Environmental psychology explores the dynamic interactions between individuals and their everyday sociophysical environments. While various psychological domains, rooted in theories of learning, perception, and social influence, consider the interplay between environmental factors, intrapersonal processes, and behavior, environmental psychology possesses distinct characteristics.
First and foremost, environmental psychology places significant emphasis on the examination of larger environmental units, such as individuals’ homes, neighborhoods, and workplace or community settings. This sets it apart from other psychological subfields that primarily focus on micro-level stimuli and events.
Secondly, in line with Kurt Lewin’s “action research” approach (1946), environmental psychology integrates scientific inquiry into the nature of people-environment interactions with the practical aim of enhancing and optimizing individuals’ relationships with their everyday surroundings. This involves more effective urban planning and environmental design.
Thirdly, environmental psychology adopts a multidisciplinary approach, drawing from various fields including architecture, urban planning, psychology, anthropology, sociology, geography, and others. This inclusive approach enriches the study of environment and behavior by incorporating diverse perspectives.
The multidisciplinary nature of environmental psychology contributes to its innovative and diverse qualities but also leads to a less narrowly defined identity for the field. Environmental psychology cannot be neatly categorized within a single paradigm or research tradition. Instead, it encompasses a range of research areas and viewpoints spanning multiple disciplines, all united by their shared focus on how individuals relate to their sociophysical surroundings. While environmental psychology is often regarded as a branch of psychological research, it is more accurately characterized as an integral part of the multidisciplinary field dedicated to the study of environment and behavior, embracing the conceptual and methodological perspectives of numerous disciplines. Consequently, the terms environmental psychology and environment-behavior studies are used interchangeably here to acknowledge the multidisciplinary orientation of the field.
Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field that explores the intricate interactions between individuals and their sociophysical environments in everyday life. It distinguishes itself from other branches of psychology in several key ways.
Firstly, environmental psychology places a particular emphasis on examining the broader environmental contexts that individuals inhabit, such as their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and community settings. While traditional psychology often focuses on isolated micro-level stimuli and events, environmental psychology takes a holistic approach to understanding human-environment relationships.
Secondly, in keeping with the spirit of Kurt Lewin’s “action research,” environmental psychology seeks to unite scientific inquiry with practical applications. Beyond merely analyzing the nature of people-environment interactions, it is dedicated to enhancing and optimizing these interactions through more effective urban planning and environmental design.
Thirdly, environmental psychology thrives on its multidisciplinary nature. It draws insights and methodologies from a wide array of fields, including architecture, urban planning, psychology, anthropology, sociology, geography, and others. This interdisciplinary perspective enriches the study of environment and behavior by integrating various viewpoints.
However, the multidisciplinary character of environmental psychology also contributes to its versatility and complexity. Rather than adhering to a single, well-defined paradigm or research tradition, the field encompasses diverse research areas and perspectives that cut across multiple disciplines. This diversity is unified by a shared commitment to understanding how individuals engage with their sociophysical surroundings.
In essence, while environmental psychology is often considered a subset of psychological research, it is more aptly described as an integral part of the larger multidisciplinary field dedicated to the study of environment and behavior. Consequently, the terms environmental psychology and environment-behavior studies are often used interchangeably to reflect the field’s broad and inclusive orientation.
Social and Academic Origins of Environmental Psychology
The birth of environmental psychology as a legitimate scientific field in the late 1960s can be attributed to a confluence of social events and academic advancements. On a societal level, the tumultuous 1960s witnessed a growing awareness of pressing environmental issues, including the detrimental consequences of overpopulation, environmental pollution, racial tensions, and urban strife. The 1970s and 1980s further solidified public concerns, with highly publicized technological disasters such as the Love Canal incident in New York, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant incident in Pennsylvania, and the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, underscoring the urgency of addressing environmental problems. Additionally, instances of “dysfunctional architecture” like the demolition of the Pruitt Igoe low-income housing project in St. Louis in 1972 shed light on the failure of certain residential and neighborhood environments to meet the behavioral and social needs of their residents.
