environmental psychology

Environmental Psychology

Table of Contents

Environmental psychology refers to the study of interactions between a person and their surroundings. It involves the analysis of how our environment, whether natural, social or built, influences our mindset, behavior and experiences as human beings.

What Is Environmental Psychology?

Environmental psychology is a distinct and recognized area 1 Stokols D. (1978). Environmental psychology. Annual review of psychology, 29, 253–295. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ps.29.020178.001345 of psychology and an interdisciplinary field that focuses on the transactions between individuals and places. In these transactions, individuals cause the environment to change and their behavior and experiences are changed by the environment as well. It is an established field of study, and many writers outside the field of psychology have discussed the influence that a person’s surroundings may have on their behavior.

Environmental psychology includes theory, research and practice primarily aimed at improving the relationship between man and it’s the immediate environment. In this field, the term environment is defined broadly, encompassing natural environments, social settings, man-made or built environments, learning environments, and informational environments.

According to a 2016 study 2 Sörqvist P. (2016). Grand Challenges in Environmental Psychology. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 583. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00583 , “Environmental psychology is the subdiscipline of psychological science that deals with psychological processes engaged in encounters between people and the built and natural environment.” This field involves various elements of human psychology, mental health and behavior and these are related to socio-physical environments.

It can involve ambient environmental factors, such as lighting, temperature, noise; daily infrastructure and specific behavior settings. It also includes human behavior & mental life such as emotion, cognition, mental fatigue, stress, decision making, socializing etc. Studies 3 Tavakkoli, S., Asaadi, M. M., Pakpour, A. H., & Hajiaghababaei, M. (2015). Environmental Psychology Effects on Mental Health Job Satisfaction and Personal Well Being of Nurses. Iranian journal of psychiatry10(3), 158–164. have further observed that “Environmental psychology as a science could be useful in understanding the dissociation between man and the environment.”

Understanding Environmental Psychology

Though it’s roots go back to the 13th century, environmental psychology was not fully recognized as an independent field of study until the late 1960s when scientists began to observe and question the relationship between human behavior and the natural and built environments. By the mid-twentieth century, it was an established discipline with studies on topics like sensory isolation, personal space, and building design.

One of the most prominent journals established in this field of study is the Journal of Environmental Psychology. “It is argued that the physical environment is used as a means of maintaining the psychic balance of pain and pleasure, and the coherence of one’s self and self-esteem,” explains a report 4 Korpela, K. M. (1989). Place-identity as a product of environmental self-regulation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 9(3), 241-256. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0272-4944(89)80038-6 Fields closely related to environmental psychology consist of architectural psychology, socio-architecture, behavioral geography, environmental sociology, social ecology and environmental design research.

Distinctiveness Of Environmental Psychology

In general, the relations between environmental stimuli and human responses are examined by most psychologists in some way or the other. However, the factor which sets this field of study 5 Gifford, R., Steg, L., & Reser, J. P. (n.d.). Web hosting – Faculty and Staff – University of Victoria. https://web.uvic.ca/~esplab/sites/default/files/Gifford%2C%20Steg%2C%20Reser%202011%20IAAP.pdf apart from other fields of psychology is its commitment to research and practise that subscribes to the following goals and principles :

  • Studying everyday settings
  • Improvement of the built environment and maintenance of natural resources
  • Considering person and setting as a holistic entity
  • Recognizing that individuals actively cope with and shape environments and that they do not just passively respond to environmental forces
  • Working in conjunction with other disciplines.

Concepts In Environmental Psychology

Here are some of the common and important concepts in the field of study:

1. Place Identity

Place identity, also known as place-based identity, is defined as a “sub-structure of the self-identity of the person consisting of broadly conceived cognitions about the physical world in which the individual lives.” It was found that these cognitions define the daily experiences of all human beings.

They can understand the environment they live in and their overall experience through their ideas, feelings, attitudes, memories, preferences and personal values toward the range and type of physical settings. A person is able to evaluate the properties in different environments to fulfill his or her needs through interaction with various places and spaces. He or she is able to reflect and define his or her personal values, feelings, beliefs and attitudes about the physical world through good or bad experiences with a place.

