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Exploring Aspects of Environmental Psychology

Updated on September 15, 2019
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Rodric completed his bachelor of psychology through the University of Phoenix. His perspective provides guidance and education.

In this brief treatment, a concise definition of environmental psychology will follow focusing on a couple of the major theories of this field of study and the application of research within this field.

Environmental Psychology Defined

An environment for some people that provides a level of stability may have a significantly different effect on others, adverse even. Some people can tolerate tattered old clothing and the accompanying odor, while others have violent physical reactions to the sight and odor of the same items.

Environments are an enigma of sorts when a succinct answer requires attention unless some precedent defines the application of the word. In other words, applied use of the word. A person may speak of nature referring to the environment while another speaks of the climate.

Every place is an environment! A plane or a classroom could refer to the environment. Environmental psychology has to do with the study of the surroundings and its impact on humanity psychologically. Veitch suggests a somewhat in-depth approach to behavioral psychology as he defines environmental psychology as a science that examines human behavior relating to the external conditions with the intent to improve humanity or understand humanity better. 2

With understanding and/or improving being chief aims of environmental psychology, assisting people with behavioral issues that cause discomfort may yield promising data just as one focus for this young branch of psychology.

On a Plane. A real one not a philosophical one!


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Two passengers sit on a plane traveling to a destination for business. One passenger reaches for the "notice button" above to inform a flight attendant to provide a beverage.

The other passenger sitting next to the first squirms slightly in the seat as the flight attendant approaches and leans over him without physical contact to hand the summoning passenger a beverage.

The first passenger enjoys the beverage, shaking the small cup—jingling the ice. The second passenger tenses at the noise with blinking eyes rapidly and sighing quietly.

A description of this scenario could continue with the two passengers on the plane. One passenger, the one with the drink, appears relaxed and at ease enjoying the drink.

The other appears uncomfortable and frustrated because of the uncontrollable forces in the environment. Both passengers share the plane with dozens of other people in the same environment, but each has a different experience.

How could two people in the same environment experience cognitively and emotionally different things while events occur the same in their physical surrounding?

Theories of Environmental Psychology

In all the fields of psychology, individual perspectives color data to support whatever researcher's view involved. Environmental psychology consists of several theories that support certain perspectives with attempts to understand the relationship between a particular environment and human behavior.

The major divisions of theoretical perspectives separate into two branches:

Group or Social emphasis 
Individual emphasis.

Following an examination of the psychological theories listed by author Veitch, it would seem that each theory has some application to any given situation. However, each concept measures data more appropriately for a specific subject. For example, there are theories that apply to large groups such as ecological theories, while others apply to individuals such as behavioral constraint theories.

These two listed theories receive attention here rather than a comprehensive treatment of all related sections of environmental psychology. At this point, it is worthy to mention that I submit that all of the theories of psychology, all of them, work together to give understanding to the human condition lending no value above to any. Psychology is not a study limited by one theory over another but includes the option to consider them all in determining factors to human mental and emotional discovery. Considering only behavioral theories without including cognitive theories and such limits a full picture of what the truth is regarding human development and wellbeing.

As such, psychology is not a body of science with definitions that are unchangeable. As new perspectives arise, the body of understanding increases. Looking at things from one perspective only helps in a training situation and not application other than to form a baseline from which to navigate.

Environmental psychology is the perspective that the things that surround individuals or groups have an effect on the growth and development of individuals and groups in some way that shapes health and illness. Approaching from that perspective and working from that premise is only the beginning. The level of veracity of how a theory applies to individuals or groups can prove as varied and complex as each individual or group are different.

How could two people in the same environment experience cognitively and emotionally different things while events occur the same in their physical surrounding?

The answer to the question above:

People are different. The environment is not limited to the physical stimuli a person or group experiences. Other influencers come into play such as mental capacity and environment, emotional capacity and environment, spiritual capacity and environment, social capacity and environment, and so forth and so on. The more thought put into what an environment leads to endless possibilities, which is why artificial base points are necessary to provide understanding so that researchers can collaborate and give a consensus. When it comes to psychology of any type, knowledge is relative first to the individual. A redeeming quality for the validity of psychology is that most people fit the mold for enough of the different theories to provide a way to assist them. The first challenge is to discover is which theoretical concept applies to which group or individual. Once made, that determining factor allows for proper assistance for any person.

