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Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field focused on the interplay between humans and their surroundings.


Although "environmental psychology" is arguably the best-known and more comprehensive description of the field, it is also known as environmental social sciences, architectural psychology, socio-architecture, ecological psychology, ecopsychology, behavioral geography, environment-behavior studies, person-environment studies, environmental sociology, social ecology, and environmental design research; each advanced by different researchers, sometimes used interchangeably, sometimes with recognized gaps and overlaps between the terms. This multidisciplinary field draws on work in a number of disciplines including anthropology, geography, ekistics, sociology, psychology, history, political science, engineering, planning, architecture, urban design and, of course, aesthetics.

The varied names for the field accurately reflect an ongoing debate about its proper scope, for example, whether or not it includes study of human interaction with the natural environment. "Environmental design" is generally understood to describe design activities focused on the natural environment and sustainability as well as concern with the planned environment which humans build - the "artificial" or designed physical environment - and its ability to meet community needs. Only a small portion of the built environment is attributable to architects, so a focus on "architectural psychology" is seen as too narrow. Generally speaking, individuals associated with the field are interested in better understanding the relationships between people and their environments so that this knowledge can be applied to problematic real-world situations.


Since the late 1990s, the field has seen significant research findings and a fair surge of interest in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but has challenges of nomenclature, obtaining objective and repeatable results, scope, and the fact that some research rests on underlying assumptions about human perception, which is not fully understood.

In the words of Guido Francescato, speaking in 2000, environmental psychology encompasses a "somewhat bewildering array of disparate methodologies, conceptual orientations, and interpretations... making it difficult to delineate, with any degree of precision, just what the field is all about and what might it contribute to the construction of society and the unfolding of history."

Behavior settings[]

The first significant findings in environmental psychology can be traced back to researcher Roger Barker, who founded his research station in the tiny Kansas town of Oskaloosa (renamed "Midwest" for publication) in 1947, and ran it for several decades.

From detailed field observations he developed the theory that social settings influence behavior. In a store, people assume their roles as customers; in school and church, proper behavior somehow already resides coded in the place. Barker spent his career expanding on what he called ecological psychology, identifying these behavior settings, and publishing accounts like "One Boy's Day" (1951). Some of the minute-by-minute observations of Kansan children from morning to night, jotted down by young and maternal graduate students, may be the most intimate and poignant documents in social science. The "behavior setting" remains a valid principle which receives serious attention.

Barker argued that the psychologist should use T-Methods (psychologist as 'transducer': i.e. methods which study man in his 'natural environment') rather than O-Methods (psychologist as "operator" i.e. experimental methods). In other words, he preferred field work and direct observation.


In the mid 1950s anthropologist E. T. Hall wrote "The Hidden Dimension" which developed and popularized the concepts of personal space and his more general name for this field, proxemics. He defined proxemics as, ". . . the study of how man unconsciously structures microspace - the distance between men in the conduct of daily transactions, the organization of space in his houses and buildings, and ultimately the layout of his towns."

Hall defined and measured four interpersonal "zones":

  • intimate (0 to 18 inches)
  • personal (18 inches to 4 feet)
  • social (4 feet to 12 feet)
  • public (12 feet and beyond)

In "The Hidden Dimension" he famously observed that the precise distance we feel 'comfortable' with other people being near us is culturally determined: Saudis, Norwegians, Milanese and Japanese will have differing notions of 'close'. In one of his best known empirical studies, Hall carried out an analysis of employee reactions to Eero Saarinen's last work, the John Deere World Headquarters Building.

University of Surrey[]

The Graduate Center of the City University of New York[]

The Environmental Psychology PhD Program at The 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 PhD 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.'"

Students and faculty often work on collaborative projects for the Center for Human Environments.

University of Strathclyde[]

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.


Impact on the Built Environment[]

Ultimately, environmental psychology is oriented towards influencing the work of design professionals (architects, landscape architects, engineers, interior designers, urban planners, etc.) and thereby improving the human environment.

On a civic scale, efforts towards improving pedestrian landscapes have paid off to some extent, involving figures like Jane Jacobs and Copenhagen's Jan Gehl. One prime figure here is the late writer and researcher William H. Whyte and his still-refreshing and perceptive "City", based on his accumulated observations of skilled Manhattan pedestrians, steps, and patterns of use in urban plazas.

No equivalent organized knowledge of environmental psychology has developed out of architecture. Most prominent American architects, led until recently by Philip Johnson who was very strong on this point, view their job as an art form. They see little or no responsibility for the social or functional impact of their designs, which was highlighted with failure of public high-rise housing like Pruitt Igoe.

Environmental psychology has conquered one whole architectural genre, although it's a bitter victory: retail stores, and any other commercial venue where the power to manipulate the mood and behavior of customers, places like stadiums, casinos, malls, and now airports. From Philip Kotler's landmark paper on Atmospherics and Alan Hirsch's "Effects of Ambient Odors on Slot-Machine Usage in a Las Vegas Casino", through the creation and management of the Gruen transfer, retail relies heavily on psychology, original research, focus groups, and direct observation. One of William Whyte's students, Paco Underhill, makes a living as a "shopping anthropologist". Most of this most-advanced research remains a trade secret and proprietary.

