What is environmental psychology?

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Environmental psychology examines the relations between the physical (natural or artificial) environment, or the context, and human behavior and experience. The discipline has proved valuable for understanding individual, social, and societal processes.
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Environmental psychology is concerned with the relationships between the physical environment—both natural and artificial—and human behavior and experiences. The term environment is best defined as the total set of circumstances by which one is surrounded, including physical, interpersonal, and sociocultural aspects. This can include where one goes to school, works, has a home, or lives.

In the field’s early stages, it proved valuable for understanding the relationships between the physical environment and individual processes, such as the interpretation of information from the environment; social processes, such as the sharing and division of space; and societal processes, which are usually identified with key settings in society, such as school, work, home, and urban environments. The field expanded to include considerations of formal theories that attempted to explain person-environment relationships; cultural differences affecting such relationships; and practical applications aimed at improving person-environment interactions, such as designing better environments and encouraging the management of natural resources through energy conservation and recycling. Subfields of interest include environmental health, environmental ecology, the use of art in the environment and its psychological impact, urban and city planning, and environmental design.

Areas of Research

Research examining the relations between the physical environment and individual processes has traditionally focused primarily on three areas. One encompasses environmental perception, or the ways people take in information from their environment, and environmental cognition, or how people organize this information in their heads. A second area involves the ways people feel about and evaluate aspects of the physical environment. This includes both individual impressions, such as personal descriptions, preferences, and emotional responses (termed environmental appraisal), and collective impressions of places by expert groups (environmental assessment). A third area is the environmental aspects of personality, which looks at the ways characteristic patterns of behavior and experience influence people’s transactions with the physical environment.

Studies have demonstrated that environmental perception is enhanced if the physical environment is novel, complex, surprising, or incongruous. Environmental cognition has been shown to be associated with life stage: In 1973, Roger A. Hart and Gary T. Moore demonstrated that as children age, their mental organization of the physical environment (their cognitive map) becomes less egocentric, then more projective (thinking of settings from various physical vantage points), and finally more abstract (thinking of settings through the use of abstract concepts such as coordinates and directions). Research on person-oriented environmental appraisals and place- or policy-oriented environmental assessments has focused primarily on the scenic quality of natural settings but has expanded to include a variety of physical contexts—urban air quality and nursing homes, for example. Studies on environmental aspects of personality have indicated that traditional personality variables may explain some aspects of person-environment relationships. Compared with reserved individuals, outgoing individuals rated landscapes as more serene and beautiful. People with an internal sense of control over their lives have been shown to prefer buildings within the classical architectural style, while those believing their lives to be influenced by powerful others or by fate prefer the romantic style.


Researchers in environmental psychology have extensively studied four areas in particular: personal space, territoriality, crowding, and privacy. These four areas compose proxemics, a field concerned with the ways in which individuals and groups deal with space as a limited resource and structure their activities accordingly. Personal space is the area surrounding a person’s body, as if there were invisible boundaries, into which intruders may not come without causing discomfort. This space has been shown to be larger for men, variable for disturbed individuals, smaller in situations of attraction or cooperation, and larger in situations involving stigma or unequal status. Studies of territoriality have typically shown that men are more territorial than women and that occupying one’s own territory is related to perceived control.

Research on crowding has distinguished between density, an objective measure of the number of individuals per unit area, and crowding, an individual’s subjective perception of spatial restriction. Prolonged, high indoor density acts as an environmental stressor, often impairing health, affecting blood pressure and other cardiac functions; performance of complex tasks; and social interaction, causing increased aggression, withdrawal, and lack of cooperation. Privacy refers to the selective control of access to one’s self or one’s group. Studies have shown that private preferences, expectations, values, and behaviors vary from person to person and from occasion to occasion.

Context-Specific Societal Research

Research on the relationship between the physical environment and societal processes has concentrated on living at home, learning in the classroom, and functioning in the workplace. Each of these environments involves many perceptions, activities, and attitudes. The home environment can include one’s residence, neighborhood, and city; living there may include such varied activities as shopping, relaxing, waiting for the bus, deciding who really owns the bathroom, preparing for potential disasters, and moving.

Researchers have applied many of the individual and social processes described above in the specific contexts of the home, city, school, and workplace. For example, research has shown that neighborhood satisfaction is related to the absence of environmental stressors (such as noise, pollution, and ugliness), although some individuals seem able to adapt to at least some of these stressors. Climate has been shown, at the urban level, to influence prosocial and antisocial behavior slightly; high temperatures seem to increase aggression, while comfortable temperatures increase the desire to help. Studies at schools have shown that classroom characteristics such as high noise and density levels may be associated with numerous difficulties—including decreased learning, participation, and classroom interaction—and may cause negative feelings about school.

Person-Environment Theories

Complementing the array of empirical studies are attempts at both theoretical and practical application. The theoretical applications have tried to provide integrative theories for the field—that is, for person-environment functioning more generally. A major theoretical point accepted by most investigators has been that the environment is composed not only of physical aspects but also of interpersonal and sociocultural aspects. To make sense of the field’s varied theoretical applications, psychologists Irwin Altman and Barbara Rogoff have used the philosopher Stephen C. Pepper’s four worldviews to organize theories of person-environment functioning.

