Environmental Psychology Research Paper

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Have you ever wondered why you feel anxious and a bit agitated in the midst of a large crowd of people, such as when filing into a football stadium prior to kickoff? Or why, conversely, you tend to feel relaxed and serene when sitting next to a mountain stream? Or maybe you’ve noticed that certain kinds of seating arrangements in school classrooms seem to provoke considerable interaction and class participation, while others appear to stifle any kind of verbal or interpersonal activity. If you’ve ever contemplated the various ways, both positive and negative, in which the physical environment influences your thoughts and actions, then you have something in common with those who call themselves environmental psychologists. As a subfield of the larger discipline of psychology, environmental psychology concerns itself with the many kinds of relationships that develop between human behavior and the surrounding world, including both the natural environment and the very large and complex human-made environment. In this research-paper, we’ll survey both the historical and theoretical origins of environmental psychology, the empirical findings that have emerged over nearly 40 years of research within the field, and some of the intriguing challenges that face environmental psychology in the decades to come.

History And Theoretical Roots Of Environmental Psychology

Multidisriplinary Contributions

In many ways, environmental psychology has been, from the very beginning, an amalgam, or hybrid subfield, within psychology because both its subject matter and theoretical underpinnings have been largely influenced by other subfields, including perception, Gestalt psychology, learning and cognition, and social psychology. All of these areas of research and theory had been well developed during the early decades of the 20th century, and most of them dealt, in one way or another, with the complex relationships between human beings and the environment. Of course, the environment is an encompassing variable, and it ranges from the very small to the very large. While sitting at your desk, writing a term paper for class, you may be quite narrowly focused on the computer monitor, books, notes, and coffee cup that immediately envelop you as you work. At this moment, the functional environment for you is the rather limited array of inanimate objects that lay, literally, within an arm’s distance. On the other hand, on your drive to school or work, you face the challenge of negotiating a much larger, and rapidly changing, array of stimuli—traffic lights, direction and street signs, other drivers, and the general hustle and bustle of the city. As a modern human, you move almost effortlessly from one such environment to the next, but such adaptive behavior is actually quite complex, and a source of endless fascination to environmental psychologists.

Both perceptual and Gestalt psychologists have long questioned how humans are able to solve the adaptive task of integrating and making sense of the barrage of sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations continuously provoked by the surrounding world. Similarly, learning and cognition researchers attempt to understand not only how humans effectively process information but also how they do so over time and in environments that change rapidly, sometimes during the course of a single day. Humans are unique among animals in their tendency to move in and out of such divergent environments—classrooms, stores, museums, vehicles, and sports stadiums, all of which support or occasion very different repertoires of behavior. Finally, because we have evolved as a highly social species, it should come as no surprise that many of the specialized environments we design and spend time in are created for the sole purpose of supporting different aspects of interpersonal behavior. The neighborhood bar, the tiered lecture hall, the executive boardroom, and the kindergarten playground all constitute specialized environments in which we humans try out and hone our skills in such varied tasks as mate selection, academic achievement, corporate management, or physical prowess. Such behavioral repertoires, and the settings that occasion them, have proved endlessly intriguing to the social psychologists who explore our gregarious nature.

Kurt Lewin: Social Psychologist Extraordinaire

In a nearly unprecedented campaign of aggression and imperialism, Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich marched across and laid waste to much of Europe during the 1930s. Hitler’s campaign of terror, however, proved ironically beneficial to the United States, for it provoked a mass exodus of scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals from European countries, many of whom relocated to England and the United States. Among those who settled in America was Kurt Lewin, a German-educated social psychologist who would single-handedly shape the landscape of social psychology in America. Lewin’s mark on social psychology was widespread, both in terms of his own empirical and theoretical work and with respect to the generation of social psychologists he trained. Lewin had been strongly influenced by the Gestalt psychologists, who claimed that people perceived the world in organized, meaningful wholes, not separate, discrete sensations. Lewin (1951) advocated field theory, arguing that any particular instance of a behavior was the result of a complex interaction between the person and the environment. For Lewin, what mattered most was the perception or interpretation given the environment by the actor, not necessarily the objective environment itself. For instance, suppose you are standing in line at a movie theater and the person in front of you steps backward, landing on your toe. Your reaction to this awkward social situation will depend heavily on whether you perceive the person to have stepped backward unintentionally, oblivious of his or her proximity to you, or to have done so with aggressive intent. A major tenet of field theory is that people enter an environment with certain perceptual biases and expectations, and that their interaction with the environment is colored not just by the actual features of the environment but also by this idiosyncratic perceptual set.

