Residential Environmental Psychology Research Paper

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Homes and residences are not merely physical and economic structures. They are centers of psychological and cultural life. Home is the most important place in many lives, which affords it great potential for facilitating or threatening human development. People think about their homes, are satisfied or not with them, plan, dream, move, use them in various ways, and often must cope with difficult social and physical conditions in their homes, if they have one.

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1. Definitions

A house is not necessarily a home. A residence (house, apartment, condominium, loft, flat, tipi, or, in general, any dwelling) is a physical structure that varies tremendously in form around the world. Home is the rich set of evolving meanings that people often (but not always) attach to their residences (Lawrence 1987). Residences may be bought, sold, or rented; homes cannot.

1.1 Background

Vernacular residences in traditional societies gradually evolved to suit local building materials, climates, and social practices. In recent times, awareness of other cultures, technological advances, and prosperity in industrialized countries have permitted more choice in residential form and structure. The psychological aspects of residences became relevant, and with the growth of environmental psychology and sociology in the late 1960s, researchers began to examine the impact of residences on residents.

1.2 Dimensions Of Residences And Homes

Residences vary in any number of physical aspects such as form, age, style, size, or cost. However, residences may be characterized in more psychological and cultural ways (Altman and Werner 1985). First, residences may be permanent or temporary. In industrialized countries, residents usually have permanent dwellings, although apparently this situation is not entirely satisfactory because many householders also maintain temporary residences such as cabins, cottages, and recreational vehicles. In less-industrialized countries, residents move frequently or seasonally and often construct temporary dwellings in new places.

Second, residences range from differentiated to homogeneous, which refers to the separation, or lack of it, in the functions of rooms. A highly differentiated residence has many rooms, each of which houses a specific activity; in a homogeneous residence nearly any activity may occur in nearly any room.

Third, residences may be communal or noncommunal, in terms of the degree to which nuclear families live together or in different homes. In contrast to the typical single-family dwelling of the Western world, in many Eastern cultures several generations of a family live in one household. In some African and Native American cultures, numerous unrelated families live in one dwelling.

Fourth, identity versus communality refers to the extent to which residences are contextually unusual. Communality (the same word as above, but with a different meaning here) is the extent to which a residence is physically typical of dwellings in that culture. A tipi on a suburban lot in North America would be low on communality, but high on identity; the same tipi at a pow-wow on the open plains of central North America would be high on communality.

Fifth, residences vary in their openness to outsiders. This varies both within and between cultures. In some places, houses typically are surrounded by walls or hedges; in others they are not. Dwellings signal willingness or unwillingness to interact with outsiders.

Home, in contrast to residence, is a set of personal meanings. The word’s earliest meaning probably was the village or community of one’s origin; not until the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries did it refer to one’s dwelling. To be a home, a residence should provide haven, order, identity, connectedness, interpersonal warmth, and physical suitability (Smith 1994). As a haven, a home must surround a person with privacy, security, and protection from the slings and arrows of life outside it.

A home provides order by helping individuals to know their place in the world. As a center from which people venture and return, home orders one’s existence in the world, both spatially and temporally. Home is central to a sense of identity and connectedness because it offers a sense of kinship, belonging, and status. Through self-expression and personalization, the home comes to resemble or represent the self. When people have the means and the time to personalize their residence, home becomes a symbol of self (Cooper 1976). To the extent a residence does not provide these felt amenities, it is not a home.

1.3 Houselessness

The homeless, those who live in the streets, properly should be called houseless. Many houseless people have a home, a residence with personal meaning that—for one reason or another—they are unable to live in. Home is the most important refuge from the stresses of work, school, and public life. Unfortunately, many people live in residences that do not provide protection and rejuvenation, and therefore they are homeless. Probably one billion people have inadequate housing, and about 100 million are houseless. Institutionalized individuals often are in this situation. Houselessness is more than lack of a residence; many other social negative social consequences follow. Individuals who are both houseless and homeless do exist, and are extremely unfortunate.

2. Residential Preferences And Satisfaction

Residential preference and satisfaction are related but distinct concepts. Their measurement is not straightforward. Some residences would dissatisfy anyone, and there are some individuals who will not be satisfied by any residence. Between these extremes, however, lie most homes and most residents. Different homes satisfy different residents. Preference involves comparison, whereas satisfaction may be mainly based on residents’ evaluations of their own dwellings.

2.1 Measurement Issues

Residential satisfaction is multidimensional. David Canter (1983) has described two cognitive processes related to residential satisfaction, purposiveness and comparison. Purposive evaluations have three facets: level, referent, and focus. Level, or specificity, refers to evaluating a single part of the residence (such as the kitchen), or a larger portion of it (such as the bedrooms as a whole, or the entire residence). Referents refer to different qualities of the residence (its beauty, or spaciousness); each suggests a certain purpose which is served well or poorly. The lighting referent, for example, is important when the resident considers tasks such as reading or sewing that require good lighting. Focus depends on the referent, and refers to how broadly the resident is asked to evaluate a referent. For example with lighting, focus might refer to the ability of a particular lamp to light a study desk, or about the ability of all the residence’s lamps to light the home as a whole.

