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Friday, November 7, 2008

Environmental psychology

Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field focused on the interplay between humans and their surroundings. The field defines the term environment very broadly including all that is natural on the planet as well as social settings, built environments, learning environments and informational environments. When solving problems involving human-environment interactions, whether global or local, one must have a model of human nature that predicts the environmental conditions under which humans will behave in a decent and creative manner. With such a model one can design, manage, protect and/or restore environments that enhance reasonable behavior, predict what the likely outcome will be when these conditions are not met, and diagnose problem situations. The field develops such a model of human nature while retaining a broad and inherently multidisciplinary focus. It explores such dissimilar issues as common property resource management, wayfinding in complex settings, the effect of environmental stress on human performance, the characteristics of restorative environments, human information processing, and the promotion of durable conservation behavior. The field of environmental psychology recognizes the need to be problem-oriented, using, as needed, the theories and methods of related disciplines (e.g., psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, ecology)


Although "environmental psychology" is arguably the best-known and more comprehensive description of the field, it is also known as environmental social sciences, architectural psychology, socio-architecture, ecological psychology, ecopsychology, behavioral geography, environment-behavior studies, person-environment studies, environmental sociology, social ecology, and environmental design research.


The field has seen significant research findings and a fair surge of interest in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but has challenges of nomenclature, obtaining objective and repeatable results, scope, and the fact that some research rests on underlying assumptions about human perception, which is not fully understood.

In the words of Guido Francescato, speaking in 2000, environmental psychology encompasses a "somewhat bewildering array of disparate methodologies, conceptual orientations, and interpretations... making it difficult to delineate, with any degree of precision, just what the field is all about and what might it contribute to the construction of society and the unfolding of history."

Behavior settings

The first significant findings in environmental psychology can be traced back to researcher Roger Barker, who founded his research station in the tiny Kansas town of Oskaloosa (renamed "Midwest" for publication) in 1947, and ran it for several decades.

From detailed field observations he developed the theory that social settings influence behavior. In a store, people assume their roles as customers; in school and church, proper behavior somehow already resides coded in the place. Barker spent his career expanding on what he called ecological psychology, identifying these behavior settings, and publishing accounts like "One Boy's Day" (1951). Some of the minute-by-minute observations of Kansan children from morning to night, jotted down by young and maternal graduate students, may be the most intimate and poignant documents in social science. The "behavior setting" remains a valid principle which receives serious attention.

Barker argued that the psychologist should use T-Methods (psychologist as 'transducer': i.e. methods which study man in his 'natural environment') rather than O-Methods (psychologist as "operator" i.e. experimental methods). In other words, he preferred field work and direct observation.

Universities Offering Ecopsychology-related Courses of Study

Surrey University was the institution which offered the first achitechtural psychology course in the UK starting in 1973/74 and since then there have been over 300 graduates from over 25 countries. Other Universities in the UK now offer courses on the subject which is an expanding field. The Environmental Psychology Research Group (EPRG), of which students on the MSc in Environmental Psychology are automatically members, has been undertaking research for more than thirty years.

The University of Michigan offers a Master of Sciences degree in Natural Resources and Environment, with one concentration called "Behavior, Education, and Communication". The focus is on how people form their relationships with the natural world, including how they make environmentally-related consumer decisions, as well as a focus on how "nearby nature" effects people's mental and physical health.

The Environmental Psychology PhD Program at The Graduate Center takes a multidisciplinary approach to examining and changing "the serious problems associated with the urban environment with a view towards affecting public policy" using social science theory and research methods. The GC-CUNY was the first academic institution in the U.S. to grant a PhD in Environmental Psychology. As discussed in detail, on the program website; "recent research has addressed the experiences of recently housed homeless people, the privatization of public space, socio-spatial conflicts, children's safety in the public environment, relocation, community based approaches to housing, the design of specialized environments such as museums, zoos, gardens and hospitals, the changing relationships between home, family and work, the environmental experiences of gay men and lesbians, and access to parks and other urban 'green spaces.'" see also The Center for Human Environments.