Roger Barker and “Midwest”

Lewin’s influence on the burgeoning field of social psychology was substantial, but no scientific discipline is the sole product of individual genius, and often the legacy left by an influential thinker is most visible in the contributions made by his or her students and colleagues. Lewin is often credited with training many of the scientists who would shape the early discipline of social psychology, including Harold Kelley, Leon Festinger, and Roger Barker. Barker’s name, in particular, would eventually become synonymous with the discipline of environmental psychology. Along with colleague Herbert Wright, Barker established “Midwest” (The Midwest Psychological Field Station), a facility devoted to the scientific study of behavior in natural settings. Midwest was actually the small town of Oskaloosa, Kansas, in 1947, and Barker, Wright, and other research colleagues lived in the town throughout the entire research project, which lasted over 20 years. Indeed, Barker, who died in 1990, lived out the rest of his life in Midwest. The small community, typical of such towns, was well suited to the kind of applied, “real-world” research that Barker and his colleagues felt was necessary to the study of environmental psychology.

Among their early objectives was to identify behavior settings, which are patterns of behavior-environment relationships observed over time. A behavior setting may be something as simple as a conversation between a married couple, or as involved as a high school basketball game. An important aspect of a behavior setting is that certain kinds of environments are realistically capable of supporting only certain kinds of behavioral repertoires. For instance, a high school gymnasium may support both basketball games and dances, but it’s not likely to support sophisticated medical procedures such as heart surgery.

The purpose of Midwest was to identify such behavior settings as they unfolded in the natural environment, rather than as artificially imposed variables in a laboratory setting. During their research, Barker, Wright, and their colleagues amassed an impressive collection of human behavioral data, much of which would have been impossible to acquire within the confines of a conventional psychological laboratory. To this day, the rich observations of such varied behavior settings as Christmas festivals, basketball games, auction sales, school board meetings, and religious services remain an important part of Midwest’s legacy, in addition to the momentum that the field station provided the young discipline of environmental psychology, which flourished in the 1970s.

Ecopsychology and the Environmental Movement

The title of Barker’s (1968) seminal book describing the research program at Midwest was Ecological Psychology: Concepts and Methods for Studying the Environment of Human Behavior. The term “ecological” in Barker’s title referred to the many kinds of behavior settings identified by his research team. Many of the behavioral observations conducted there occurred in human-made structures, such as classrooms, churches, and gymnasiums. Of course, not all human behavior occurs in such artificial, constructed environments. Indeed, we have, as a species, spent the vast amount of our time on this planet responding and adapting to the natural world. Long before humans drove cars and operated ATMs and cell phones, we learned to make a living in the outdoors, protecting ourselves from the elements, fending off predators, fashioning shelter from locally acquired materials, and hunting and foraging for our food. Although Barker and his colleagues were primarily interested in the industrialized behavior settings of the modern world, environmental psychology as a discipline would, by the early 1970s, find itself drawn to a social movement seemingly far removed from psychology.

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s ushered in several significant social movements in America, including conflict surrounding the Vietnam war, civil rights, women’s rights, and concern for the natural environment. The latter was fueled by the recognition that exponential population growth combined with enhanced industrialization was increasing the impact that humanity was having on the quality of air, water, and other natural resources on which all biological organisms depend. The early seeds of the environmental movement had been planted by Aldo Leopold, whose Sand County Almanac (1949) outlined a sustainable land use ethic, and Rachel Carson (1962), who, in Silent Spring, meticulously documented the catastrophic effects of pesticides on birds and their habitats.

In addition to the influential writings of Leopold and Carson, the first photographs taken of Earth from space seized the nation’s consciousness, reminding many people of the beauty and fragility of this tiny planet, and the need to maintain the integrity of its life-sustaining processes. The momentum of the environmental movement was further supported by news reports replete with footage of inappropriately disposed toxic waste, smog-choked cities, and, perhaps most notoriously, American waterways, including the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, actually bursting into flames! This confluence of factors led, in 1970, to the first Earth Day, a nationally recognized event designed to educate and raise consciousness about the environmental consequences of human population growth and technology. Also in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency, a branch of the federal government, was created to identify standards for protecting the environment and to regulate industries whose policies may prove damaging to air, water, and other natural resources.

The environmental movement captured the attention of a generation of Americans, and psychologists were no exception. Recognizing that human population growth and development and use of technology are inherently functions of human behavior, a handful of psychologists began to pursue a scientific understanding of the relationship between human behavior and environmental problems, and to apply this knowledge to the development of behavior change strategies to increase the proenvironmental behavior of individual citizens, communities, and corporations.