In formist, or trait, approaches to person-environment relations, the focus is on individuals or psychological processes as self-contained entities, with environments playing supplementary or secondary roles. For example, an investigator adhering to this type of approach might study how traditional personality characteristics (such as the locus of control) affect environmental appraisal.

In mechanistic, or interactional, approaches, the focus is on person, group, or setting qualities as independently defined and influencing one another in causal fashions. Environmental factors are usually treated as causal influences on psychological functioning. For example, an investigator working from this type of approach might employ specific learning techniques to understand and then to decrease littering.

In organismic approaches, the emphasis is on dynamic and holistic systems, with complex reciprocal influences between person and environment components. For example, a researcher with this type of approach might study the development of individuals’ cognitive maps across the life span.

Finally, in contextual, or transactional, approaches, the focus is on the changing relations among aspects of persons and of environments, which together compose holistic entities. An investigator might attempt to illustrate how descriptions of homes reflect inseparable confluences of psychological and environmental experiences.

Designing Optimal Environments

Environmental psychology has also increasingly become concerned with practical applications such as optimizing person-environment relations. Such applications have included recommendations for the actual design of more fitting environments. For example, Barbara B. Brown and Altman have demonstrated that residential dwellings with real and symbolic barriers, which communicate a strong sense of territoriality—are less likely to be burglarized than residences lacking such barriers. Harry Heft has reviewed the work on prolonged high indoor density on children and found it to be associated with difficulties in visual and auditory discrimination, object permanence, and language development. M. Powell Lawton designed a nursing home that successfully enhanced patients’ perceptual and social transactions with the environment.

Intervention Programs

Research on environmental stress, at both the individual and societal levels, has generated intervention programs to decrease technological risk and to encourage the management and preservation of natural resources. For example, Jack Demick and his collaborators from Hiroshima University analyzed cultural differences in the impact of governmental legislation: Whereas the Japanese value group adherence to legislation as a whole, Americans value individuality and personal expression. These differences were then employed in the design of differential programs to enhance the use of automobile safety belts. Appeals to national pride were used in Japan; freedom of choice was emphasized in the United States. Other related programs include decreasing such environmental problems as air pollution, litter, and homelessness and increasing such processes as energy conservation and recycling. Robert Gifford’s Environmental Psychology: Principles and Practice (2007) reviews many of the major applied programs in these and related areas.

Contributions of Brunswik and Lewin

Historically, the first stirrings of environmental psychology occurred in the 1940s. This was followed by increased activity in the 1950s. The field grew significantly throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. The movement in each of these decades is perhaps summarized best through the work of its pioneering researchers.

In the 1930s, psychologist Egon Brunswik, born in Budapest and trained in Vienna, immigrated to the United States. Initially focusing on the process of perception, he expanded his ideas to make three contributions to the field that became environmental psychology: He was one of the first to call for a more detailed analysis of the ways in which physical environmental factors affect behavior; he advocated the use of more varied environmental stimuli in psychological research than was typically the case; and he coined the term environmental psychology in 1934.

A psychologist who made more of a contribution than Brunswik was Kurt Lewin . Born in Prussia and trained in Germany, he also immigrated to the United States. He was extremely influential for several reasons. First, his work on field theory in the 1940s was the first to give significant attention to the molar physical environment; his original notion that behavior is a joint function of the interaction between person and environment became a basic premise of modern psychology. Second, he influenced many students, among them Roger Barker and Herbert Wright. In the 1950s, Barker and Wright developed ecological psychology, in which they studied behavior settings, small ecological units enclosing everyday human behavior (such as the restaurant or the pharmacy) with both physical-spatial and social aspects. Ecological psychology is often credited as the forerunner of environmental psychology.

Real-World Focus

Environmental psychology emerged in the 1960s as a problem-focused field, responding to practical questions posed by architects and planners about real-world design decisions. The shift from basic laboratory research to work on real-world applications was perhaps also expedited by changing societal realities related to the US involvement in the Vietnam War. This real-world focus was subsequently reinforced by environmental events such as the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

The movement into the real world, and its accompanying focus on the real-life functioning of individuals, highlighted, for the field of psychology as a whole, the need to take the environmental context into account in all theories and research on human behavior and experience. Although various subfields of psychology, such as developmental psychology, have acknowledged the importance of context, environmental psychology strongly reinforced this idea by providing a unique perspective on all psychological processes. Context will continue to be a driving force behind psychology’s renewed commitment to understanding individuals’ real-world functioning in all of its complexity.

An interesting shift that may expand environmental psychology in new ways in the twenty-first century is the effect of the Internet. Similarly, the presence and expansion of virtual environments essentially becoming real-world functioning spaces may also expand this field in new ways. Environmental psychology not only focuses on societal efficiency and functioning but also increasingly examines things such as the perception and evaluation of natural and engineered landscapes, cognitive mapping and special cognition, environmental risks and hazards perception, tourism and leisure behavior in relation to physical settings, psychological attachment and identity as related to places, and even the broader consequences of human interaction on the environment. As human populations continue to expand in number, the importance of this field will increase because of its relevance for all these aspects of twenty-first-century life.


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