning Theory and the importance of an appropriately focused campaign

The second major reason for the likely failure of DV campaigns is the location of their focus: Many campaigns have focused too far downstream, at the individual level, rather than on domestic violence as a societal problem perpetuated by cultural cycles. Failure to focus an intervention at an appropriate level will not be effective in helping individual victims disengage themselves from the cycle of violence. These campaigns will not be effective because focusing only on individual victims rather than on society will fail to initiate large enough cultural changes so that individuals have the freedom to make changes in their personal lives. This argument is supported by the premises of the Social Learning Theory and by the concept of placing a problem within a Landscape Frame.

Social Learning Theory

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory explains behavior as the continuous interaction of cognitive, behavioral and environmental influences. According to this theory, individuals evaluate their environment and their acceptable norms based on what they have experienced in their lives (10). From this perspective, if individuals have been exposed to violence in their family, they are more inclined to accept victimization as a norm. Thus individuals who accept victimization as a norm will fail to initiate a break in this cycle (11). Additionally, based on Social Learning Theory, those exposed to violence in their families and accept violence as a norm are more likely to become perpetrators of DV as they mature (12). Studies reflect that childhood exposure to interpersonal violence is common among perpetrators of DV, and this exposure has been found to be one of the most significant factors in explaining the variance in adolescent perpetrators of dating violence (13).

Based on the above theoretical framework and research, DV interventions must focus on younger individuals who are still developing their norms. Campaigns that focus on adults who are current victims or perpetrators will fail because these individuals have already developed their social norms and therefore DV campaigns may not be as salient for them. Successful campaigns must intervene on individuals as they develop their norms in order to initiate a break in the cycle of violence.

“Freedom from Fear”

An example of a campaign that fails intervene on the early development of social norms is the “Freedom from Fear” Campaign, a 1998 Australian media campaign, that used television, radio and printed materials to call upon men to accept responsibility for themselves as perpetrators or potential perpetrators of DV (14). Campaigns such as this one that do not intervene on the cycle of violence at the appropriate time not only perpetuate younger individuals’ development and maintenance of norms that are accepting of violence, but also fail in initiating the larger cultural shift that is necessary to curb interpersonal violence as a society.

DV in a Landscape Frame

Even those campaigns that do use Social Learning Theory and focus their interventions on younger individuals who are still developing their norms will fail if they do not frame DV in what Dorfman calls a “Landscape Frame.” That is, DV campaigns will not be effective if they do not focus on the larger picture of the cycle of violence as a function of economic, historic, or cultural factors (15). For instance, an article entitled “Women, Crime, & Fear” notes that in a historically gender-based society in which women were historically subservient to men, women have come to fear violence at the hands of men. Therefore, interventions focusing on individual prevention strategies may help individual victims but are not adequate in addressing the larger issue of women’s fear of crime and the importance of reversing this societally based expectation (16).

“Coaching Boys into Men”

A campaign that fails to frame DV in this way is the Family Violence Prevention Fund’s “Coaching Boys into Men” campaign. This campaign, which uses a number of television and radio spots, as well as printed and web-based material uses Social Learning Theory by highlighting the importance of supporting boys’ respect for women and intolerance for violence and Social Cognitive Theory to offer specific steps that mentors can employ in helping boys develop perceptions of healthy relationships. However, this campaign fails to place the issue of DV in a larger context that helps the “coaches” understand the cultural roots of violence, so that they can address the way that these aspects figure into the reasons that “being a man” can be misinterpreted.

“It’s Your Business”

Failure to frame the problem of DV in a landscape frame can also cause us to focus our attention on specific populations that have been historically affected by DV, rather than focusing on the issues of social inequality, self-esteem, the media’s acceptance of violence, etc that perpetuate the cycle of violence. An example of this misguided focus is the “It’s Your Business” Campaign. Initiated in 2000, this campaign conveyed the message that DV posed a serious threat to the African American community and that it was everyone’s responsibility to bring awareness to the problem. The campaign included a radio drama series targeted towards African American men that urged them to “step up” to educate their peers in their communities that violence against women is a serious problem (5). Although this campaign excelled in its use of concrete action steps for these young men to use in their communities when speaking out about their intolerance for DV, this primarily radio-based campaign focused on a specific demographic, and did not highlight the larger landscape in which DV occurs. This narrow focus allows those in other communities not to acknowledge that DV is a problem prevalent in many communities and that DV does not discriminate based on demographics. Further, this narrow focus does not encourage the larger population in acknowledging the need for cultural shifts to make violence unacceptable.


DV is a problem of incredibly large proportions that is inherently complicated by the intricacies of the psychology of intimate relationships. While the focus on DV in mainstream media has certainly increased people’s awareness of this private and stigmatized problem, these interventions could be significantly more effective by employing the above social science principles in their approach. Through the more focused use of Social Cognitive Theory, future interventions may have a more immediate effect in improving victims’ belief that they are capable of leaving an abusive relationship. By emphasizing the availability of community resources and making real the option of taking the first step, future victims may be spared the anguish of continued victimization. At the same time, future campaigns that focus on DV as a cultural phenomenon whose roots are set in individuals from a very young age, may have the societal-level impact that is necessary to take DV off of public health’s center stage.


1. search for “domestic violence”:
2. search for “domestic violence”:
Human Rights Watch:
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overview on Intimate Partner Violence. Atlanta, Georgia:
4. search for “Social Cognitive Theory”:
5. Family Violence Prevention Fund. There’s No Excuse for Domestic Violence. San Francisco, CA: Chang JC, Cluss PA, Ranieri L, Hawker L, Buranosky R, Dado D, McNeil M, Scholle SH. Healthcare interventions for intimate partner violence: what women want. Womens Health Issues. 2005 Jan-Feb; 15 (1): 21-307. Peckover S. “I could have just done with a little more help”: an analysis of womens’s help-seeking from health visitors in the context of domestic violence. Health Soc Care Community. 2003 May; 11 (3):275-82.
8. National Public Radio. Housing First. Washington DC:
9. search for “abusive relationship and community resources”:
10. search for “Bandura’s Social Learning Theory”: Ponce AN, Williams MK, Allen GJ. Experience of maltreatment as a child and acceptance of violence in adult intimate relationships: mediating effects of distortions in cognitive schemas. Violence Vict. 2004 Feb;19(1):97-108.12. Ernst AA, Weiss SJ, Enright-Smith S. Child witnesses and victims in homes with adult intimate partner violence. Acad Emerg Med. 2006 Jun;13(6):696-9. Epub 2006 Apr 13. Banyard VL, Cross C, Modecki KL. Interpersonal violence in adolescence: ecological correlates of self-reported perpetration. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 2006 Oct;21(10):1314-32. 14. Freedom from fear. Campaign Against Domestic Violence. Auckland, AUS:
15. Dorfman L Wallack L, Woodruff K. More than a message: framing public health advocacy to change corporate practices. Health Education and Behavior. 2005 Jun; 32(3):320-336.
16. Stanko, EA. Women, Crime, and Fear. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 539, No. 1, 46-58 (1995)



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