Research In Environmental Psychology

Emphasis on Applied and Action Research

Although addressing a unique subject matter within the larger field of psychology, the research methods used by environmental psychologists are for the most part shared by scientists studying behavior and cognitive processes. Environmental psychologists design studies that address the particular research question at hand, which may entail highly controlled laboratory experiments or the use of survey instruments and correlational analyses. However, as described earlier, social psychologists made the most salient contributions to the early development of environmental psychology, and Kurt Lewin, in particular, was a vocal critic of laboratory-based research. Consequently, environmental psychologists have been especially strong advocates of field research, conducted for the purpose of addressing genuine human-environment interactions as they unfold in the “real world.”

Because the environment is a large and inclusive variable, you’d expect research in environmental psychology to cut a wide swath, and that’s a fair assessment of research in this discipline over the last 35 years. A good deal of early research was devoted to aspects of the physical environment, like ambient noise and temperature, crowding, and the design and layout of living spaces, arrangement of furniture, and so on. In most cases, researchers wanted to know how people processed information about and responded to these features of the environment. Barker’s original theory of the behavior setting suggested that different kinds of environments (e.g., schools, gymnasiums, stores, prisons, apartment buildings, etc.) would, because of their design, encourage or set the occasion for different behavior patterns. Much of the early research in environmental psychology was conducted for the purpose of identifying the parameters of these various behavior settings. Indeed, even today, environmental psychologists continue to ask similar questions, even about such unusual and remote environments as outer space or the Arctic. Such environments pose unique challenges to human beings, particularly with respect to prolonged social isolation.

The environmental movement set the stage for a major research focus within the discipline, one still vibrant nearly 40 years later. Recognizing that the major environmental problems faced by humanity were the byproducts of over-population and increased industrialization, both intimately tied to human behavior, environmental psychologists set about exploring strategies for bringing about more environmentally responsible behavior. Although much of this research has been solution-focused, there have also been substantial efforts at measuring peoples’ knowledge about and attitudes regarding the natural world, our place in it, and the scope of environmental challenges facing humanity.

It’s important to remember that environmental psychology is a varied landscape, because of both the tremendous diversity of research topics addressed and the flexibility and methodological ingenuity often required to bring these topics under scientific scrutiny. As would be true of any survey of psychological research, our knowledge of certain behavior-environment relationships has become quite advanced and exhaustive while other topics remain relatively unexplored.

Environmental Stressors: Noise, Ambient Temperature, And Crowding

For all organisms, the environment is something of a double-edged sword: Everything we need to survive and thrive comes from the outside world, but so, too, do the dangers and stressors that continuously challenge us. Sometimes the same factor can prove either a blessing or a curse, depending on such dimensions as the frequency, duration, or magnitude of its presence.


Humans, for example, are auditory animals, responding to such important sounds as police sirens, ringing telephones, or the voice of a loved one or classroom instructor. We use sound to negotiate our world in myriad ways. We find it difficult, for instance, to interpret another person’s conversational intent without hearing the intonation of his or her voice. But sound, like other kinds of stimulation, can prove problematic as well, and considerable research has shown how certain forms of auditory stimulation can produce deficits in performance and negative emotional states. In fact, any sound that is interpreted as annoying or unwanted by a given individual at a particular time is referred to as “noise” by environmental psychologists. Naturally, one person’s “noise” may be another’s “music,” quite literally. Suppose you live in an apartment complex and your next-door neighbor, a classical music buff, loves to blare Beethoven on his sound system on Sunday evenings. Although doing so constitutes high entertainment for him, it may prove both aversive and disruptive for you, as you study on Sunday evenings for regularly scheduled Monday morning biology exams.

The aversive or disruptive nature of noise as an environmental variable is determined by the nature of the sound itself, the setting in which the sound is encountered, and listener attributes. For instance, particularly loud sounds, similar to those produced by rock concerts and jets taking off, can lead to hearing loss, high blood pressure, and poor academic performance, especially with prolonged exposure. Exposure to unwanted and uncontrollable sound has even been correlated with higher rates of strokes and admission to psychiatric hospitals. Much of the ambient noise to which we’re exposed is due to human technology and industrialization, and for this reason, many municipalities have passed noise ordinances in order to reduce the amount of ambient noise during certain times of day.