Purposiveness arises out of the resident’s relationship to the residence, such as long-term vs. short-term residence, ownership, renting, or landlordship; these different purposes will make important differences in the resident’s evaluation. In general, a resident’s purpose in doing an evaluation is itself a crucial factor in satisfaction.

The second factor is comparison. Whether observers are explicitly asked to compare a specific residence against a series of others, or merely asked for a rating of a particular residence without explicit comparison with others, they cannot help at least implicitly comparing the residence in question with others in their experience. Thus, different observers will be comparing the residence in question against different houses in their experience.

Residents who are unaware that their friends live in mansions might be more satisfied with their huts. Residents compare residences, and this can be an important source of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. A study of Army personnel who lived in mobile homes and apartments found that comparison with other housing accounted for much of the variance in their housing satisfaction.

Perceived physical qualities of a residence (such as its appearance) are important predictors of satisfaction, and so are preferred physical qualities. However, the difference between perceived and preferred qualities is a separate but important predictor of housing satisfaction.

2.2 Personal, Social, And Physical Influences

Residential satisfaction is influenced by many personal characteristics, including age, stage in the life cycle, socioeconomic status, personality, values, and hopes for the future. Social factors such as age and community norms, others’ opinions, and neighbors also influence satisfaction. Gender and sex roles are important. In a study of Canadian households that had recently moved, for example, husbands and wives were asked to list the things that made them happy about their new homes and apartments (Michelson 1977). Among couples who moved to a downtown apartment, more than 40 percent of the wives mentioned that they were satisfied with the quality of the home, but only 5 percent of the husbands mentioned this. On the other hand, among couples that moved to suburban apartments, more than 50 percent of the husbands mentioned quality of the home as a source of their satisfaction but only 5 percent of the wives did.

As men enter the kitchen more, similarities and differences in men’s and women’s preferences for kitchen designs become more important. Both men and women prefer kitchens that open to dining and family room areas over kitchens that are separated from those areas. However, women who work outside the home prefer open kitchens more than women who do not work outside the home and, despite their agreement on the open-closed aspect of the kitchen, men and women differ in many other kitchen spatial preferences.

Residential satisfaction is also related to socio-economic status. In general, of course, wealthier individuals are better able to supply themselves with homes that meet their standards, and thus are more satisfied. However, wealthier and poorer residents may be attuned to different features of their homes: One study found that wealthier individuals were more sensitive to the aesthetic qualities of their home, whereas poorer individuals were more sensitive to safety, health, and family needs.

Naturally, physical and architectural factors such as house form, architectural style, floor plan, and colors affect residential satisfaction, but these should not be considered the sole, or even the main, source of housing satisfaction. Most individuals prefer higher (than the usual eight-foot) ceilings, flat or sloping ceilings (4-in-12 slope but neither more than that nor smaller slopes), and walls that meet at 90 degrees or more (not walls that meet at smaller angles). In general, highly detailed designs are favored over plain and simple designs. In places where fear for personal security is high, enclosed and guarded enclaves are highly valued, as shown in a recent Brazilian study (Carvalho et al. 1997).

Color has been the subject of much research, but most of it has been based on preferences for small patches of color that resemble paint chips, in no particular context (that is, subjects are not usually asked if they would paint their kitchen or bedroom that color). These findings may not apply to choices in real-life situations. A study in Japan tried to overcome these limitations by showing slides of living rooms that were painted different colors (Kunishima and Yanase 1985). Preference is not merely a matter of hue (red vs. blue vs. green); it also depends on the hue’s saturation (or ‘denseness’) and brightness (from light to dark). The study concluded that each of these three dimensions of color was related to a different aspect of preference. Hue was not strongly related to preference; instead it was primarily related to perceived warmth (reds are warmer, blues and greens cooler). Saturation (regardless of hue) was most closely related to what we usually call preference: More saturated hues were evaluated as more elegant, more comfortable, and better. Brightness or lightness (regardless of hue) was related to how ‘active’ the room seemed: Brighter colors were rated as fresher, lighter, and more cheerful than darker hues.

There remains a general preference for the single-family dwelling that has persisted in North America for many years. As for style, some trends are evident: In one study, farmhouse and Tudor style houses were preferred to saltbox and Mediterranean styles (Nasar 1989). However, preferences for style clearly change in part with changes in fashions.

2.3 Cultural Variations

Residences clearly vary in form around the world. These variations are not merely decorative, they are psychologically meaningful. For example, an examination of house form across 73 cultures revealed that the extent of partitioning indoor space (differentiation) is related to the degree of sociopolitical complexity in the culture, that is, how much segmentation, specialization, and hierarchical ordering is typical of the culture. Thus, a worldwide trend is for our dwellings to mirror the complexity of the society in which it is embedded.