Simultaneously, within the academic realm, a growing body of scientific research delved into topics such as population density, air pollution, energy conservation, and racial conflict. This research spurred the development of more comprehensive theories and research methodologies aimed at exploring the intricate relationships between individuals and their everyday environments. In the field of psychology, scholars began to direct their focus toward the broader sociophysical environment and its impacts on cognitive processes, social behavior, lifespan development, and overall well-being. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed this shift in psychology and similar concerns emerging in sociology, anthropology, geography, and urban planning. Consequently, this intellectual ferment led to the establishment of new academic journals, professional organizations, and graduate programs dedicated to the study of environment and behavior.
Scientific Foundations and Contributions of Environmental Psychology
The scientific underpinnings of environmental psychology draw from both the behavioral sciences and the fields of design and planning. Notably, architects and urban planners have played pivotal roles in shaping the discipline. The establishment of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), the largest and oldest professional organization in the realm of environment and behavior, was significantly influenced by professionals in the design and planning sectors. Furthermore, international organizations like the International Association for People-Environment Studies (IAPS) in Europe, People and Physical Environment Research (PAPER) in Australia and New Zealand, and the Man-Environment Research Association (MERA) in Japan were founded with substantial input from design and planning experts.
The inaugural EDRA conference in 1969 was co-organized by architects Henry Sanoff from the School of Design at North Carolina State University and Sidney Cohn from the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Since its inception, EDRA has convened annual conferences dedicated to environmental design research and has published conference proceedings dating back to 1970. A core objective of EDRA is to facilitate the creation of environments that effectively cater to users’ needs by fostering collaboration between design professionals and behavioral scientists. EDRA’s membership, much like that of IAPS, PAPER, and MERA, comprises researchers and practitioners from a diverse range of fields, including architecture, facilities management, urban planning, psychology, sociology, anthropology, geography, and natural resources management.
The influence of the design and planning professions on the trajectory of environmental psychology is evident in the formulation of behaviorally grounded guidelines aimed at enhancing the alignment between occupants’ needs and activities and the physical and social attributes of their environments. For instance, the book “A Pattern Language” (1977) by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, and others presents 253 guidelines rooted in psychological, social, and aesthetic principles to optimize the comfort, attractiveness, and overall quality of physical spaces. Similarly, Clara Cooper Marcus and Wendy Sarkissian (1986) offer 254 site-design guidelines for improving the quality of residential environments. Additionally, Stephen Carr, Mark Francis, Leanne Rivlin, and Andrew Stone (1992) outline several criteria for the effective design of public spaces.
Another longstanding concern in environmental design research has been the development of post-occupancy evaluation (POE) methods to assess how well buildings and other designed environments function and fulfill the needs and activities of their users. POE is closely related to predesign research (PDR), which is conducted before the design and construction of built environments to ensure that occupants’ requirements are considered by design professionals and integrated into their plans for future developments.
The evolution of environmental psychology has also been significantly influenced by theoretical and methodological perspectives stemming from the behavioral sciences. In the 1970s, the American Psychological Association established the Division of Population and Environmental Psychology. Concurrently, the Environmental Section of the Canadian Psychological Association and the Environment and Technology, as well as Community and Urban Sociology sections of the American Sociological Association, were established. An influential edited volume, “Environmental Psychology” (Proshansky, Ittelson, & Rivlin, 1970), was published during this period. Doctoral training programs focusing on environmental psychology, environment-behavior studies, and social ecology were established at institutions such as the City University of New York, the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and the University of California, Irvine. This era also witnessed the publication of major reference works and monograph series, including “Handbook of Environmental Psychology” (Stokols & Altman, 1987), “Human Behavior and Environment—Advances in Theory and Research” (Altman & Wohlwill, 1976), “Advances in Environmental Psychology” (Baum, Singer, & Valins, 1978), and “Advances in Environment, Behavior, and Design” (Zube & Moore, 1991). Additionally, summaries of developments in environmental psychology have been featured in the Annual Review of Psychology since 1973. During this period, several journals dedicated to environment-behavior studies were established, including “Environment and Behavior” (Sage Publications), the “Journal of Environmental Psychology” (Academic Press), and the “Journal of Architecture and Planning Research” (Locke Science Publishing Company).