Ambient Temperature

Modern industrialization has allowed humans to achieve remarkable control over many features of the physical environment. An especially prominent example is our ability to regulate or control air temperature. Modern air conditioning and heating technology has substantially lessened the impact of seasonal climate on human activity, and those of us fortunate enough to live in industrialized countries enjoy the luxury of modifying the ambient temperature of our local environments to an unprecedented degree. Nevertheless, we have rather limited tolerances for changes in temperature, and relatively small changes in temperature can move most of us out of our comfort zone. Considerable research has been conducted to assess the influence of ambient temperature on human affect and behavior. Some of this research has been done using laboratory experiments, but field experiments and correlational studies have made substantial contributions as well.

Although ambient temperature may influence several dimensions of cognition, emotion, and behavior, research has focused primarily on the relationship between heat and aggression. This research theme probably reflects the intuitive link that many of us perceive between high temperatures and irritability: Hot summer temperatures correspond to higher rates of violent crime, rioting, and so on. In fact, research by behavioral scientists has long shown that violence occurs with greater frequency during what we call the “long, hot summer” than at other times of the year. The exact nature of this relationship has been a bone of contention, however. It may seem logical to expect that a linear relationship best describes the temperature-aggression link—that is, each unit increase in temperature corresponds to a similar unit increase in aggressive behavior. This finding is, in fact, the relationship demonstrated in many of the large-scale studies looking at crime data. Laboratory researchers, however, have found a more complex relationship, with increases in aggression occurring linearly with temperature up to a point, but then decreasing as the heat gets turned up further. It is difficult, of course, to draw comparisons between correlational studies utilizing largely archival data and experimental studies in which subjects are deliberately exposed to temperature ranges, and the behavior being measured is artificial, such as choosing to deliver shock or some other aversive stimulus to a fellow subject.


Humans have evolved as a social species, which means that a substantial part of the environment for each of us is made up of other people. It’s hard to argue with the position taken by evolutionary psychologists that much of our energy spent thinking, feeling, and doing revolves around some aspect of our social world, whether assessing a prospective mate, disciplining a child, or negotiating a deal with a business partner. With the exception of the atypical recluse, most of us spend our entire lives around others, and the varying ways in which other people support, soothe, protect, and at the same time disappoint, frustrate, and threaten us constitutes a subject matter large enough to occupy several disciplines. There are, in addition, unlimited numbers of variables to be explored regarding our interactions with others, and how these different factors are conceptualized and measured depends, consequently, on whether one is an anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist, or political scientist.

A particular concern of environmental psychologists is the sheer impact that social density has on human behavior. Humans evolved initially in relatively small, close-knit, genetically related, and geographically isolated groups of hunter-gatherers, ordinarily limited to several dozen individuals. The huge cities that many modern humans inhabit, with millions of residents, represent a very recent aberration in living conditions for our species. In a sense, the industrialized world of our own creation constitutes something of an unintentional experiment, in that it has created the conditions for assessing the effects of crowding on human behavior. We’ve known for some time that increased social density, defined as the number of organisms occupying a specific physical space, leads to a number of pathological conditions in nonhuman animals. Numerous studies, for instance, have assessed the consequences of increased social density among animals living both in the wild and in laboratory settings. These studies point consistently to many negative consequences of crowding, including increases in physiological arousal, such as increases in blood pressure and secretion of stress hormones. In addition, severe disruptions in mating, reproductive, and parenting behaviors have been observed. Indeed, reduced reproductive rates in the wild may be an adaptive response to increases in social density, as such conditions ordinarily entail corresponding reductions in the natural resources needed to survive and raise offspring.

Although nonhuman animal research seldom generalizes completely to human behavior, crowding has been shown to produce similar reactions in several laboratory and field experiments with humans. Increased social density is generally perceived as aversive by human beings, and physiological measures exhibit an enhanced stress response similar to that found in nonhumans. Most of the research has examined relatively short-term crowding, because studies of long-term effects can be difficult to conduct, for both ethical and logistic reasons. The exception to this trend has been research conducted on prison populations and college dormitory roommates. This research has consistently shown crowding to produce negative emotional reactions, increased arousal, and, when possible, social withdrawal. However, in college dormitory rooms the effects of crowding tend to be moderated by the specific layout of the rooms, and the fact that students tend to have more personal control over their living arrangements than do inmates.

Environmental Stressors: Natural and Human-Made Disasters

Occasionally humans, like other animals, encounter dramatic and often life-threatening changes in their surrounding environment, severely taxing their ability to cope. Such is the case with both natural disasters, such as floods, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes, and disasters stemming from human technology, like explosions at chemical plants or accidental releases of radioactive or toxic materials into residential areas. Environmental psychologists have focused considerable attention on how people perceive the risks of such hazards, including their probability of occurrence and potential coping responses to such threats. Among the more consistent yet perplexing findings from such research is that people often misperceive the likelihood or probability of such events affecting them personally. For instance, college students living in poorly designed dormitories on a campus identified to be at considerable risk of a major earthquake nevertheless perceived themselves to be safe and unlikely victims of such a hazard. Perhaps even more surprising is the finding that people who have actually experienced natural disasters often assume that because they’ve already encountered the hazard, there is essentially no chance of being exposed to the threat in the future. This assumption is wrong and indicates a common misunderstanding of probability.

