The term “environmental psychology” might be a bit ambiguous or confusing to you; if it is, you’re certainly not alone. It’s not a very large field yet, but it has the potential to be one of the most impactful ones yet regarding the future of being human.
If your interest is piqued, you might be wondering how to answer questions like: What does “environmental psychology” mean? What does it do for us? How can it be applied?
If these questions are engaging your curiosity, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn more about this fascinating field.
This article contains:
- What is the Definition of Environmental Psychology?
- An Introduction and Brief History of Environmental Psychology
- What are the Topics and Scope Explored in Environmental Psychology?
- 7 Examples of Environmental Psychology in Practice
- Using Environmental Psychology in Design and Architecture
- The International Conference of Environmental Psychology
- Recommended Books on Environmental Psychology
- A Take-Home Message
What is the Definition of Environmental Psychology?
According to the Journal of Environmental Psychology, the field can be defined as:
“[T]he scientific study of the transactions and interrelationships between people and their physical surroundings (including built and natural environments, the use and abuse of nature and natural resources, and sustainability-related behavior).”
In other words, environmental psychology is all about the interplay between people and their environment. As a field, it seeks to understand how and why our environment impacts us, how we can leverage that knowledge to our advantage, and what we can do to improve our relationship with the world around us.
An Introduction and Brief History of Environmental Psychology
Environmental psychology is a subfield of psychology that, as the definition above suggests, deals with how people interact and engage with their surroundings. Its roots reach far back, but as an established field it is relatively young (Spencer & Gee, 2009).
You could say it started all the way back in the late 1200s. As experts Christopher Spencer and Kate Gee explain:
“In 1272 Marco Polo was travelling through the kingdoms of West Asia, and noted that the people of Kerman were good, humble, helpful and peaceable; whereas their immediate neighbours in Persia were wicked, treacherous and murderous.
The king of Kerman had asked his wise men what could be the reason, and they answered that the cause lay in the soil. Splendidly empirical in his approach, the king had ordered quantities of soil to be brought from Isfahan (‘whose inhabitants surpassed all others in wickedness’), sprinkled it on the floors of his banqueting hall, and then covered it up by carpets. As the next banquet started, his guests ‘began offending one another with words and deeds, and wounding one another mortally’. The king declared that truly the answer lay in the soil.” (2009)
This initial experiment got at the question that lies at the heart of environmental psychology: how does our environment affect us?
This question is what led to the establishment of environmental psychology as its own subfield of psychology. A group of social psychologists was tasked with determining which room layouts were most beneficial for hospital patients and which could result in adverse effects. These psychologists realized that they didn’t really know how to answer that question, and they decided that a new area of inquiry was required to explore the topic.
Although the first question is usually the most salient for curious individuals, the second question environmental psychology asks is also an important one: how do we affect our environment?
That question is becoming more pressing as the problem of climate change becomes more pressing. It has also led to greater consideration of attitudes toward the environment and the natural world (Spencer & Gee, 2009).
What are the Topics and Scope Explored in Environmental Psychology?
So, given what we know about environmental psychology, what kinds of topics do environmental psychologists actually study?
The Journal of Environmental Psychology lists the following topics as popular areas within the field:
- Perception and evaluation of buildings and natural landscapes
- Cognitive mapping, spatial cognition, and wayfinding
- Ecological consequences of human actions
- Evaluation of building and natural landscapes
- Design of, and experiences related to, the physical aspects of workplaces, schools, residences, public buildings, and public spaces
- Leisure and tourism behavior in relation to their physical settings
- Meaning of built forms
- Psychological and behavioral aspects of people and nature
- Theories of place, place attachment, and place identity
- Psychological aspects of resource management and crises
- Environmental risks and hazards: perception, behavior, and management
- Stress related to physical settings
- Social use of space: crowding, privacy, territoriality, personal space
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it provides a great outline of the topics you would likely encounter in reading up on environmental psychology.