Five central functions of place-identity have been theorized 6 Bernardo, F., & Palma-Oliveira, J. (2013). Place identity, place attachment and the scale of place: The impact of place salience. Psyecology4(2), 167-193. https://doi.org/10.1080/21711976.2013.10773867 : recognition, meaning, expressive-requirement, mediating change, and anxiety defense function. Place identity becomes an information rich parameter against which every physical setting is experienced.

2. Place Attachment

Various studies 7 Jelley, S. E. (2013). A study of place attachment. Research Online – University of Wollongong. https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=4971&context=theses have been conducted on the different perceptions of the bond between people and places. The most used term for this is place attachment. It is the main concept in environmental psychology. Place attachment is defined as a person’s emotional ties to a particular place and is resulted by long-term connection with the respective environment. As per recent studies on place attachment, it was found that time and experience pertaining to a particular place is directly related to the strength of the bond that an individual grows with that place.

Place attachment differs from an aesthetic response like describing a place as special because it is beautiful. To take an example, a person can have an emotional response to a beautiful or ugly landscape, but this response may sometimes be shallow and fleeting. This distinction was labeled as “meaning” versus “preference” by Schroeder (1991) 8 Smaldone, D. (2006). THE ROLE OF TIME IN PLACE ATTACHMENT. Northern Research Station. https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr_nrs-p-14/7-smaldone-p-14.pdf .

He defined meaning as “the thoughts, feelings, memories and interpretations evoked by a landscape,” and preference as “the degree of liking for one landscape compared to another”. In Schroeder’s terms, an enduring relationship with a place is usually a critical factor for a deeper and lasting emotional attachment to develop.

Read More About Attachment Here

3. Environmental Consciousness

Environmental consciousness plays a crucial role in environmental psychology. According to a theory 9 Rivlin, L., Wolfe, M., & Kaplan, M. (1986). Environmental psychology and action research: Lewin’s legacy. Recent Research in Psychology, 194-200. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-8030-0_23 , one way to examine someone’s environmental consciousness is to recognize the significance of the physical place and study the people-place relationship. There is a common belief that the orbitofrontal cortex 10 Torregrossa, M. M., Quinn, J. J., & Taylor, J. R. (2008). Impulsivity, compulsivity, and habit: the role of orbitofrontal cortex revisited. Biological psychiatry63(3), 253–255. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2007.11.014 integrates information pertaining to the surrounding environment from many distributed areas of the brain. However, to be certain, there is no particular brain area that deals with a person’s interactions with the environment.

4. Behavior Settings

Behavior settings are theorized entities that help explain the relationship between individuals and their immediate social environment. The first major effort recognized to bring physical and social contexts into psychological methodologies for studying human behavior is Roger Barker’s 11 GEORGIOU, D., CARSPECKEN, P. F., & WILLEMS, E. P. (1996). An expansion of Roger barker”s behavior setting survey for an ethno-ecological approach to person–environment interactions. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16(4), 319-333. https://doi.org/10.1006/jevp.1996.0027 Behavior Setting Survey. He explained that groups tend to be less satisfying for their members as they grow in size.

Psychology Of Resource Management

Some common dilemmas people face everyday are related to energy conservation, recycling and pollution control. Choices pertaining to such dilemmas affect the natural resources. Research reveals that “People in common dilemmas must decide whether to try to serve their own interest quickly, which risks total failure for self, others, and the resource, or, through restraint, to benefit all participants more moderately, with the crucial consequence that the resource is preserved for the future”.

For example, conservation is beneficial when resources become scarce and uncertainty about the resource often leads to overharvesting. When many harvesters have access to a single resource, each tends to selfishly take more. However, if there exists a sense of community and harmony, cooperation is greater. Regulations, like for anything else, do not completely govern harvesting, but they do have an influence.

Residential Environmental Psychology

For most people, home is the most important physical setting. The meaning (home) is distinguished from the physical structure (apartment, house) in environmental psychology. The satisfaction derived from one’s residence depends on many factors like –

  • Stage of life
  • Personality
  • Values
  • Socio-economic status
  • Hopes for future
  • Nature of one’s peers
  • Relationship with neighbors

Physical features of the residence such as it’s architectural style, form, floor plans, colors, area outside the residence affect the choices, preferences and satisfaction pertaining to the residence. It has also been seen that people arrange the interiors of their residence in predictable patterns related to culture, lifestyle, and social class.