Understanding how and why people misperceive the threat of both natural and human-made hazards has been a major focus of cognitive psychology. In general, the concept of bounded rationality suggests that humans are limited information processors, meaning that even though the world is a busy, stimulating place, we can only think about or process so much information at any given time. Psychologists believe that denial of risk serves an emotionally protective function and that if we constantly were to view the world as dangerous and threatening, we’d be essentially paralyzed, and this condition would hardly be adaptive.

Research has also examined both the immediate and long-term emotional effects of exposure to natural and human-made disasters. This research suggests that many people respond to disasters in a manner consistent with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which includes difficulties sleeping, trouble concentrating, frequent bouts of anxiety, and reliving the event both cognitively and emotionally. The magnitude of one’s reaction to an environmental disaster is known to be the result of an interaction between the event itself and the person’s coping style. Some individuals cope with stress by problem solving, thinking of ways that they might be able to exert better control or mitigate the stressor. Other people use more emotion-focused strategies, including simply avoiding thoughts about the stressor, or denying its influence on them. The effectiveness of these coping styles is partially dependent on the nature of the event. If it is possible to alter the nature of the event itself, then problem-focused coping has clear advantages. On the other hand, if the event cannot be controlled in any way, emotion-focused coping may actually prove more adaptive. In general, research suggests that people react to environmental stressors in idiosyncratic ways, as described by Lewin’s early statement about person-environment interaction.

The Human-Constructed Environment: Work, Education, And Living Spaces

If you want to generate lively debate among scientists and scholars, simply ask them to discuss what attributes distinguish humans from nonhuman animals. Historically, there have been many candidates, such as language, tool use, and, of course, the development of religion and science. Regardless of the individual stance one takes on this issue, it can hardly be contested that humans learned long ago how to modify their environment in ways that were simply unprecedented in the animal kingdom. In fact, our species may be especially unique in its ability to create entirely new environments, each supporting distinctly different repertoires of behavior. Our ability to design and construct homes, workplaces, educational institutions, and recreational buildings has forever altered the nature of the relationship between behavior and the environment. Not surprisingly, the impact of designed environments on human conduct became an early focus of environmental psychology.

Early research on housing, conducted largely by American scientists, quite naturally focused on the typical, middle-class, single-family residence. Much of this research addressed the house as an extension of the homeowner. In much the same way that our cars and clothes say something about us, our dwellings also depict who we are and what matters to us. Such things as square footage, location in the community, type of materials used to construct the house, landscaping, and lot size all help to paint a picture of the homeowner. Large, ostentatious exteriors may reflect not only the homeowner’s financial status, but personality as well. Homes set back on the property, away from the street and occluded by trees or other natural structures, suggest a desire for solitude or protection from the outside world. Homeowners utilize decorations and lighting around sidewalks and doorways to suggest how welcome visitors might be. Finally, the interior of one’s home, including furnishings, decorations, and room layout, defines a family’s priorities regarding not only the necessary functions of eating and sleeping but also recreational pursuits such as electronic entertainment and play space for children.

In recognition that many people do not reside in independent residences, environmental researchers turned their attention to public housing, especially the high-rise apartments found in large cities. Because apartment living almost necessarily increases social density, a crucial component of designing such residential environments is the establishment of defensible space—design attributes that contribute to a perception of safety and protection from invasion. Among the more disturbing discoveries made by psychologists who first examined the design of many urban high-rise apartment buildings was that defensible space was often nonexistent and that residents of such buildings often felt unsafe and vulnerable to crime. Subsequent research confirmed these perceptions, indicating that such high rises, built to be inexpensive, were stark complexes containing poor lighting, easy hiding places for criminals, and few commons areas supporting interaction. Such residences fostered anonymity among neighbors and became havens for crime and drug trafficking. More recent research has indicated that offering defensible space, improving lighting, and allowing residents to personalize both the interior and exterior of their residences through paint, landscaping, and decoration increase both the sense of ownership and perceptions of safety.

