Natural Environmental Psychology Research Paper

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Natural environmental psychology examines the influences of natural forces on individuals. Thus, it includes examination of extraterrestrial influences, weather, nature, and natural disasters on the behavior, thoughts, stress, and well-being of persons.

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1. Influences From Beyond The Atmosphere

Contemplation of the vastness of space, the stars and planets produces awe. The Earth is a spin-off of some ancient cosmic event, and humans therefore are composed of highly evolved star dust. In that sense, deep space has everything to do with human existence. The end of the planet, and human life, may result from some gigantic celestial collision. Beyond these titanic effects, does deep space have any continuing psychological influence in everyday life?

1.1 Cosmic Rays

Cosmic ray activity has been mildly associated with psychiatric hospital admissions and behavioral disturbances in schizophrenics. In one study, hospital admissions increased with cosmic ray activity; behavioral disturbances increased for some individuals with schizophrenia but decreased for others. Possibly, although more research certainly is necessary, the flow of neutrons from cosmic rays affects schizophrenia.

1.2 The Stars And Planets

The best-known putative influence of the stars and planets on human psychology is that posited by astrology. Many people around the world treat astrology merely as a sort of entertainment, but a substantial minority, including some world leaders, grant it more serious predictive status. That in itself is psychologically interesting. However, there are virtually no published scientific studies of astrology’s claims, so scientists cannot grant it any credence.

A single published study did examine the relation between the positions of planets at birth and subsequent personality. Among eminent French scientists, a significantly high proportion of introverts were born when Saturn had just risen or just passed overhead, and extroverts were more likely to be born when Mars or Jupiter has just risen or passed overhead.

Nevertheless, from a scientific perspective, one would have to propose a plausible mechanism by which the stars and planets affect personality, and this has not been done. Furthermore, neither this nor the cosmic ray study has been replicated, and may represent dramatic instances of chance findings. Perhaps many similar studies were done without the discovery of statistically significant findings, and therefore went unpublished.

2. The Sun And The Moon

2.1 The Sun

The sun ultimately powers almost everything on earth, either directly through solar power or indirectly through the use of stored solar power. Coal, gas, and oil are plant-stored solar power; hydroelectric power is based on the sun lifting water into the atmosphere so to produce rain; most food is produced through photosynthesis. In other very basic ways, of course, the sun influences everyday human behavior. Sunny weather encourages gardening, going to the beach, and playing summer sports; the lack of it encourages people to stay indoors or to engage in winter sports.

Sunshine may induce good moods, which may result in more generosity; tipping, in one study, increased when the weather was sunny. However, sunlight can improve the spirits too much for some people: the incidence of mania rises in the long days of summer.

2.2 The Moon

The belief that the moon influences strange behavior goes back at least to 400 BC. One study showed that 49 percent of undergraduates agree with the statement, ‘Some people behave strangely when the moon is full,’ and even higher percentages of police officers believe that the full moon affects people.

Numerous published studies report significant connections between phases of the moon and such behaviors as calls to counseling centers, admissions to psychiatric hospitals, and homicide. However, rigorous examination of the evidence suggests that, once again, such studies represent chance outcomes that are to be expected when many studies are conducted (Rotton and Kelly 1985).

At least the ‘lunacy hypothesis’ (as opposed to astrology) has been accompanied by several plausible causal mechanisms. One is that the moon’s gravitational influence on bodily fluids causes ‘biological tides’ which result in odd behaviors. However, the moon’s gravitational force on humans is more than 5,000 times weaker than that of the Earth; even a large building tugs on bodily fluids harder than the moon. The moon’s gravitational effect is far too weak to affect bodily fluids. A subsequent analysis examined eight other possible causal mechanisms and concluded that none were credible.

Individuals may continue to believe in lunar effects for two reasons. First, the full moon’s brighter light may keep light sleepers awake, leading to sleep deprivation, which in turn may produce unusual behavior. Second, unusual behaviors may occur about as frequently when the moon is not full, but the salience of the full moon, together with legends about its powers, may lead people incorrectly to assign it a causal role.

