Social Attitudes Versus Individual Choice

Social Attitudes Versus Individual Choice


The smoking ban example illustrates how social attitudes—which are positive or negative evaluations of people, places, things, events, and the like, and are shared by a majority of the community as a whole—and individual choice are not always in agreement. Social attitudes are the result of generalized, shared ethics in a society. They help shape our overall health environment. For example, positive social attitudes toward cigarettes viewed smoking in public spaces to be perfectly acceptable and even doctor recommended in the early 1900s. The current social attitude toward cigarette smoking has caused the number of cigarette users in the United States to drop below 20% (see Figure 1.1). This in turn has created a drop in tobacco-related illness and death. Negative social attitudes about cigarette use, caused by a collective realization regarding the negative effects of smoke, secondhand smoke, and related illnesses, have positively affected the nation’s health.

Figure 1.1: Percentage of adults in the U.S. who use cigarettes

A line graph depicts the decrease in the percentage of adults who use cigarettes at various multi-year intervals between 1965 (about 43%) and 2010 (about 20%).

Social attitudes toward cigarette smoking have changed drastically in the last 50 years, causing cigarette use to decline.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2011). Trends in current cigarette smoking among high school students and adults, United States, 1965–2010. Retrieved January 9, 2012, from


Social attitudes are part of the collective, or macro, influences on our health. Other macrolevel influences include messages from the media, such as commercials for fast food. Health policy is often created in response to macro influences on our society’s health environment, or the combined collective knowledge created through rigorous study, comprehensive evaluation, and peer-reviewed publication of facts related to the collective public good.


Considering only the macro view does not consider the individual, or micro, influences or decisions that we each make about our health. Micro influences on health include whether we choose to walk, bike, or drive to work or school, and which foods we select at the grocery. A debate lingers over whether the micro or macro perspective is more useful when considering health decisions and policy.

Critical Thinking


Can you think of other examples where social attitudes conflict with individual choice? Would abortion (a woman’s right to choose) fall into this category? What about medical marijuana?


1.2 Considerations for Studying Vulnerable Populations


How do we apply social theory to the study of vulnerable populations? First, we must begin by categorizing the influences that affect the health of these groups. The influences are used to determine which social groups in our society are defined as vulnerable populations.

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