Concepts and Theories in Environmental Psychology
Environmental psychology is littered with theories about how and why we act the way we do in our environment, but they tend to fall into one of a few main perspectives:
- Geographical Determinism
- Ecological Biology
- Gestalt Psychology
Geographical determinism is the idea that the foundation and lifespan of entire civilizations are dependent on environmental factors, like topography, climate, vegetation, and the availability of water. Theorists in this perspective believe that too great of an environmental challenge leads to the destruction of civilizations while not enough challenge can result in a stagnation of culture. Further, these environmental factors can have a huge impact on what we value as a society and how we live and work together.
The ecological biology perspective is grounded in theories of biological and sociological interdependence between organisms and their environment. From this point of view, organisms are viewed as integral parts of their environment rather than as separate entities. This opens the door for the study of interdependencies between the two and throughout the entire system.
Behaviorists brought an emphasis on context to the conversation, insisting that both environmental context and personal context (e.g., personality, dispositions, attitudes, views, experience) are vital determinants of behavior. Although behaviorism generally fell out of style as the leading perspective in psychology, its improved focus on contextual factors lived on.
Finally, Gestalt psychology was the other side of behaviorism’s coin; while behaviorists often considered behavior and nothing but behavior, Gestalt thinkers were more prone to considering perception and cognition. Instead of seeing environmental stimuli as 100% objective factors, the focus was on how people perceived and thought about these stimuli (Virtual University of Pakistan, n.d.).
To get a little more in-depth, we can dive into a few of environmental psychology’s more specific theories. Here are a few of those that can help you get a handle on the field, as broad as it is.
Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB)
This theory states that people choose the option(s) with the highest benefits (positive outcomes) and the lowest costs (e.g., energy, time, money) and that the behavior we engage in is a direct result of our intentions. Our intentions are determined by our attitudes towards the behavior, social norms about the behavior, and beliefs about whether and how much we are able to control our behavior.
The TPB has successfully explained lots of interesting environmental behavior, like the choice of mode of travel (e.g., car, plane, train, bicycle), household recycling and composting, use of water, consumption of meat, and other, general pro-environmental behavior (Gifford, Steg, & Reser, 2011).
Norm-Activation Model (NAM)
This model was developed to explain altruistic and environmentally friendly behavior; it posits that one’s own personal norms are more important than social norms in determining how we choose our behavior (Liu, Sheng, Mundorf, Redding, & Ye, 2017).
Value-Belief-Norm Theory (VBN)
Similar to the NAM, the Value-Belief-Norm Theory assumes that people act in a pro-environment way when they feel morally obligated to do so. This moral obligation can come from within (based on one’s own morals), from external sources (social norms and the morals of others), or from both (Gifford, Steg, & Reser, 2011).
In addition to these theories, there are six frequently discussed concepts in the field: attention, perception and cognitive maps, ideal environments, environmental stress and managing, involvement, and protective behavior. These so-called “continual elements” are central in the exploration of how our environment affects us and vice versa.
Attention is the first step of any interaction with the environment; it determines how we notice, perceive, and observe our environment. There are two main kinds of stimuli: those that demand our attention (highly engaging or even distracting stimuli) and those that we willingly or even eagerly direct our attention towards.
Perception and Cognitive Maps
How we perceive the world around us is eventually organized and stored in our minds in what is called “cognitive maps.” Cognitive maps are spatial networks that connect our experiences with our current perceptions, helping us to recognize and understand the world around us and allowing us to navigate it effectively.
Ideal environments are places where people “feel self-assured and competent, where they can familiarize themselves with the environment whilst also being engaged with it” (Essays, UK, 2013). There are four factors that determine whether an environment is ideal:
- Unity: the sense that things in the environment work well together.
- Legibility: the assumption that a person can traverse and navigate the environment without getting lost.
- Complexity: the amount of information and diversity in an environment that make it worth learning about.
- Mystery: the expectation of being able to acquire more information about an environment (Essays, UK, 2013).
Environmental Stress and Managing
Environments can induce stress in people, resulting in consequences like poor health, reduced selflessness, enhanced behavioral and cognitive weaknesses, and a lack of sufficient attention paid to the environment itself.
A major benefit of having a private space to live is that we can control incoming stress-inducing stimuli (to a certain extent, anyway). We can also attempt to regulate our environmental-related stress by “managing” it or coming up with ways to understand and make sense of such stimuli and sharing our lessons learned with others.