3. Climate, Weather, And Atmosphere

Many people believe that weather influences them. One survey found that 71 percent of people asked said that their mood was affected by that day’s weather, and 39 percent said it affected their mood ‘strongly’ or ‘very strongly.’

Investigating the objective effects of weather variables is difficult because they cannot be experimentally manipulated except in a climate chamber, and then there are problems with the realism of the setting. Some researchers use special statistical methods to probe the truth of the matter.

Based on the best research, however, weather does affect individuals both indirectly and directly. For example, warm weather brings people outside to work and play, and they injure themselves more often than in cold weather. People stay indoors more when it is cold, which induces ‘cabin fever’ and depression and leads to more calls to help lines.

But temperature may also have more direct influences on human behavior. As the temperature moves from comfortable to hot, collective violence such as riots, domestic violence, assaults, and rape increase (Anderson 1989). Higher temperatures seem to increase crimes against persons, but not against property. This relation holds only until the 85–90 F (30–33 C) range; aggression then decreases because the temperature becomes too hot to function easily.

Cold temperatures appear to facilitate aggressive acts that are swift and more specifically directed toward ambient events, such as insults. Cold is not strongly related to crime except robbery; this may represent a survival strategy for people who desperately need food or shelter. Other meteorological components such as wind and precipitation have not received enough research attention to draw firm conclusions.

Combinations of weather components may have their own effects; researchers report that assaults and family disturbances tended to occur just after days that were warmer and dryer, with less wind. Another kind of weather combination is ‘bad’ weather, which usually means cold, wet, and windy conditions with fluctuating barometric pressure; ‘good’ weather is warm, dry, and calm with stable barometric pressure. Among preschoolers, good weather, and weather changing from good to bad, are associated with more playing with objects than other children; bad weather and weather changing from bad to good are associated with more playing with other children than objects.

4. Nature The Restorer

The belief that nature is good for people is ancient. Long ago, when the largest cities were small towns by today’s standards, the hanging gardens of Babylon and walled gardens in Mesopotamia were nurtured so those early city dwellers could maintain some contact with nature.

4.1 Looking At Nature

People much prefer, in general, to look at nature scenes than urban scenes. Even when nature is potentially dangerous, many people want to experience it; in one survey, 42 percent of those who visited the outdoors responded positively to the idea of hiking in an area which was posted with a sign warning of bears in the area, and 86 percent said they would like to see a grizzly bear in the wild—from a safe distance.

Merely looking at nature is restorative. In a classic study, surgery patients who had a view of nature from their hospital room windows (as opposed to a view of a brick building) recovered faster: they had shorter hospital stays, fewer problems noted by nurses, and fewer postoperative medical problems.

4.2 Being In Nature

Nature restores people by facilitating cognitive freedom, ecosystem connectedness, escape from routine, challenge, growth, guidance of young people, a renewed social life, and health. Compared with those who took a nonwilderness vacation or no vacation, backpackers who took a wilderness vacation felt better and performed better on a proofreading task after they returned. Interestingly, the backpackers actually felt worse immediately after returning, but better some time later. Possibly they were a bit depressed at first about the return to society!

Wilderness experiences appear to foster self-actualization, the fulfillment of one’s potential for personal growth and psychological health. In a large-scale survey, individuals who spent time in wilderness areas were more self-actualized than those who did not.

4.3 Mechanisms Of Restoration

The way in which nature restores functioning has been the subject of some debate. One theory, the mental fatigue approach, asserts that nature is inherently fascinating, that it compels involuntary attention (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989). This is restorative because ordinarily, in the workaday world, people are required to actively focus their attention much of the time. Focused attention is taxing. Nature provides a setting for less-taxing involuntary attention; being in nature gradually refreshes individuals.

A second theory, the biophilia approach, holds that humans evolved for about two million years in natural environments, and have only lived in cities for a tiny fraction of that time (Ulrich 1993). Genetically, people are much more adapted to natural than built settings. Being in nature is like going home, genetically, and this is very restorative.

5. Natural Disasters

Nature often has negative effects on people, too. Fires, storms, floods, avalanches, earthquakes, and animal attacks kill about 250,000 people each year around the world (Burton et al. 1978).