In the past three decades, numerous topics have been the subject of extensive theoretical and empirical exploration among environment-behavior researchers. One such topic examined the role of physical space in regulating social behavior, a subject studied by sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists during the early phase of environment-behavior research. For example, a study conducted by Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, and Kurt Back (1950) at MIT documented the effects of spatial proximity on the development of neighbors’ friendships, their political attitudes, and consumer behavior. Edward Hall’s anthropological research (1966) later revealed significant cross-cultural variations in how individuals use space in social situations. This work laid the foundation for Robert Sommer’s experimental investigations into personal space (1969) and Irwin Altman’s theoretical model (1975) exploring the relationships among privacy, personal space, territoriality, and crowding. Sommer’s and Altman’s studies were firmly rooted in social psychology, while Oscar Newman’s theory of defensible space (1973) offered a sociological perspective on aspects of housing design that either facilitate or restrict residents’ ability to monitor and control their apartment buildings and neighborhoods.
A significant influence on the trajectory of environment-behavior research was Roger Barker’s theory of behavior settings (1968). This theory proposed the existence of systematically organized environmental units that occur at specific times and places, encompassing both physical components and a behavioral program. The behavior-setting concept introduced a more holistic and dynamic unit for environmental analysis, contrasting with the micro-level stimuli and short-term situations emphasized in earlier psychological theories. Through a series of comprehensive studies, Barker and his colleagues explored the diversity and distribution of behavior settings within entire communities. They also identified systemic processes, such as under- and overstaffing, that regulate the stability and growth of specific settings (Barker & Schoggen, 1973; Wicker, 1979).
In a separate research program, Rudolph Moos (1976) presented a theoretical framework for understanding the social climate within organizational and institutional environments. He also developed a battery of questionnaires designed to measure the dimensions of social climate and their impact on psychological and social outcomes in residential, educational, and occupational settings.
The growing emphasis on examining multiple levels and more comprehensive units of environmental analysis, as demonstrated in Barker’s work, was also reflected in various other programs of environment-behavior research. Within perceptual and cognitive psychology, distinctions were made between environmental and object perception (Ittelson, 1973) and between fundamental and macrospatial cognition (Moore & Golledge, 1976). Researchers introduced tasks like sketch maps, wayfinding, and photographic-recognition to assess the imageability of urban environments, extending previous studies that focused on perceptual and cognitive processes related to discrete stimuli and objects, rather than larger-scale physical settings. Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) introduced an ecological theory of human development, highlighting the developmental significance of large-scale environments, including the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. Powell Lawton and Lucile Nahemow (1973) contributed an ecological analysis of environmental competence in older adults. Additionally, Kenneth Craik (1976) conceptualized environmental dispositions, which described individuals’ response tendencies toward urban and natural environments and complemented the traditional trait constructs of personality psychology.
Furthermore, three other areas of inquiry have generated sustained research programs and contributed significantly to the study of environment and behavior. Environmental assessment studies have provided new methodological tools, including perceived environmental quality indices (Craik & Zube, 1976) and environmental simulation techniques (Appleyard & Craik, 1978; Marans & Stokols, 1993). These methods have been employed to assess people’s reactions to existing or hypothetical settings, such as residential, recreational, and healthcare environments. Additionally, behavioral mapping protocols (Ittelson, Rivlin, & Proshansky, 1976) and behavior-setting surveys (Barker & Schoggen, 1973) have been developed for recording individual and group activity patterns within buildings, public parks, and entire communities.
In their pioneering investigations of environmental stress, David Glass and Jerome Singer (1972) uncovered the behavioral consequences of exposure to unpredictable and uncontrollable noise. They also expanded on Lazarus’s earlier work (1966) concerning psychological stress arising from perceived environmental threats and applied it to the study of “urban stressors.” These stress studies, along with subsequent research, have utilized various methods, including observation, self-reporting, and physiological measures, to gauge individuals’ responses to environmental challenges such as aircraft noise in residential areas, traffic congestion on urban roads, technological disasters, and extended periods of overtime work in occupational contexts (Baum & Fleming, 1993; Evans, Bullinger, & Hygge, 1998; Frankenhaeuser, 1980; Stokols, Novaco, Stokols, & Campbell, 1978).