Involvement refers to how much a person participates in their environment, interacting and engaging with their surroundings. It can also refer to their participation in the “design, adjustment, and organization” of the environment (Essays, UK, 2013).
Finally, protective behavior is the actions we take to safeguard, steward, and appropriately manage our environment. This refers to both natural and built environments, which require different types of protective behavior to effectively maintain. This is the kind of behavior that is necessary for creating an ecologically sustainable society (Essays, UK, 2013).
Research and Studies
The research in this area is truly fascinating; the field is wide in scope and can accommodate lots of far-reaching ideas. To get an idea of the studies that drive environmental psychology, we can take a look at the most cited articles in the journal Frontiers in Psychology environmental psychology section:
- Relationships between Personal and Collective Place and Identity and Well-Bing in Mountain Communities by Igor Knez and Ingegärd Eliasson (2017)
- A Different Way to Stay in Touch with ‘Urban Nature’: The Perceived Restorative Qualities of Botanical Garden by Giuseppe Carrus et al. (2017)
- Can Nature Walks with Psychological Tasks Improve Mood, Self-Reported Restoration, and Sustained Attention? Results from Two Experimental Field Studies by Tytti Pasanen, Katherine Johnson, Kate Lee, and Kalevi Korpela (2018).
These are just a few of the many popular recent articles, but throughout the pieces in this one small sample we have learned that:
- The way we frame our thoughts about the places we visit affects how we feel not only when we visit those places, but when we think about visiting these places; this indicates that it is our cognitive experience of being outdoors that plays a big part in delivering the benefits of being outdoors (Knez & Eliasson, 2017).
- Botanical gardens provide exceptionally good opportunities for boosting restoration and well-being, through both physical and psychological mechanisms, and this effect is strongest for single people versus couples or families visiting the gardens together (Carrus et al., 2017).
- Active engagement with one’s environment can improve sustained attention (i.e., purposeful attention), although the evidence is iffy for whether it can influence affective restoration (i.e., mood-boosting; Pasanen et al., 2018).
7 Examples of Environmental Psychology in Practice
Environmental psychologists apply their knowledge in many different ways, including:
- Conducting research on messages that motivate people to change their behavior.
- Spreading the word about environmental solutions.
- Uncovering why people may not adopt positive behaviors.
- Encouraging people to rethink their positions in the natural world.
- Helping clients to live more sustainable lives (APA, n.d.).
A recent application of environmental psychology comes to us from expert researcher Dr. Arline Bronzaft. She has been working with the Department of Environmental Protection of New York City to provide “interactive, multi-disciplinary, STEM lessons tailored to teach elementary, middle and high school students about sound and noise in their neighborhoods.” Her work has influenced the development of New York City’s noise code policy and raised awareness about the adverse effects of noise on humans (Macchi, 2018).
Another huge area of application for knowledge gained within the field is that of discovering how we can more effectively influence people and whole societies towards more ecologically and environmentally sustainable behavior (Sörqvist, 2016).
So far, we’ve found that using specific kinds of messages and framing things in certain ways are effective in encouraging better environmental behavior, along with promoting environmental responsibility as a social norm and offering educational programs to raise awareness (Sörqvist, 2016).
Using Environmental Psychology in Design and Architecture
As you might have guessed, environmental psychology has a lot to say about effective design and architecture. Based on the studies we touched on briefly above, we know that places like botanical gardens with lush flora and colorful plants and flowers to view, help people restore their vitality and sense of peace. We also know that actively engaging with an environment is good for us, so designing interactive and engaging environments can boost our attention span.
Findings like these barely scratch the surface of how we can apply environmental psychology to design and architecture, but they help form the basis of a broad range of knowledge on the subject. There are studies on every facet of human-environment interaction you can think of, including lighting, space planning, ergonomics, acoustics, branding, interior design, proportions, color scheme, and use of empty space.
The use of environmental psychologists in building planning isn’t too commonplace yet, but as the field grows and matures, you’ll see more and more psychologists consulting on the designing of buildings and spaces for a wide variety of purposes.