It can be stressful to adapt to a new residence, depending on the choice of the individual in doing so, his or her preference in exploring new settings in general, or whether the change pertains to a downgrading. This aspect of environmental psychology is not really researched well, partly because of the fact that conducting any kind of research in residences is an intrusion of privacy.

Environmental Psychology Of Neighborhoods And Cities

Environmental psychologists claim that the physical aspects of the city one resides in and other personal factors affect the resident’s actual behavior in urban public places such as streets, stores, and parks. These include everyday normal behavior, such as the speed of walking, the choice of sitting area in public, or even kids playing in the park, and they may be pro-social, anti-social or asocial.

Just as cognitions influence these behaviors, these behaviors are presumed to influence not just cognition, but also the urban planning and design process. Scientists claim that cities can be stressful, mainly based on the fact that traffic, noise, population density and pollution are far greater than that in rural areas. Personal safety is a very important problem pertaining to urban areas.

Issues like poverty and social breakdowns cause danger. However, defensive space principles 12 Donnelly, P. G. (2010). Newman, Oscar: Defensible space theory. Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412959193.n185 can significantly reduce crime. Cities are also attractive. People tend to gravitate towards high density and thrive on it. Cities have certain benefits such as more social, cultural, medical, entertainment and shopping resources. Cities also provide greater job opportunities.

Educational Environmental Psychology

It has been seen that physical features of schools affect student and teacher outcomes. Studies show that students in larger schools more often learn and enjoy as spectators whereas students in small schools more often learn and enjoy as participants. The students in small schools achieve more as compared to the students in large schools for their direct involvement in activities that develops competence.

Research 13 Ahrentzen, S., & Evans, G. W. (1984). Distraction, privacy, and classroom design. Environment and Behavior, 16(4), 437-454. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916584164002 also reveals that interior school design has a lot of influence on students and teachers. Another study found that students tend to recall what they learnt better in the same setting that they learnt it in the first place. Factors like light, noise and space in the classroom also play a contributing role.

Most teachers and students prefer low-density classrooms because it feels less crowded. Increased social density has been found 14 Rivlin, L. G., & Weinstein, C. S. (1984). Educational issues, school settings, and environmental psychology. Journal of Environmental Psychology4(4), 347-364. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0272-4944(84)80005-5 to cause an increase in aggression and withdrawal when other resources, architectural features, and teaching style do not counteract it.

Information Technologies And Environment

The fast-paced development in the sector of information and communication technologies are transforming not only our technological extensions and information environments, but also our transactions with it and the understanding of our social and natural environments. These technologies pose a challenge 15 Stokols, D., Misra, S., Runnerstrom, M. G., & Hipp, J. A. (2009). Psychology in an age of ecological crisis: From personal angst to collective action. American Psychologist64(3), 181-193. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014717 to the human-natural environment transactions and optimal human functioning.

Research 16 Battisti, C. (2016). Experiential key species for the nature-disconnected generation. Animal Conservation19(6), 485-487. https://doi.org/10.1111/acv.12288 on virtual environmental design and environmental stress suggests that the gap that is created in the experiences of people through mediated transactions with our natural environments changes our connections with our worlds and our perspectives of such connections.

Challenges To Environmental Psychology

A 2011 empirical research 17 Giuliani, M. V., & Scopelliti, M. (2009). Empirical research in environmental psychology: Past, present, and future. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(3), 375-386. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.11.008 in environmental psychology found some strengths and weaknesses of the field that provide suggestions useful for future research. The research also stated that personal and direct experience with research problems and people are more important than empirical data when it comes to providing a neutral description and expressing the evaluation of past trends and on what should be done in future.

Environmental Psychology At A Glance

  1. Environmental psychology refers to the study of interactions between a person and their surroundings.
  2. Environmental psychology is a distinct and recognized area of psychology and an interdisciplinary field that focuses on the transactions between individuals and places.
  3. Some common dilemmas people face everyday are related to energy conservation, recycling and pollution control.
  4. Environmental psychologists claim that the physical aspects of the city one resides in and other personal factors affect the resident’s actual behavior in urban public places such as streets, stores, and parks.


Mental Health Topics (A-Z)

  • Environmental Psychology