As a countermeasure to environmental stressors, the concept of “restorative environments” has been developed, including natural settings like wilderness and gardens. These environments are seen as places that alleviate stress by providing opportunities for spontaneous and voluntary attention and offering an escape from one’s routine (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Korpela & Hartig, 1996; Ulrich, 1984).
Furthermore, studies examining environmentally protective behavior have applied psychological theories to issues related to resource scarcity, pollution, and conservation. For example, Peter Everett (1974) and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University developed token reinforcement strategies to modify travel behavior, which were found to effectively increase bus ridership in various field experiments. Other strategies, such as cash rebates, social recognition, and feedback on the consequences of environmentally responsible behavior, have proven effective in changing patterns of household energy consumption, waste management, and recycling (Scott Geller, Richard Winett, & Peter Everett, 1982). More recently, Paul Stern (1992) provided a significant analysis of the behavioral factors underlying global environmental change.
Future Directions of Environmental Psychology
The scientific advancements discussed above indicate that environmental psychology has made significant progress in the past three decades, providing new conceptual and methodological tools to enhance our understanding of interactions between people and their environments. Environmental psychology stands out in the field of behavioral research due to its focus on several key aspects:
- Impact of Large-Scale Environments: It emphasizes how the physical and social aspects of everyday environments on a large scale influence human behavior and well-being.
- Reciprocal Transactions: It explores the dynamic, bidirectional interactions occurring among individuals, groups, and their sociophysical surroundings.
- Natural and Built Environments: It considers both natural and constructed environments and their effects on behavior and psychology.
- Objective and Perceived Environment: It examines how both objective and perceived (subjective) qualities of the environment influence human behavior.
- Multidisciplinary Nature: It operates as a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary field, drawing from various disciplines.
- Dual Emphasis: It focuses on both basic research and theory development and the practical application of findings in community problem-solving and environmental design, reflecting an action-research orientation.
Looking ahead, the future of environmental psychology is likely to be shaped by five major social concerns that have emerged in recent decades and are expected to become increasingly prominent in the 21st century:
- Toxic Contamination and Global Ecosystem Changes: Addressing issues related to toxic contamination of environments and the rapid transformation of the global ecosystem.
- Violence at Regional and International Levels: Understanding and mitigating the spread of violence in various regions and on an international scale.
- Impact of Information Technologies: Studying the pervasive influence of information technologies on work and family life.
- Healthcare Costs and Disease Prevention: Tackling the rising costs of healthcare delivery and emphasizing disease prevention and health promotion strategies.
- Social Aging: Investigating the processes of social aging in the United States and other parts of the world.
Environmental psychologists are expected to continue playing a crucial role in addressing these community challenges. They will contribute by developing innovative theoretical frameworks and empirical analyses and by formulating effective strategies for environmental design and public policy to address and resolve these pressing issues.
Environmental Psychology Bibliography:
- Appleyard. D. A.. & Craik. K. H. (1978). The Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory and its research program. International Review of Applied Psychology, 27, 53-55.
- Baum. A.. & Fleming. I. (1993). Implications of psychological research on stress and technological accidents. American Psychologist, 48. 665-672.
- Bronfenbrenner. U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.
- Carr. S.. Francis. M.. Rivlin. L.. & Stone. A. (1992). Public space. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Cooper Marcus. C.. & Sarkissian. W. (1986). Housing as ff people mattered. Berkeley. CA: University of California Press.
- Craik. K. H. (1976). The personality research paradigm in environmental psychology. In S. Wapner. S. Cohen. & B. Kaplan (Eds.). Experiencing the environment (pp. 55-80). New York: Plenum Press.
- Craik. K. H.. & Zube. E. H. (Eds.). (1976). Perceiving environmental quality: Research and applications. New York: Plenum Press.
- Evans. G. W.. Bullinger. M.. & Hygee. S. (1998). Chronic noise exposure and physiological response: A prospective study of children living under environmental stress. Psychological Science, 9. 75-77.