Another strain of environmental psychology developed out of ergonomics in the 1960s. The beginning of this movement can be traced back to David Canter's work and the founding of the "Performance Research Unit" at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1966, which expanded traditional ergonomics to study broader issues relating to the environment and the extent to which human beings were "situated" within it (cf situated cognition). Canter led the field in the UK for years and was the editor of the Journal of Environmental Psychology for over 20 years, but has recently turned his attention to criminology.


Impact on the built environment

Ultimately, environmental psychology is oriented towards influencing the work of design professionals (architects, engineers, interior designers, urban planners, etc.) and thereby improving the human environment.

On a civic scale, efforts towards improving pedestrian landscapes have paid off to some extent, involving figures like Jane Jacobs and Copenhagen's Jan Gehl. One prime figure here is the late writer and researcher William H. Whyte and his still-refreshing and perceptive "City", based on his accumulated observations of skilled Manhattan pedestrians, steps, and patterns of use in urban plazas.

No equivalent organized knowledge of environmental psychology has developed out of architecture. Most prominent American architects, led until recently by Philip Johnson who was very strong on this point, view their job as an art form. They see little or no responsibility for the social or functional impact of their designs, which was highlighted with failure of public high-rise housing like Pruitt Igoe.

Environmental psychology has conquered one whole architectural genre, although it's a bitter victory: retail stores, and any other commercial venue where the power to manipulate the mood and behavior of customers, places like stadiums, casinos, malls, and now airports. From Philip Kotler's landmark paper on Atmospherics and Alan Hirsch's "Effects of Ambient Odors on Slot-Machine Usage in a Las Vegas Casino", through the creation and management of the Gruen transfer, retail relies heavily on psychology, original research, focus groups, and direct observation. One of William Whyte's students, Paco Underhill, makes a living as a "shopping anthropologist". Most of this most-advanced research remains a trade secret and proprietary.

Density and crowding

As environmental psychologists have theorized that density and crowding can have an adverse effect on mood and even cause stress-related illness. Accordingly, environmental and architectural designs could be adapted to minimize the effects of crowding in situations when crowding cannot be avoided. Factors that reduce feelings of crowding within buildings include:

* Windows, particularly openable ones, and ones that provide a view as well as light
* High ceilings
* Doors to divide spaces (Baum and Davies) and provide access control
* Room shape: square rooms feel less crowded than rectangular ones (Dresor)
* Using partitions to create smaller, personalized spaces within an open plan office or larger work space.
* Providing increases in cognitive control over aspects of the internal environment, such as ventilation, light, privacy, etc.
* Conducting a cognitive appraisal of an environment and feelings of crowding in different settings. For example, one might be comfortable with crowding at a concert but not in school corridors.
* Creating a defensible space (Calhoun)


Noise increases environmental stress. Although it has been found that control and predictability are the greatest factors in stressful effects of noise; context, pitch, source and habituation are also important variables .

Personal space and territory

Having an area of personal territory in a public space e.g. at the office is a key feature of many architectural designs. Having such a 'defensible space' (term coined by Calhoun during his experiment on rats) can reduce the negative effects of crowding in urban environments. Creation of personal space is achieved by placing barriers and personalising the space, for example using pictures of one's family. This increases cognitive control as one sees oneself as having control over the entrants to the personal space and therefore able to control the level of density and crowding in the space.

Environmental cognition

Environmental cognition (involved in human cognition) plays a crucial role in environmental perception. The orbitofrontal cortex in the brain plays a role in environmental judgment.

1 comment:

tanyaa said...

Environmental Psychology is an interdisciplinary doctoral program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, can also be called Environmental Social Science. Our work, broadly defined, addresses the social, cultural, psychological and political issues involved in the production, use, design, and occupation of space, place, and nature.