3. Behavior In Residences

The environmental psychology of dwelling interiors is not very developed because the study of behavior in and round homes understandably meets with a resistance on privacy grounds.

3.1 Vernacular Residential Design

Residents arrange and decorate their interiors according to certain patterns that reflect such dimensions as simple–complex, conventional–unusual, and rich– plain decor, and messy–tidy upkeep. These patterns are related to culture, social class, and marital or living arrangement differences. For example, French and Italian living room arrangements were examined (Bonnes et al. 1987). French living rooms could be described using three dimensions–decoration, functional organization, and structuring of space. For example, at one end of the decoration dimension were living rooms that were low on ambiguity and complexity; these living rooms tended to have velvet antique couches with armrests, copies of period wallpaper, and books for show (not use) in a wall-unit that also included cupboards and a bar. Italian living rooms could be described using the same three dimensions, but they tended to be combined differently.

3.2 Use Of Interior Spaces

Men, women, and children use the interior dwelling spaces unequally; sex role changes have not changed the traditional use of rooms much; women still spend more time in the kitchen (Ahrentzen et al. 1989) and more time with children, and men spend more time in leisure activities. Children (until the teen years) have restricted territories: Parents generally can enter their space, but children generally cannot enter their parents’ space.

In a rare study that actually monitored behavior inside homes (as opposed to asking residents to report their activities), cameras were placed (with the residents’ permission) in New York homes (Ashcraft and Scheflen 1976). The study found that although definite territories exist within the home, the degree to which the boundaries of these territories were respected varied considerably. For example, parents may feel they have the right to enter a teen’s bedroom, but do not think the teen should enter their bedroom. But both territories are sometimes intruded upon, which creates conflict.

When space is limited, residents use time scheduling, territoriality, and social agreements to manage household space. Half our leisure time is spent in the home, but it could be better spent. When teens spend more time sharing leisure with their parents, they report greater well-being. More TV time is associated with less time spent on intellectual and cultural pursuits.

4. Coping With Residential Shortcomings

Much housing is substandard, and there are consequences. Well-executed recent research conducted in the USA suggests that poor-quality housing adversely affects the mental health of both adults (Evans et al. 2000) and children (Evans et al. in press).

4.1 High Density

High density in the residence has been shown to have many adverse effects. High-density homes as a whole have more psychological distress and psychiatric illness and have been associated with increased substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, fertility and mortality rates, and may lead residents to believe they have less social support. Crowding at home has more serious consequences than crowding in public environments. Some of these are mitigated by social support, if the resident has any. Density appears to have negative effects apart from poverty. Very low densities (living alone) also cause problems for many people.

4.2 Housing Forms

Not every housing form is good for every resident. High rises probably are not good for families or children, and one study suggests that young children are better off if they attend a good child care center than if they stay at home. Apartment living has been associated with numerous childhood afflictions, including retarded movement skills, respiratory diseases, aggression, insomnia, nervous disorders, reduced social skills, and disrupted play. If all this is true, we may wonder how any child can survive in an apartment. However, many of these studies lack experimental rigor; their results must be questioned.

5. Residential Mobility

All of us must unwillingly adapt to new dwellings sometimes; at other times, we choose to relocate. In any given five-year period, about half of all North Americans and Australians move, as do over one-third of Britons and Japanese (Stokols et al. 1983). People move for many reasons, including both negative factors such as stress from and dissatisfaction with the current residence, but also for positive reasons such as improved finances. Life cycle changes that add or subtract family members living at home can also spur mobility. Mobility is not necessarily pathogenic, then, but it can be, depending on one’s residential history, present circumstances, and hopes for the future. For example, among those who move less often, those with less choice about moving report more illness-related symptoms than those who have greater choice about moving.

Mobility-related stress is moderated by personal characteristics; people who are highly mobile and those who were generally less inclined to explore the environment report more illness than those who are more exploratory by nature. Conversely, more illness occurs among residents who move less often but are unhappy with their present residence and feel they have little choice of residence. Thus, a lack of mobility also can be damaging—when one’s options for moving are restricted.

6. Conclusions

Home usually is the most important physical setting. The physical building must be distinguished from the meaning structure (home). Residential satisfaction is complex and multiply determined, but life cycle stage, socioeconomic status, personality, values, and hopes for the future are important factors, as are physical features such as house form, architectural style, floor-plan and colors, outdoor areas, and cultural background. People arrange residential interiors in nonrandom patterns that reflect culture and lifestyle. High indoor density is difficult for virtually anyone, but can be made less intolerable with social support. Moving is stressful or not depending on whether a person has some choice in doing so, likes to explore new settings, and likes the present residence.


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