Environmental Psychology is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on the interplay between individuals as psychosocial agents, in situ, environmental context, their surroundings. It examines the way in which the natural and our built environments shape us. Members of the field define the term “environment” broadly, encompassing natural environments, social settings, built environments, learning environments, and informational environments.
Environmental psychology was not fully recognized as its own field until the late 1960s when scientists began to question assumptions about human behavior divorced from the context of natural and built environments.
Since its conception, the field has been committed to the development of a discipline that is both value-oriented and problem-oriented, prioritizing research aimed at solving complex environmental problems in the pursuit of individual well-being within a larger society.
When solving problems involving human-environment interactions, whether global or local, one must have a model of human nature that predicts the environmental conditions under which humans will respond well.
This model can help design, manage, protect and/or restore environments that enhance reasonable behavior, predict the likely outcomes when these conditions are not met, and diagnose problem situations. The field develops such a model of human nature while retaining a broad and inherently multidisciplinary focus.
It explores such dissimilar issues as common property resource management, wayfinding in complex settings, the effect of environmental stress on human performance, the characteristics of restorative environments, human information processing, and the promotion of durable conservation behavior. Lately, alongside the increased focus on climate change in society and the social sciences and the re-emergence of limits-to-growth concerns, there has been an increased focus on environmental sustainability issues within the field.
This multidisciplinary paradigm has not only characterized the dynamic for which environmental psychology is expected to develop. It has also been the catalyst in attracting other schools of knowledge in its pursuit, aside from research psychologists. Geographers, economists, landscape architects, policy-makers, sociologists, anthropologists, educators, and product developers all have discovered and participated in this field.
Although “environmental psychology” is arguably the best-known and most comprehensive description of the field, it is also known as human factors science, cognitive ergonomics, ecological psychology, ecopsychology, environment-behavior studies, and person-environment studies. Closely related fields include architectural psychology, socio-architecture, behavioral geography, environmental sociology, social ecology, and environmental design research.
Roger Garlock Barker (1903-1990, Social Scientist, Psychologist) along with collaborator and wife, Louise Shedd Barker (1906-2009, Zoologist, Ethologist) are considered the founders of the predominant school of Environmental Psychology. They were the leading figures of the field for decades, perhaps best known for the development of the concept of behavior settings and staffing theory.
Barker earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and spent two years studying with Kurt Lewin. In the 1940s Barker and his associate Herbert Wright from the University of Kansas in Lawrence set up the Midwest Psychological Field Station in the nearby town of Oskaloosa, Kansas, a town of fewer than 2000 people.
The Barker research team gathered empirical data in Oskaloosa from 1947 through 1972, consistently disguising the town as ‘Midwest, Kansas’ for publications like One Boy’s Day (1952) and Midwest and Its Children (1955).
Based on this data, Barker first developed the concept of the behavior setting to help explain the interplay between the individual and the immediate environment.
Possibly one of the most valuable developments of the Barkers’ work was the examination of the way in which the number and variety of behavior settings remain remarkably constant even as institutions increased in size.
This was explored in their seminal work with Paul Gump, published as Barker, Barker, R., and Gump, P. (1964) Big School Small School, Stanford: Stanford University Press. In this work, they showed that large schools had a similar number of behavior settings to small schools.
A consequence of this was that students could take many different roles in small schools (e.g. be in the school band and the school football team), while in larger schools there was a greater tendency to be selective.
Barker died at his home in Oskaloosa, Kansas in September 1990. He was survived by his wife, Louise Shedd Barker, with whom he collaborated on much of his research
Roger Barker typically is accorded the lion’s share of credit for the work and was the subject of a 2014 biography — The Outsider: The Life and Times of Roger Barker — by award-winning American journalist Ariel Sabar.
State of the ArtScience
Over time the research practices of environmental psychology resulted in its evolution into its dynamic interdisciplinary form of today, where it is applied to any number of critical research from operating rooms of hospitals, to applied queuing theory that informs the study of patrons online, at vehicle charging or filling stations, grocery checkout counters, and of increasing importance mental health care in the form of ecological counseling and group work.
Advanced industrial and advanced military settings range from submarines crews to flight crews engaged in air combat, even the efficacy of automotive wayfinding and signage in civil engineering, the instrument clusters and control interfaces of cars, trucks, trains, ships, and of course the flight decks of combat aircraft and passenger compartments of commercial airlines.