Ecological Theories

Ecological studies in psychology have had limited attention and it is impossible to record or quantify some human conditions in a reasonable manner for this theory of environmental psychology, which is its own branch. That does not mean some have not so attempted.

Real-world studies or natural habitat observations is the bases of ecological theories of psychology using past or current information and making projections of what may occur to influence human progression and development. Of itself, ecological ideas provide context to what might be the cause of certain trends in human or group behavior, but not with ironclad certainty. Just like gravity exists as it does because of the condition of the Earth, but would differ on the moon, psychological perspectives exist as they do based on relative factors.

Pre-School Doctrine

Meade, Kershaw, and Ickovic have a study suggesting that the environment helps to foster certain types of behavior—specifically related to outcomes of teenage pregnancy in their study.

Meade et al suggested that from their research that certain environments accommodate certain behaviors, with societal implication supporting a number of social programs such as the preschool program which purpose is to provide equalizing instruction to young children from underprivileged homes.

People living in middle-class and higher socioeconomic statuses presumably have the opportunity to spend more time educating and providing necessary learning opportunities for their children due to many factors. If environment helps to determine behavior, and it does, the preschool doctrine is a way to provide a substitute equivalent to the time, effort, economic power and life opportunities of the middle class and higher socioeconomic strata people to foster the needs of the economically challenged children. The assumption here is that preschool equates to some degree to the educational opportunities afforded children in wealthy homes.

Ecological theories suggest that the environment and the person support each other—a symbiotic existence. In the example using the preschool substitution for parental interactivity idea, there are other factors to consider that foster the educational environment of learning such as educational level of the parents, access to health care, the amount of green space, the danger to safety ratio and the number of parents in the home with still further relationship determinants to review. The students have so many factors that may or may not act in their lives, affordances as taught by James Gibson. The truth of the matter remains that in this theological concept that the environment can only provide assistance to the extent to which the actor uses the environmental stimulus.

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Who is in Control the Environment or the Person?

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Based on the Place

On a plane, certain behaviors exist that would not function to the advantage of those involved in other environments. Depending on the passenger level, seating on a plane is static as opposed to a stationary environment such as a movie theater providing fewer stimuli to act upon. Of course, such a place has limited capacity also, but the parameters surrounding the frequency of capacity patronage differs depending on the occurrences in a theater or the destination of a plane. In a theater, if a person has problems with the occupants surrounding him, he may move locations or leave.

Moving location on the plane does not fit within the normal mode of behavior on a plane, because of safety and space constraints. The seating is designated in a plane but not in a cinema. The environment is restrictive and provides fewer tools from which to stimulate behavior.

Because ecological theories support environmental harmony across broad possibilities, it has the most comprehensive application. Perception in this theory appears to be based on information, or environmental stimuli and physical sensation, which is also information.

Behavioral Constraint Theory

People like to be in control of their environment. When that control is not available, adjustments occur in behavior. When multiple attempts to produce the desired level of comfort fail for individuals or groups in an environment, behavioral constraint theory purports that an adjustment to acceptance of helplessness overrides individuals or groups to accept the new constraints. It seems a fancy form to assert that people naturally accept the things that individuals and groups cannot change and change the things that individuals or groups can change.

If an individual does not appreciate a dirty environment, this theory concludes, he or she will clean it. If he or she cannot clean it, attempts to make adjustments of all types to improve his or her situation can occur. There is no limit to the possibilities unless the parameters include only what reasonable people would do to change or adapt to unpleasant circumstances. At most a person will take lives to accommodate his or her desire for control, while at least doing what appears to be nothing.

The opening example of the passengers and the flight attendant focuses on individual experiences in an environment.