Research on the design of work environments has principally looked at how design features in such environments relate to worker satisfaction and productivity. This research has been extremely varied in part because such environments differ depending on the nature of work that transpires within them. A hospital operating room, after all, supports an entirely different kind of activity than does a kindergarten classroom, and we’d expect the design features of these separate environments to be quite disparate. In general, considerable evidence indicates that both the quantity and configuration of furniture in work environments make substantial contributions to interaction styles. Arrangement of chairs and/or couches in a circular or concentric pattern, for example, encourages more conversation and interaction than does a linear or straight-line configuration. In addition, the rectangular table, often used for meetings and brainstorming sessions, is a staple in many businesses and workplaces. Seating arrangements correlate strongly with the pattern of conversation occurring at the table. Those seated at the head of the table are observed to talk more frequently and to assume leadership status more often than those seated elsewhere. Also, workers already established as leaders within a company are more likely to take seats at the head of a table when assembling for a meeting.

Although work environments vary considerably, several variables known to impact worker attitudes and productivity are common to most workplaces and include such factors as the existence of windows, degree of privacy, lighting, noise, and perhaps most important, ambient temperature. Workers frequently complain most about temperature, which might be due to the relatively low tolerance humans have for changes in optimal ambient temperatures. An important point to keep in mind is that these physical features of the work environment interact substantially with the kinds of tasks required of workers in any particular environment. Noise, for instance, may be problematic for an office worker attempting to do mentally challenging work requiring vigilance and prolonged attention to detail. Such may not be the case, however, for a worker in a manufacturing plant whose task is primarily physical and repetitive.

There may be no more important human-made environment than the classroom, and environmental research has identified several attributes of learning environments that may either enhance or impair the learning process. By far the most salient environmental variable in the school setting is class size, and numerous research studies have endorsed a strong link between class size and academic performance, especially in elementary school children. Smaller class size (20 or fewer students) tends to be related not only to better learning outcomes but also to better interactions and more positive attitudes, among both students and teachers. On a larger scale, research also suggests that smaller high schools (500 to 700 students) tend to produce better outcomes, both academically and developmentally, than do much larger high schools. Large school populations increase social density, leading to greater anonymity, less personal responsibility, and greater incidences of misbehavior.

As in environmental research in the workplace, furniture arrangements, seating patterns, and general layout have also been assessed in school environments. Much of this work has been conducted in an effort to compare the traditional classroom, with its standard rows of desks, to the open classroom, which entails one large open room, with common areas supporting different kinds of academic tasks. The open classroom emerged in the 1960s and 1970s when educational scholars suggested that the traditional classroom engendered boredom and restricted student creativity and spontaneity, both considered important to the learning process. In general, research on the open classroom has been quite mixed, probably because class layout is often confounded with other variables that impact student learning. For example, teachers who endorse an open classroom are likely to hold a teaching philosophy that encourages student exploration, creativity, and handson learning, rather than rote memorization and regimented academic work, as would be more easily conducted in a standard classroom. In general, children from traditional classroom settings tend to perform better on academic tasks than do students taught in open classrooms, but this outcome may occur because standardized tests favor students taught in this manner. The kinds of intellectual abilities believed to be enhanced in open classrooms may be more difficult to assess. Overall, research on classroom configuration is not conclusive, and it is likely that both traditional and open classrooms possess both advantages and disadvantages.

The Natural Environment

If you are a citizen of a modern, industrialized nation, it may be difficult for you to envision a world in which humans didn’t flush toilets, turn up thermostats, receive calls on cell phones, and collect money from drive-thru ATMs. Because a typical human life span is about 75 years, and most of us have grown up in a world populated by technological gadgetry, it may be challenging to appreciate that our dependence on machinery and designed environments is a very recent development in human history. Our species spent a much longer time learning to adapt to the vagaries of climate, geography, predators, and other hazards constituting the natural world. Indeed, many millions of people still live lives dictated more by nature than by human inventions. Like all other animals, humans had to adapt both physically and behaviorally in order to earn a living in the natural world, and our success at doing so is written in the genetic code of every human alive today. Most of us have little difficulty appreciating our bipedal posture and opposable thumb as products of our evolutionary history, but the machinations of natural selection have similarly shaped our central nervous system, thus impacting how we perceive and respond to the world around us.