The most prominent publication on the field . . .
Journal of Environmental Psychology
Editor-in-Chief: S. van der Linden, PhD
University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, UK
Affiliated with the Division of Environmental Psychology of the International Association of Applied Psychology
The Journal of Environmental Psychology is the premier journal in the field, serving individuals in a wide range of disciplines who have an interest in the scientific study of the transactions and interrelationships between people and their surroundings (including built, social, natural and virtual environments, the use and abuse of nature and natural resources, and sustainability-related behavior).
The journal publishes internationally contributed empirical studies and reviews of research on these topics that advance new insights.
As an important forum for the field, the journal publishes some of the most influential papers in the discipline that reflect the scientific development of environmental psychology.
Contributions on theoretical, methodological, and practical aspects of all human-environment interactions are welcome, along with innovative or interdisciplinary approaches that have a psychological emphasis.
Research areas include:
✦ Psychosocial and Behavioral Aspects of People and Nature
✦ Cognitive Mapping, Spatial Cognition, and Wayfinding
✦ Ecological Consequences of Human Actions
✦ Theories of Place, Place Attachment and Place Identity
✦ Environmental Risks and Hazards: Perception, Behavior, and Management
✦ Perception and Evaluation of Buildings and Natural Landscapes
✦ Effects of Physical and Natural Settings on Human Cognition and Health
✦ Theories of Pro-Environmental Behavior, Norms, Attitudes, and Personality
✦ Psychology of Sustainability and Climate Change
✦ Psychological Aspects of Resource Management and Crises
✦ Social Use of Space: Crowding, Privacy, Territoriality, Personal Space
✦ Design of, and experiences related to, the physical aspects of Workplaces, Schools, Residences, Public Buildings, and Public Spaces
✦ Antioch University New England Graduate School offers graduate programs involving environmental education through a planning approach. With environmental psychology being such a diverse field with many different approaches, students have a variety of programs to choose from.
✦ The Environmental Psychology Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center takes a multidisciplinary approach to examining and changing “the serious problems associated with the urban environment with a view towards affecting public policy” using social science theory and research methods. The GC-CUNY was the first academic institution in the U.S. to grant a Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology. As discussed in detail on the program website, “recent research has addressed the experiences of recently housed homeless people, the privatization of public space, socio-spatial conflicts, children’s safety in the public environment, relocation, community based approaches to housing, the design of specialized environments such as museums, zoos, gardens and hospitals, the changing relationships between home, family and work, the environmental experiences of gay men and lesbians, and access to parks and other urban ‘green spaces’. See also The Center for Human Environments
✦ Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis offers undergraduate and graduate (Master of Science in Human-Environment Relations, Master of Arts in Design, and Ph.D. in Human Behavior and Design) studies in environmental psychology, interior design, sustainable design studies, human factors and ergonomics, and facility planning and management.
✦ Drexel University offers a Master of Science degree in Design Research. Of two degree paths, the Environmental Design and Health path includes study with community practitioners and researchers in the design and related fields, including health, community design, and public policy. Research typically includes data collection and engaged research practices of design thinking and participatory design. This area of investigation has the potential to create innovative health and educational partnerships, economic opportunities and neighborhood initiatives and relates to the strategic mission of the university to be highly engaged in civic sustainability.
✦ Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences offers a Master in Environmental Psychology. The focus is on how people are affected by both physical and virtual environments, as well as how people affect nature. The program offers courses on environmental behavior, environment and neuroscience, human factors, virtual environments, and cognitive design, change management and greening organizations and architecture and aesthetics.
✦ The Ohio State University City & Regional Planning Program, in the School of Architecture, offers a specialization in environmental psychology (urban design/physical planning and behavior) at both the Masters and Ph.D. level. Dissertations have examined such topics as environmental aesthetics, spatial cognition, ethnic enclaves, neighborhood decline, neighborhood satisfaction, restorative and livable places, and behavior change.
✦ Prescott College offers a master’s program that incorporates a number of the foundations of environmental psychology as well. The sub-fields in which the program provides include environmental education, environmental studies, ecology, botany, resource policy, and planning. Another description about the program is as follows: “(The program) Includes instruction in contextual theory; statistics; physiological, social, and psychological responses to natural and technological hazards and disease; environmental perception and cognition; loneliness and stress; and psychological aspects of environmental design and planning.”