The person who has the stressful response to the stimuli from the environment experiences a perceived limitation or disruption, which falls under the realm of behavioral constraint theory.

This passenger experiences all the classic association to support this theory—loss of control over the environment, discomfort.

Miller, Deatrick, Young and Potts suggest that when elements in the environment threaten behavioral freedoms a reactance to some degree will occur to either attempt to help people cope with the new stressors or eliminate the stressor.

In the case of the stressed passenger on the plane, reactance behavior to squirm and sigh helped to release the stress caused by the disturbing environmental influences.

If the stressed passenger, irritated by the noise another passenger caused with his drink, would have applied his headphones to listen to music, it would have helped lessen the stress from the environment.

This act would have provided a sense of control Veitch asserts. So, this theory alleges that normative behavioral patterns of coping with threats occur when the stressed individual perceives a loss of control and responds by changing elements in the environment to reassert control. If that controlling action fails helplessness or discomfort occurs.

Rather real or perceptually contrived, stressors are correlated with limitations on human behavior from the environment. This precludes that the individual is limited to other environments cognitively. Mentally, humans can experience each environment they can recall while experiencing the present environment. This is where the contrivance comes into play and where people can learn from an experience from another environment something diametrically opposed to the current situation, but can utilize a lesson from that other environment to succeed in the dissimilar situation.

Research in Environmental Psychology


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As with all fields of science, the application of the scientific method is imperative in order for proper data recording. Depending on what a researcher wants to accomplish will determine the type of methods applied to produce the outcome—namely laboratory experimentation, field correlational studies, and field experimentation.

Laboratory experimentation involves a controlled environment where research has the advantage to measure and evaluate within certain tolerances. Field correlational studies have to do with juxtaposing non-controlled experiences.

Field experimentation is a combining laboratory and field experience researching to establish some type of validity for research goals. Depending on what the researcher wants to accomplish and correlate, he will use one of the three prevailing research methods.

Burrhus Fredric Skinner

B. F. Skinner was one of the most influential of American psychologists. A radical behaviorist, he developed the theory of operant conditioning -- the idea that behavior is determined by its consequences, be they reinforcements or punishments, which
B. F. Skinner was one of the most influential of American psychologists. A radical behaviorist, he developed the theory of operant conditioning -- the idea that behavior is determined by its consequences, be they reinforcements or punishments, which | Source


Environmental psychological research is relatively new in name per se but not in practice. Behaviorists such as Skinner → suggest some correlation between the environment and behavior even if there is by the smallest percentage.

All psychology could fit within a context of environmental psychology at its broadest application to conduct multiple studies to better catalog and understand psychological disorders and improve the functionality of organizations.

Environmental psychology is the study of human behavior in relation to the environment explained from several theoretical viewpoints using the common scientific method of research to understand human behavior.

The environment for one person that suggests a level of stability for some may have a significantly different effect on others. The environment is an enigma of sorts when a succinct answer requires attention unless precedent reveals the utilization of the word.

One may speak of nature referring to the environment while another speaks of the climate. Still further, mention of a plane or classroom could describe what someone intends when he refers to the environment.

Veitch suggests a somewhat in-depth approach to behavioral psychology as he defines environmental psychology as a science that examines human behavior relating to the physical environment with the intent to improve humanity—or understand humanity better.

With understanding and/or improvement being the principal object of environmental psychology, assisting people with behavioral issues that cause discomfort may yield promising data merely for one aspect of this young branch of psychology.

It begs to rest the argument that it does not matter where a person comes from it is where he goes against the thought that a person can be removed from his environment but that environment cannot be removed from the person.

Both may have intrinsic application to human behavior equally.

Reference Material

Meade, C., Kershaw, T., & Ickovics, J. (2008, July). The intergenerational cycle of teenage motherhood: An ecological approach. Health Psychology, 27(4), 419-429. Retrieved June 8, 2009, doi:10.1037/0278-6133.27.4.419 1

Veitch, R. (1995). Environmental psychology. New Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall. 2

© 2013 Rodric Anthony

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