Biological evolution works its wonders, however, at a glacial pace, which means that the bodies inhabited by 21st-century CEOs are essentially unchanged from the physiques of earlier hominids who lived simpler, hunter-gatherer existences. At some point in our early history, the size and organization of the brain underwent a substantial growth spurt. Our bigger brains made it possible for us to reshape the world we live in and, for better or worse, we’ve taken full advantage of this opportunity. Human ingenuity led to such hallmark accomplishments as science, religion, and industrialization. During the last century and a half, we have witnessed an explosion in both human population and technology that could never have been foreseen by our ancestors. The modern world is largely one of our own creation, and it is a world that, in many respects, poses difficulties for human dispositions and behavior patterns forged long ago and in a world increasingly unfamiliar to modern humans. Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich (1989) argued that our Stone Age predispositions are ill equipped to handle the fast-paced and technologically sophisticated requirements of modernity. We are, they claim, out of step with the world we’ve made, and this inconsistency has repercussions for many of the problems we now face, including degradation of the natural environment.

The environmental movement that began in the 1970s was caused by a confluence of events. Many citizens began to heed the warnings of scientists and scholars who suggested that a growing human population coupled with technologies capable of large-scale impacts could ultimately diminish the planet’s capacity to sustain life. These visionaries began to document the extent to which modern technology, especially as used by industrialized nations, led to rapid deforestation, depletion of natural resources, and air and water pollution. It had become apparent that Earth was not infinitely forgiving in its ability to absorb the byproducts of civilization and that humans would have to learn once again to adjust their behavior accordingly.

Among individuals who participated in the environmental movement were psychologists who recognized that the problems we faced were of our own making, and that an understanding of human behavior would shed light on both the causes and potential solutions to environmental degradation. These behavioral researchers conducted survey studies to identify the extent to which people viewed environmental problems as important and in need of serious attention. This research indicated strong proenvironmental attitudes among most Americans, and these attitudes have demonstrated themselves to be consistent over time. It is perhaps especially fitting that most of this research was done in the United States—American citizens, living in the most affluent and technologically advanced nation on Earth, have a disproportionate ecological footprint: The average American’s energy usage and contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is substantially greater than that of residents of other countries.

Researchers also attempted to apply basic behavior principles, such as modeling, feedback, and reinforcement, to encourage proenvironmental behaviors, such as ride sharing or car pooling, energy conservation, and recycling. Although these efforts were moderately successful, Gerald Gardner and Paul Stern (2002) have pointed out that these well-meaning behavioral scientists may not have targeted the most important classes of behavior for change. For instance, considerable research was done to explore incentives that might encourage homeowners to turn their thermostats down a degree or two during the winter, thus conserving energy usage. Although this practice can be effective, the amount of energy savings produced is small. A better strategy, yielding much greater conservation outcomes, would be to encourage homeowners to conduct energy audits of their homes, and put into place more long-term improvements, such as more energy-efficient furnaces and water heaters, weather stripping of doors, and caulking of windows. Although these improvements are initially more expensive, some community programs have offered significant financial incentives for such improvements, including subsidies and large rebates. Moreover, the long-term savings produced by improvements in a home’s energy efficiency pay for themselves over the life of the home.

Most of this research was also targeted toward the general population, the idea being that if everyone pitched in, environmental problems could be effectively resolved. This approach, too, turned out to be a naive position. Individual citizens are actually responsible for a relatively small amount of the nation’s total energy expenditure, and most of it is devoted to transporting ourselves from home to work and back. Similarly, the general populace contributes only a portion of the greenhouse gases that make their way into the atmosphere, thus speeding up global warming. Relative to citizens, industry, government, and the military utilize a much larger portion of energy and release into the environment a greater share of greenhouse gases, pollutants, and toxins. Thus, serious and truly effective strategies for resolving environmental problems must, at some point, target not only individual citizens but also the large and powerful constituencies whose decisions are of such wide-sweeping consequence. As an example, the major automobile manufacturers have for some time possessed the requisite technology for producing cars with much greater fuel efficiency than in those we currently drive. Increasing the fuel efficiency of all cars manufactured, even by a few miles per gallon, would produce a savings in fuel use that would far exceed that produced by encouraging citizens to share rides or drive fewer miles a week.

