Environmental Psychology

De Young, R. (1999) Environmental Psychology.  In D. E. Alexander and R. W. Fairbridge [Eds]
Encyclopedia of Environmental Science.  Hingham, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Environmental psychology examines the interrelationship between environments and human behavior. The field defines the term environment very broadly including all that is natural on the planet as well as social settings, built environments, learning environments and informational environments. When solving problems involving human-environment interactions, whether global or local, one must have a model of human nature that predicts the environmental conditions under which humans will behave in a decent and creative manner. With such a model one can design, manage, protect and/or restore environments that enhance reasonable behavior, predict what the likely outcome will be when these conditions are not met, and diagnose problem situations. The field develops such a model of human nature while retaining a broad and inherently multidisciplinary focus. It explores such dissimilar issues as common property resource management, wayfinding in complex settings, the effect of environmental stress on human performance, the characteristics of restorative environments, human information processing, and the promotion of durable conservation behavior. The field of environmental psychology recognizes the need to be problem-oriented, using, as needed, the theories and methods of related disciplines (e.g., psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, ecology). The field founded the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), publishes in numerous journals including Environment and Behavior and the Journal of Environmental Psychology, and was reviewed several times in the Annual Review of Psychology. A handbook of the field was published in 1987 (Stokols and Altman 1987).

There are several recurrent elements in the research literature that help to define this relatively new field (see Garling and Golledge 1993, Kaplan and Kaplan 1982):

Attention - Understanding human behavior starts with understanding how people notice the environment. This includes at least two kinds of stimuli: those that involuntarily, even distractingly, command human notice, as well as those places, things or ideas to which humans must voluntarily, and with some effort (and resulting fatigue), direct their awareness. Restoring and enhancing people’s capacity to voluntarily direct their attention is a major factor in maintaining human effectiveness.

Perception and cognitive maps - How people image the natural and built environment has been an interest of this field from its beginning. Information is stored in the brain as spatial networks called cognitive maps. These structures link one’s recall of experiences with perception of present events, ideas and emotions. It is through these neural networks that humans know and think about the environment, plan and carry out their plans. Interestingly, what humans know about an environment is both more than external reality in that they perceive with prior knowledge and expectations, and less than external reality in that they record only a portion of the entire visual frame yet recall it as complete and continuous.

Preferred environments - People tend to seek out places where they feel competent and confident, places where they can make sense of the environment while also being engaged with it. Research has expanded the notion of preference to include coherence (a sense that things in the environment hang together) and legibility (the inference that one can explore an environment without becoming lost) as contributors to environmental comprehension. Being involved and wanting to explore an environment requires that it have complexity (containing enough variety to make it worth learning about) and mystery (the prospect of gaining more information about an environment). Preserving, restoring and creating a preferred environment is thought to increase sense of well being and behavioral effectiveness in humans.

Environmental stress and coping - Along with the common environmental stressors (e.g., noise, climatic extremes) some define stress as the failure of preference, including in the definition such cognitive stressors as prolonged uncertainty, lack of predictability and stimulus overload. Research has identified numerous behavioral and cognitive outcomes including physical illness, diminished altruism, helplessness and attentional fatigue. Coping with stress involves a number of options. Humans can change their physical or social settings to create more supportive environments (e.g., smaller scaled settings, territories) where they can managethe flow of information or stress inducing stimuli. People can also endure the stressful period, incurring mental costs that they deal with later, in restorative settings (e.g., natural areas, privacy, solitude). They can also seek to interpret or make sense of a situation as a way to defuse its stressful effects, often sharing these interpretations as a part of their culture.

Participation - The field is committed to enhancing citizen involvement in environmental design, management and restoration efforts. It is concerned not only with promoting citizen comprehension of environmental issues but with insuring their early and genuine participation in the design, modification and management of environments.

Conservation behavior - The field has also played a major role in bringing psychological knowledge to bear upon the issue of developing an ecologically sustainable society. It explores environmental attitudes, perceptions and values as well as devise intervention techniques for promoting environmentally appropriate behavior.


Garling, T. and R. Golledge [Eds.] (1993). Behavior and Environment: Psychological and Geographical Approaches. Amsterdam: North Holland.

Kaplan, S. and R. Kaplan (1982). Cognition and Environment. NY: Praeger.

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

File updated: February 9, 2016