The psychological dimensions to these calamities may be divided into the predisaster phase, which includes preparation and thinking about impending disasters, the period during which the disaster strikes, including thinking and behavior during disasters, and the postdisaster phase, including mental health and coping with the aftermath.

5.1 Before The Disaster

Before a disaster, one focus is on attitudes toward the possibility of disaster, which include knowledge and perception of the risk, degree of trust in authorities, concern, fear, or anxiety.

Generally, greater concern, less trust in officials, greater perceived risk, increased anxiety, and environmentalism are interrelated. Those who are fearful or concerned about one natural hazard are likely to be concerned about other hazards. These clusters of thoughts and feelings are similar across cultures. Women report greater fears, and members of families and younger people usually report more concern or fear than single or older people.

Officials must be careful with warnings; one prediction of a quake that did not happen produced mild but widespread stress disorders in children. Warnings also must be carefully planned because people respond differently depending on which medium carries the warning, because warnings carried by radio, newspapers, and TV vary in memorability, vividness, and imaginability.

Closeness to the site of the hazard also affects concern. Three forms of closeness may be identified: (a) physical proximity, (b) place attachment or length of residence in the threatened community, or (c) closeness in the sense of having experienced the hazard before. Living close generally leads to greater concern and less trust of official warnings. However, concern does not always rise directly with closeness; in fact the reverse sometimes occurs. Particularly when a hazard is difficult to control, residents tend to deny or downplay it. Residents who have lived in an area longer tend to believe the probability of a future disaster is greater. Experience with hazards obviously affects attitudes toward them; in one study, people who had experienced an earthquake were more concerned about future quakes than those without experience. More educated people tend to have fewer fears and concerns about hazards.

When people in an affected area discuss hazards, perceived risk may be socially amplified, that is, risk estimates can be increased, decreased, or shaped by the social, cultural, psychological, and institutional context in which risk is discussed.

Often, serious conflicts arise between hazard experts and laypersons. This happens for at least five reasons. The two groups often (a) use different terminologies, (b) try to solve different problems, (c) disagree about which solutions are feasible, (d) perceive the facts differently, and (e) whereas experts consider risks and benefits separately, most laypersons do not separate the two. In general, experts employ technical models for estimating risk and make decisions that place more value on rationality, efficiency, and expertise, whereas laypersons base their risk estimates on a democratic model that places more emphasis on personal, experiential, and social values.

Disaster preparedness is important but often inadequate. One reason is bounded rationality, the tendency to perceive and adopt a narrower than necessary range of preparations. Individuals also usually prefer crisis response patterns, that is, to wait until disaster strikes before preparing. Finally, individuals routinely misperceive risks from environmental hazards.

5.2 During And Soon After The Disaster

What is known about behavior, thoughts, and feelings as the disaster unfolds? Most individuals do not panic during natural disasters: there are many well-documented cases of victims acting as calmly, rationally and effectively as possible.

After the first seconds of shock, people move to protect what is dearest to them. Some, of course, do collapse completely or act in ways that endanger their own and others’ lives. However, one frequent immediate postdisaster phenomenon is the therapeutic community, when even unacquainted people work hard together.

Also, before a disaster, many individuals believe they will be able to control dangerous events—an illusion of control. When fate spares a person, even when neighbors are struck, this illusion is strengthened.

5.3 After The Disaster

Certain postdisaster cognitive tendencies are unfortunate. For example, some nonvictims see victims as blameworthy, perhaps because they live in (or failed to move from) the affected area.

Unless the disaster is extreme, most residents do not move; ties to jobs, family, friends, and the physical setting result in place attachment, which tends to keep people in a place even after a disaster.

One interesting post-disaster behavioral change is the rate of marriage among survivors. A study in the USA of six large-scale disasters found little evidence of change, but the huge 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China had an important effect. Remarriage after the death of a spouse is traditionally discouraged in China, but 2,000 of 3,000 widowed people in Tangshan remarried within a few years, primarily to provide economic security and to ease personal suffering.

