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).