Environmental psychologists study how human behavior and the physical environment interrelate. Decision making and behavior make an impact on environmental quality—did you walk, bike, drive, or use public transit to get to school today? The physical environment also affects behavior. Crowding illustrates how the physical environment can affect human behavior.
Psychologists distinguish between crowding, a psychological construct wherein the amount of space available is less than desired, and purely physical indices of physical space such as density. Density is typically indexed as people per room or people per square foot. More external density measures like people per acre are less relevant for human well-being. The more immediate experience of the close presence of others, particularly in living and working spaces, matters most. The distinction between psychological and physical perspectives on crowding explains why a high-density social event (e.g., party) is fun, whereas a high-density living or work space can be negative. When you need more space and can’t have it, you experience crowding.
The most common reaction to crowding is stress, particularly over time and in an important space like home. For example when it is crowded, people typically have negative feelings such as anxiety and frustration about restricted behavioral options. Our choices of what, where, and when we do things are constrained. If these restrictions are experienced repeatedly, crowding can also lead to feelings of helplessness wherein we start to question our own ability to effectively manage the environment. Studies in India and in the United States have found that children and adolescents who live in more crowded homes, independent of socioeconomic status, are less likely to persist on challenging puzzles, giving up sooner than those living under uncrowded conditions.
When people experience crowding, their social interactions change. Two results are common: They withdraw from others, creating more psychological space when physical space is limited, and they become more irritable and potentially aggressive. The natural tendency to cope with crowding by social withdrawal may become a characteristic way of interacting with others. For example, one study of college roommates found that when they initially moved in together, the number of people per room in their apartment was unrelated to how much social support they perceived from their housemates. But after 6 months of living together, more crowded undergraduates felt more withdrawn and less social support from their roommates. When these college students were brought into a laboratory to interact with a stranger, they exhibited this same more socially withdrawn style. Furthermore, when the stranger (who was really a confederate working with the experimenter) offered them some emotional support during a stressful experience, the higher the density of the apartment the student lived in, the less likely they were to accept the stranger’s offer of support. Thus, even when in an uncrowded situation, students who had adapted to living under more crowded conditions were more withdrawn and less receptive to offers of social support. Parents in more crowded homes are also less responsive to their children.
One of the ways researchers mark whether a situation is stressful or not is to use physiological measures like blood pressure or stress hormones (e.g., cortisol, epinephrine). If crowding is a stressor, then it should affect these physiological measures. Both laboratory research, usually with college students, and community studies provide evidence that crowding can cause physiological stress. If you carefully observe yourself or others who are in a crowded situation, you can also see nonverbal indicators of stress. For example when it’s crowded, people will fidget; adjust their clothes, hair, jewelry, and so on; and often avoid eye contact. Next time you are in a very crowded setting (e.g., elevator, train), see if you notice a link between how crowded the setting is and how much these behaviors occur.
Will crowding make you seriously disturbed or damage your health? Will it ruin your grades and undermine your college experience because you are in a dorm room that isn’t big enough? No, but it will probably lead to more distress and more social withdrawal, especially from your roommates. If you have an exam to study for or a difficult, challenging task, crowding could have some negative effects. Laboratory experiments show that crowding impairs complex, but not simple, task performance. If the task is demanding, requiring a lot of effort and attention to multiple components, it is likely to suffer under crowded conditions.
What about individual differences in sensitivity to crowding—does everyone respond the same way to a crowded situation? If you are studying and your friend is talking with his friends, crowding is likely to have drastically different effects on each of you. Men may react more physiologically to crowding, their blood pressure and stress hormones elevating more, whereas women (at least initially) try to get along with those around them when it’s crowded. However, over time, if these attempts are unsuccessful, women may actually react more negatively because their attempts at affiliation prove futile. One study of tripled college dorm rooms designed for two people found more psychological distress in women than in men, but it took more time for this to occur in the females. The tripled-up men, but not the women, evidenced elevated stress hormones. How about culture or ethnicity? Some groups of people (e.g., Asian, Latin Americans) do indeed perceive high-density situations as less crowded than do others (e.g., White and Black North Americans). But their negative reactions to crowding are similar across cultures. The threshold to experience crowding may be different, but once it happens, their reactions are parallel to one another.
One final topic worth brief mention is the potential role of architecture and design in crowding. Space is not simply area or volume. For example, in a study of elementary school children, the impacts of residential density were related to the type of housing. Children living in larger, multifamily residences, independently of social class, reacted more negatively to higher-density living spaces than did children living in single-family homes. There is also evidence that having some space in your home where you can at least temporally be alone (refuge) can offset some of the negative impacts of crowding. Crowding is but one example of the many ways in which human behavior and the physical environment can influence one another.
- Bechtel, R. B. (1997). Environment and behavior. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Bell, P. A., Greene, T. C., Fisher, J. D., & Baum, A. (1996). Environmental psychology (3rd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College.
- Evans, G. W. (2001). Environmental stress and health. In A. Baum, T. Revenson, & J. E. Singer (Eds.), Health psychology (pp. 365-385).
- Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Evans, G. W. (2006). Child development and the physical environment. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 423-451.
- Gifford, R. (2002). Environmental psychology (3rd ed.). Vancouver, BC: Optimal Books.