Density and Crowding[]

As environmental psychologists have theorized that density and crowding can have an adverse effect on mood and even cause stress-related illness. Accordingly, environmental and architectural designs could be adapted to minimize the effects of crowding in situations when crowding cannot be avoided. Factors that reduce feelings of crowding within buildings include:

  • Windows, particularly openable ones, and ones that provide a view as well as light
  • High ceilings
  • Doors to divide spaces (Baum and Davies) and provide access control
  • Room shape: square rooms feel less crowded than rectangular ones (Dresor)
  • Using partitions to create smaller, personalized spaces within an open plan office or larger work space.
  • Providing increases in cognitive control over aspects of the internal environment, such as ventilation, light, privacy, etc.
  • Conducting a cognitive appraisal of an environment and feelings of crowding in different settings. For example, one might be comfortable with crowding at a concert but not in school corridors.
  • Creating a defensible space (Calhoun)


Noise increases environmental stress. Although it has been found that control and predictability are the greatest factors in stressful effects of noise; context, pitch, source and habituation are also important variables [1].

Noise in indoor setting such as pubs can cause a huge problems to those experiencing it several studies have made it clear what the effect of being exposure to chronic noise can cause, this include disrupting reading (Bronzaft & McCarthy, 1975; Evans & Maxwell, 1997),memory impairment (Hygge, Evans, & Bullinger, 2002) physiological stress responses (Evans, Hygge, & Bullinger, 1995). There is also mounting research to suggest chronic noise exposure has adverse effects on cardiovascular health and other outcomes (e.g., Ising &Braun, 2000; Ising & Kruppa, 2004),

Personal Space and Territory[]

Having an area of personal territory in a public space e.g. at the office is a key feature of many architectural designs. Having such a 'defensible space' (term coined by Calhoun during his experiment on rats) can reduce the negative effects of crowding in urban environments. Creation of personal space is achieved by placing barriers and personalising the space, for example using pictures of one's family. This increases cognitive control as one sees oneself as having control over the entrants to the personal space and therefore able to control the level of density and crowding in the space.

Environmental Cognition[]

Environmental Stimulation

Human beings only function optimally with moderate levels of stimulation. If they are to have a lack of it generally leads them to boredom. However, if they have too much stimulation it can cause distraction and possible cognitive overload which interferes with their cognitive processes that demand their effort or concentration. Becoming over stimulated makes it impossible to focus attention and interrupts ongoing, planned actions patterns (Wohlwill, 1974). The levels of stimulation can become influenced by properties of interior settings such as intensity and complexity. Loud noises, bright lights, unusual or strong smells and bright colours all appear to increase stimulation (Berlyne, 1971)

Other contributors[]

Other significant researchers and writers in this field include:

  • Irwin Altman
  • Jay Appleton, British geographer who proposed 'habitat theory' and advanced the notion of 'prospect and refuge'
  • David Chapin Professor of Environmental Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
  • Anita Blanchard, who applied behavior setting theory to "Virtual Behavior Settings", expanding Wicker's work into computer-mediated environments.
  • Alain de Botton
  • Karen Franck
  • Robert Gifford, current Editor of the Journal of Environmental Psychology and author of Environmental Psychology: Principles and Practice (4th edition, 2007).
  • J.J. Gibson, best known for coining the word affordance, a description of what the environment offers the animal in terms of action
  • Paul Gump, who continued Barker's work in Oskaloosa and did the seminal "Boy's Camp" and "Big School, Small School" studies (with Barker)
  • Roger Hart Professor of Environmental Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
  • Daniel Henry, who applied classic theories of behavior settings to online built environments, and coined the term "Computer-Mediated Behavior Settings".
  • Bill Hillier and space syntax
  • C. Ray Jeffery coined the phrase Crime Prevention Through Urban Design or CPTED
  • Rachel Kaplan
  • Stephen Kaplan
  • Cindi Katz Professor of Environmental Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
  • Setha Low Professor of Environmental Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
  • Kevin A. Lynch and his research into the formation of mental maps
  • Harold Proshansky
  • Amos Rapoport
  • Leanne Rivlin Professor of Environmental Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
  • Edward Sadalla
  • Susan Saegert, director of the Center for Human Environments at the City University of New York
  • Phil Schoggen, who worked with Barker and Wright in Oskaloosa and published the seminal book "Behavior Settings" which summarizes and expands the theory.
  • Myrtle Scott, who applied behavior setting theory to special education and industrial settings, and who taught eco-environmental psychology at Indiana University.
  • 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.
  • Roger Ulrich
  • Alan 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

See also[]

References & Bibliography[]

  1. Isling (1990)

Key texts[]


  • Bell P., Greene T., Fisher, J., & Baum, A. (1996). Environmental Psychology. Ft Worth: Harcourt Brace.
  • Gifford, R. (2007). Environmental Psychology: Principles and Practice (4th ed.). Colville, WA: Optimal Books.
  • Ittelson, W. H., Proshansky, H., Rivlin, L., & Winkel, G. (1974). An Introduction to Environmental Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Translated into German and Japanese.
  • Stokols, D. and I. Altman [Eds.] (1987). Handbook of Environmental Psychology. New York: Wiley.
  • Zube, E.H., and Moore, G.T.[Eds.] (1991). Advances in Environment, Behavior, and Design, Volume 3. New York: Plenum Press.


Bell P., Greene T., Fisher, J., & Baum, A. (1996). Environmental Psychology. Ft Worth: Harcourt Brace.

Ittelson, W. H., Proshansky, H., Rivlin, L., & Winkel, G. (1974). An Introduction to Environmental Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Translated into German and Japanese.

Stokols, D. and I. Altman [Eds.] (1987). Handbook of Environmental Psychology. New York: Wiley.

Additional material[]



External links[]

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Environmental psychology - Academic support materials

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  • Environmental psychology - Anonymous fictional case studies for training

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