Environmental psychology is a field of study that examines the relationship between individuals and their surroundings.
Researchers in the field of environmental psychology are concerned with the environmental context of human behaviors and the ways in which humans have an innate need to process the information conveyed by their surroundings in order to comprehend their environment. The term environment includes the natural environment, as well as social, work, and school environments, and any other circumstances surrounding individuals.
The study of environmental psychology emerged in the United States in the late 1950s–60s. In 1958, a research group was formed at the City University of New York by William Ittelson, Leanne Rivlin, and Harold Proshansky; they first coined the term and later used it in the title of their 1970 book, Environ-mental Psychology: Man and His Physical Setting.
Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field incorporating and having applications in different fields, including social psychology, ecology, social work, anthropology, architecture, and urban planning. For example, psychologists may study the effect that the architecture of public schools has on students’ learning. Ittelson and Proshansky also studied the effects of psychiatric ward design on patients. The related term architectural psychology came into use in the 1960s as part of a broader movement focusing on architectural sciences.
Environmental psychology is concerned with addressing social problems such as overcrowding and focuses on the concept of proxemics, a term coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1914–2009) to mean “the study of man's perception and use of space.” The four components of proxemics are: (1) privacy, the control of others’ access to oneself; (2) territoriality, the sense of ownership and defense of areas and objects; (3) crowding, increased or excessive density of individuals leading to the desire for reduced contact with others; and (4) personal space, the maintenance of an intrusion-free zone around an individual, which is considered personal territory.
All humans are believed to require at least some degree of personal space; however, this need varies based on factors such as gender and culture. Social norms regarding personal space are generally set using nonverbal communication between individuals, and in many cases people may be unaware they are communicating these boundaries. Environmental psychologists study the ways in which humans construct and communicate about personal space.
Suboptimal conditions in an individual's environment may cause stress and lead to decreased quality of life. Stress activates the body's fight-or-flight response, and chronic stress has been linked to a variety of health problems, including compromised immune system response, cardiovascular problems, inflammatory response, and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Examples of environmental stressors include air pollution, noise pollution, heavy traffic, and overcrowding. These may be acute and temporary or chronic. Chronic environmental stressors are often present in urban areas and have more negative consequences than the acute type.
Environmental psychology is considered a valueoriented field because it focuses not only on identifying problems but also on developing solutions for the wellbeing of individuals and betterment of society. It aims to influence professionals such as architects and engineers to make design and energy decisions that promote the wellbeing of individuals and improve the environment. For example, a designer may choose to reduce the feeling of crowding in an indoor space by including windows that open, high ceilings, room dividers, or doors.
Other studies on the relationship between individuals and their environments may be conducted for commercial interests. For example, Alan Hirsch (1959–) studied the effects of various aromas on gambling habits in a Las Vegas casino and found that adding certain odorants to the environment surrounding slot machines led to increased spending by patrons.
Early research in the field of environmental psychology was largely focused on built environments. Subsequently, with growing attention to sustainability issues, research into the relationship between individuals and the natural environment increased. Study topics include responses to concerns such as overpopulation, climate change, and the depletion of nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels.
Related fields of ecopsychology and conservation psychology have emerged; they focus on how humans affect the natural world, with the goals of promoting environmental ethics and fostering a harmonious relationship between humans and the natural world. The binary of built versus natural environments has been found to be limiting, however, since in most cases the two are entwined rather than separate. For example, even in urban settings there is access to parks and trees, and even the most secluded natural setting can show signs of human intervention or presence.
See also Applied psychology ; Industrial psychology ; Stress .
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Society for Environmental, Population, and Conservation Psychology, 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC, 20002, (202) 216-7602, http://www.apadivisions.org .