Dak Kopec’s Work on Environmental and Architectural Psychology
Psychologist Dak Kopec has been working on the application of knowledge from environmental psychology to design and architecture for many years. He combined his love for psychology with his graduate degrees in architecture and community psychology and went on to earn his Ph.D. in the field.
Since then he’s been working as a professor, author, and consultant, finding new ways to apply the science of environmental and architectural psychology to real, everyday situations with real people. If you search for information about environmental psychology, you’re almost guaranteed to see his name pop up in the first few results, making him a good name to follow if you’re interested in the field.
To get a glimpse of his work in this area, check out his publications page here.
Graduate, Masters Degree, and Ph.D. Programs
If you’re interested in a degree in environmental psychology, you’re in luck! There are several programs out there that might work for you, including programs at the diploma/certificate, associate, bachelor, master, and doctoral degree levels.
For advanced higher education opportunities, you have three general options:
- Graduate certification: if you do not have the time, energy, or grade point average to work on obtaining a master’s degree, a graduate certification may be the right move for you; it allows you to convert your current BA/BS degree in another subject to one in environmental psychology, and it usually requires only a year of your time.
- Masters degree: the Masters degree in environmental psychology is heavily skewed towards theory and philosophy, but you will get a chance to do some hands-on work as well; you should have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, environmental policy and planning, or architecture and design to improve your chances of success.
- Doctor of philosophy degree: the PhD in environmental psychology is virtually required if you hope to have a career in teaching or academia; luckily, the field’s theoretical and philosophical bent lends itself to doctoral-level study, so there are lots of options out there!
To learn more about the opportunities available to you in the study of environmental psychology, check this out.
The International Conference of Environmental Psychology
Like most established fields, environmental psychology has its own annual conference. The second International Conference on Environmental Psychology, or ICEP, was held in Norway in November 2018.
According to the conference’s host institution, the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, the aims of the conference were:
- To promote research within environmental psychology and related disciplines as well as practical applications of these fields
- To provide experienced researchers in the people environment research field the possibility of an annual professional and social meeting, and to present their research
- To provide the opportunity for students to gain experience with presenting scientific work and receive feedback from experienced researchers in environmental psychology
- To advance the communication between environmental psychology and other areas of research within psychology and the social sciences, as well as between researchers and practitioners
Further, the topics presented included:
- Environmental psychology and applied environmental psychology
- Traffic behavior and travel mode choice
- Greening organizations
- Environmental behavior and consumer behavior
- Environmental risk perception and risk management
- Psychological aspects of resource management and crises
- Architectural psychology: work, school, and residential environments
- Place, place attachment, and place identity
- Environmental quality, noise, and lighting
- Restorative environments
- Social use of space: crowding, privacy, territoriality, personal space
If you’re interested in learning about what happened during the 2017 Conference on Environmental Psychology, click here.
Recommended Books on Environmental Psychology
If you want to learn more about environmental psychology but can’t commit to an entire program or even a two-day conference, not to worry! There are some really informative books you can use to familiarize yourself with the field, including:
- Research Methods for Environmental Psychology by Robert Gifford (Amazon)
- Environmental Psychology for Design by Dak Kopec (Amazon)
- Environmental Psychology: Man and His Physical Setting by Harold M. Proshansky (Amazon)
- Environmental Psychology Principles and Practice by Robert Gifford (Amazon)
- Environmental Psychology by Paul A. Bell, Thomas C. Greene, Jeffrey D. Fisher, and Andrew S. Baum (Amazon)
- Journal of Environmental Psychology edited by J. Joireman and F. Kaiser (okay, this one isn’t a book, but it is a great journal with a lot of fascinating articles!) (Link)
A Take-Home Message
I hope you leave this piece with a better understanding of the subfield of environmental psychology. Further, I hope you are reminded to look around you and think about your surroundings more often. You never know what a small change in your environment could do for your mental and emotional state, so why not take a chance and tweak your environment to better suit you?
What are your thoughts on environmental psychology? Did we miss anything super important? How would you describe environmental psychology to someone new to the field? Do you have any personal environmental psychology-related tips and tricks? Let us know in the comments section below.