- Everett. P. B.. Hayward. S.. & Meyers. A. W. (1974). The effects of a token reinforcement procedure on bus ridership. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis. 7, 110.
- Festinger. L.. Schachter. S.. & Back. K. (1950). Social pressures in informal groups. New York: Harper.
- Frankenhaeuser. M. (1980). Psychoneuroendocrine approaches to the study of stressful person environment transactions. In H. Selve (Ed.). Selye’s guide to stress research (Vol. 1, pp. 46-70). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
- Ittelson. W. H .. Rivlin. L. G .. & Proshansky. H. M. (1976). The use of behavioral maps in environmental psychology. In H. M. Proshansky. W. H. Ittelson. & l. G. Rivlin (Eds.). Environmental psychology: People and their physical settings (2nd ed., pp. 340-351). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston. Kaplan. R .. & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Korpela, K., & Hartig, 1′. (1996). Restorative qualities of favorite places. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16, 221-233.
- Lawton, M. P.. & Nahemow, L. (1973). Ecology and the aging process. In E. Eisdorfer & M. P. Lawton (Eds.), Psychology of adult development and aging (pp. 619-674). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and social problems. Journal of Social Issues, .2, 34-36.
- Marans, R. W. . & Stokols. D. (1993). Environmental simulation: Research and policy issues. New York: Plenum Press.
- Milgram. S., & Jodelet. D. (1976). Psychological maps of Paris. In H. M. Proshansky, W. H. Ittelson, & L. G. Rivlin (Eds.), Environmental psychology (2nd ed., pp. 104-124). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston,
- Preiser, W. F. E. (Ed.). (1989). Building evaluation. New York: Plenum Press.
- Stern, P. C. (19921. Psychological dimensions of global environmental change. Annual Review of Psychology, 43, 269-302.
- Stokols. D. (1995). The paradox of environmental psychology. American Psychologist, 50, 821-837.
- Stokols, D., Novaco, R. W. . Stokols, J., & Campbell, J. (1978). Traffic congestion, type-A behavior, and stress. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63, 467-480.
- Ulrich. R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224. 420-421.
- Wicker, A. W. (1979). An introduction to ecological psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Zeisel. J. (1981). Inquiry by design: Tools for environment-behavior research. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Major Publications and Reference Works in Environmental Psychology
- Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S.. Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M. Fiksdahl-King, I.. & Angel. S. (1977). A pattern language. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Altman, L. (1975). Environment and social behavior: Privacy, personal space, territory, and crowding. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Altman. I., & Wohlwill, J. F. (Eds.). (1976). Human behavior and environment: Advances in theory and research Vol. 1. New York: Plenum Press.
- Barker, R. C. (1968). Ecological psychology: Concepts and methods for studying the environment of human behavior. Stanford. CA: Stanford University Press.
- Barker. R. G., & Schoggen, P. (1973). Qualities of community life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Baum, A., Singer, J. E.. & Valins, S. (Eds.). (1978). Advances in environmental psychology: Vol. I. The urban environment. Hillsdale. NJ: Erlbaum.
- Bechtel. R. B. O997). Environment and behavior: An introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Glass, D. C., & Singer, J. E. (1972). Urban stress. New York: Academic Press.
- Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Ittelson, W. H. (1973). Environment and cognition. New York: Seminar Press.
- Lazarus, R. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Moore, G. T., & Golledge, R. G. (Eds.). (1976). Environmental knowing. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson, & Ross.
- Moos, R. H. (1976). The human context: Environmental determinants of behavior. New York: Wiley.
- Newman, O. (1973). Defensible space: Crime prevention through urban design. New York: Macmillan.
- Proshansky, H. M., Ittelson, W. H., & Rivlin. L. (Eds.). (1976). Environmental psychology: People and their physical settings (2nd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
- Sommer, R. (1969). Personal space: The behavioral basis of design. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Stokols, D., & Altman, 1. (Eds.). (1987). Handbook of environmental psychology (Vols. 1-2). New York: Wiley.
- Zube, E. H.. & Moore, G. T. (Eds.). (1991). Advances in environment, behavior, and design (Vol. 3). New York: Plenum Press.