✦ University of California, Irvine offers a doctoral specialization in Design & Behavior Research within the Department of Planning, Policy, and Design in the School of Social Ecology, and undergraduate coursework in Environmental Psychology offered jointly by the Departments of Psychology and Social Behavior, Planning, Policy, and Design, and the Program in Public Health.
✦ The University of Michigan offers Master of Science and Master of Arts degrees in its School for Sustainability and Environment (SEAS). The focus is on how people affect and are affected by environments and includes a pragmatic approach to promoting environmental stewardship behavior, as well as a focus on how “nearby nature” affects people’s mental vitality, physical health, and well-being. An emerging theme is helping people to remain optimistic while learning to respond well to increasingly difficult biophysical circumstances.
✦ Another strain of environmental psychology developed out of ergonomics in the 1960s. The beginning of this movement can be traced back to David Canter’s work and the founding of the “Performance Research Unit” at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1966, which expanded traditional ergonomics to study broader issues relating to the environment and the extent to which human beings were “situated” within it (cf situated cognition). Canter led the field in the UK for years and was the editor of the Journal of Environmental Psychology for over 20 years, but has recently turned his attention to criminology.
✦ The University of Surrey was the first institution that offered an architectural psychology course in the UK starting in 1973. Since then, there have been over 250 graduates from over 25 countries. The Environmental Psychology Research Group (EPRG) within the University of Surrey, of which students on the M.Sc in Environmental Psychology are automatically members, has been undertaking research for more than thirty years. EPRG’s mission is to gain a better understanding of the environmental and psychological effects of space, no matter the size, with help from social sciences, psychology, and methodologies. There are four categories under which the research projects fall: sustainable development, environmental risk, architectural assessment, and environmental design, and environmental education and interpretation. Other universities in the UK now offer courses on the subject, which is an expanding field.
Notable Researchers and Writers in Environmental Psychology
✦ Irwin Altman Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Utah
✦ Robert Gifford, Ph.D. Department of Psychology, University of Victoria. Current Editor of the Journal of Environmental Psychology and author of Environmental Psychology: Principles and Practice (5th edition, 2014).
✦ James J. Gibson is best known for coining the word affordance, a description of what the environment offers the animal in terms of action
✦ Roger Hart Professor of Environmental Psychology, Director of the Center for Human Environments and the Children’s Environments Research Group, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
✦ Rachel and Stephen Kaplan Professors of psychology at the University of Michigan, the Kaplans are known for their research on the effect of nature on people’s relationships and health, including Attention Restoration Theory and are renowned in the field of environmental psychology
✦ Cindi Katz Professor of Environmental Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
✦ Setha Low Professor of Environmental Psychology and Director of the Public Space Research Group, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
✦ Kevin A. Lynch and his research into the formation of mental maps
✦ Francis T. McAndrew Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology at Knox College and author of “Environmental Psychology” (1993).
✦ Amos Rapoport Distinguished Professor Emeritus Department of Architecture
✦ Leanne Rivlin Professor of Environmental Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
✦ Susan Saegert, Director of the Environmental Psychology Ph.D. Program and of the Housing Environments Research Group at the City University of New York
✦ Robert Sommer, a pioneer of the field who first studied personal space in the 1950s and is perhaps best known for his 1969 book Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design, but is also the author of numerous other books, including Design Awareness, and hundreds of articles.
✦ Daniel Stokols, Chancellor’s Professor, School of Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine; edited Handbook of Environmental Psychology with Irwin Altman; author, Perspectives on Environment and Behavior; co-author, Health, Behavior, and Environmental Stress with Sheldon Cohen, Gary Evans, and David Krantz
✦ Allan Wicker, who expanded behavior setting theories to include other areas of study, including qualitative research, and social psychology.
✦ Gary Winkel Professor of Environmental Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
✦ James A. Swan professor, media producer, and writer who authored one of the first popular articles on environmental education produced symposiums on the Gaia Hypothesis and the significance of place produced several documentary films on environmental topics and Co-Executive Producer of the “Wild Justice” TV series on the National Geographic Channel.