An interesting corollary of environmental mismatch theory is that human beings, having evolved in the natural world, may share a deep connection with nature, despite living, as many of us do, in artificial, designed environments. This resonance to the natural world has been referred to by noted biologist E. O. Wilson (1984) as the biophilia hypothesis. Wilson and others suggest that our very brief experience with technology and industrialization has done little to alter our belongingness to a different kind of ecosystem, one defined by rain, wind, grass, trees, and rock. The natural world was our original home and, as with all other species that have inhabited the planet, our very DNA records this ancient and indelible fact. The biophilia hypothesis has broad implications for how humans negotiate the world, both behaviorally and emotionally. Some researchers argue that our desire to be connected to nature, even while enveloped by the trappings of civilization, can be seen in our penchant for surrounding ourselves with natural stimuli. We bring plants in from outside and grow them in pots in our kitchens, living rooms, and offices. We decorate our studies and offices with calendars, prints, paintings, and photographs of natural landscapes. We build our homes in natural enclaves, on treed lots when possible, or next to lakes, ponds, or streams. Visits to national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges are at an all-time high, and many families take extensive vacations to such natural places. In addition, outdoor sports such as kayaking, mountain biking, skiing, and hiking have become major recreational industries, catering to those who wish to escape, if only temporarily, the noise, pollution, and stimulation overload of the urban environment. Finally, evidence suggests that access to nature may, literally, have curative powers. Hospital patients whose rooms look out on parks, trees, and other natural settings recover faster and are discharged sooner than those patients whose windows offer a view of skyscrapers and cityscapes.

Future Directions In Environmental Psychology

As described at the beginning of this research-paper, environmental psychology emerged out of a mixture of subfields within the broader discipline of psychology, including perception, learning, cognition, and social psychology. These areas of specialization, though informed by disparate theoretical positions and addressing unique empirical questions, all found common ground in the study of human behavior in response to natural and human-made environments. Among the goals of early proponents of environmental psychology was the integration, or synthesis, of these different psychological perspectives. This ambition is quite explicitly stated in the major textbooks within the field, as well as the discipline’s flagship journals, Environment and Behavior and Journal of Environmental Psychology. This goal has met with only limited success, however, because environmental psychology lacks a unified theory. There is no single explanatory system that successfully pulls together the divergent strands of research in environmental psychology. Although many of the discipline’s prominent scientists lament this state of affairs, circumstances are not remarkably different in the larger parent discipline. Psychology, as a science of human behavior, has long been afflicted by fragmentation, and no particular theory has emerged as having clear integrative promise. This circumstance is likely due to the very large subject matter of psychology, its diversity of methods, and its historical development as both a research science and a helping profession. Environmental psychology, an amalgam of research and theory from many of psychology’s earliest subfields, mirrors this diversity to a predictable extent.

Despite a lack of consensus on integrative theory, much of the empirical research agenda of environmental psychology has come to pass. The relationship between behavior and such environmental stressors as noise, heat, crowding, and natural and human-made hazards have become mainstream subject matters within psychology. In addition, because humans are an inventive lot, we can expect that future environmental psychologists will have their hands full studying the array of technological innovations likely to transform the way we live our lives in the future. If the past is any indicator, we can expect continued experimentation in the design of the environments in which we live, work, and recreate. Indeed, this transformation has already begun for many who have given up the daily commute to work in exchange for fully wired home environments that double as workspaces. And our technological prowess has made it possible for humans to live, work, and spend prolonged periods of time in remote and previously uninhabited places, such as outer space. We have only begun to document the kinds of adaptations that must be made by terrestrial organisms like ourselves when confronted with such extreme environments.

Future research in environmental psychology is also likely to focus more attention on how human activity impacts the global environment. The ravages of air and water pollution, deforestation, depletion of natural resources, and global warming are now recognized by international bodies as imminent threats to all of us, and understanding these complex human-environment relationships will be a prerequisite to the development of meaningful and effective solutions. There will no doubt also be continued efforts to delineate the strong connection that humans feel to the natural world, as suggested by the biophilia hypothesis.

Environmental psychology will continue to be a multidisciplinary effort dominated by applied and field research, as has always been the case. In addition, contributions to research and theory in environmental psychology have increasingly come from outside the United States, and this multicultural development enriches the field exponentially, by diversifying the very construct of “environment.” Clearly, the mainstream American milieu characterized by Midwest does little to capture the many shades and colors of human living arrangements, and a fully integrated understanding of behavior-environment interaction will require a more inclusive perspective. Fortunately, many contemporary behavioral scientists have demonstrated a willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries in order to conduct robust and integrative research. Environmental psychology, initially forged by similarly motivated scholars, is well poised to benefit from such cross-fertilization.


Environmental psychology emerged as a hybrid of sub-fields within psychology, including cognition, perception, learning, and social psychology. From the very beginning, research in this new discipline tackled “real world” questions regarding the effects of noise, heat, crowding, architectural design, and natural and human-made disasters on aspects of human emotion and behavior. Recent decades have seen an emphasis on understanding and modifying human cognition and behavior related to environmental quality, as well as the strong connection that many feel toward the natural world. In keeping with its history, environmental psychology in the future will likely remain a diverse, multidisciplinary enterprise, largely aimed at applying the principles of psychological functioning to problems of social, perhaps even global, significance.


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