The major outcomes of disasters are, of course, stress and other mental health problems. Many victims show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, but depression, phobias, and medically unexplained symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, fainting, amnesia, and even paralysis are also seen.

In many ways, victims avoid the overwhelming reality facing them. For example, those who survived the November 1985 volcano and mudslide that killed about 22,000 people in Armero, Colombia often didn’t want to know the full extent of the tragedy and resorted to primitive or ‘magical’ thinking styles (Cohen 1987).

Many studies of mental health after major disasters have been conducted. The results of 52 studies were quantitatively summarized in a meta-analysis. Compared to normal conditions, a 17 percent increase in the rate of psychopathology was found in the wake of disaster (Rubonis and Bickman 1991). Of course, this figure is averaged across all the studies. Mental health problems are greater when more people are killed. For example, in the Armero disaster major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder affected about 50 percent of the survivors.

Fortunately, mental health problems appear to decline with time. However, this does not occur fully or completely. Among victims of the Armero disaster, the rate of emotional distress over a four-year period declined from 65 to 31 percent. One could say that stress declined by 50 percent, but one could also say that after four years, almost a third of the survivors were still suffering. Psychological testing more than 12 years after the great Tangshan earthquake showed that survivors were still affected.

How can stress be relieved? Survivors must cope somehow. Some do so by using problem-focused coping, some by emotion-focused coping, and others use denial. Each style may help, depending on the nature of the disaster. When the situation is very difficult to change, a problem-focused approach may increase distress. Generally, support from family and friends helps, but may help only some—for example, according to one study, men who were not severely stressed and are offered support by nonfamily members who are their seniors.

Survivors appear to follow a three-part social stage model of coping. After the disaster, victims openly talk and think about it for about two weeks. In the next stage, lasting about six weeks, they inhibit talking about the disaster but continue to think about it. During this stage, some indicators of distress increase because victims are thinking but not talking. Finally, an indefinite adaptation stage arrives, during which victims neither talk nor think about the disaster. This does not mean that all the disaster’s effects are over; symptoms may remain under the surface for years.

Psychologists have tried to model the ways that authorities and victims will behave during a disaster. Just as one might study how a new jet design might react by using a wind tunnel, social scientists work at predicting behavior during disasters.

6. Conclusions

Reports that extraterrestrial forces from cosmic rays, planets, and the moon affect human behavior probably are false-positive errors; no plausible mechanisms by which such forces would influence people have been advanced. Earthly forces do have important effects on people. Aggressiveness rises with temperature to a point and then declines. Ozone levels may influence violence as well as health. Electromagnetic radiation appears to affect public fears more than it affects health.

Nature can be both restorative and destructive. More research is needed, but it seems to restore by refreshing attention capacity, improving moods, facilitating cognitive freedom, increasing a sense of ecosystem connectedness, providing an escape from daily life, presenting achievable challenges, offering a setting for renewed social life, and health through exercise. Even merely viewing nature apparently is restorative.

Attitudes about environmental risk vary with gender, education, proximity, disaster experience, and media exposure. Once formed, attitudes toward hazards are, in turn, related to the quality of disaster preparedness. Laypersons and experts differ dramatically in their perception of risk; efforts toward mutual understanding are necessary. Bounded rationality, under-preparation, crisis response, and risk misperception often blunt effective personal action before and during disasters. During disasters, losses may be high but individuals generally act in relatively rational ways. The outcome of disaster is stress in many forms. Some forms of coping reduce stress better than others. Community attachment and economic factors often prevent residents from vacating high-risk areas; they would rather see governments engage in massive public works to protect their homes.


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  3. Cohen R E 1987 The Armero tragedy: Lessons for mental health professionals. Hospital & Community Psychiatry 38: 1316–21
  4. Kaplan R, Kaplan S 1989 The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press, New York
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  6. Rubonis A V, Bickman L 1991 Psychological impairment in the wake of disaster: The disaster–psychopathology relationship. Psychological Bulletin 109: 384–99
  7. Ulrich R S 1993 Biophilia, biophobia, and natural landscapes. In: Kellert S R, Wilson E O (eds.) The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington, DC


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