Introduction natural environments) (Pol, 2006). Although Hellpach’s



This exploratory research paper aims to give
an overview of the history and origins of the field of environmental psychology.

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It will look at it as a form of alternative psychology that has not yet reached
the level of mainstream schools of thought; through looking at the events
leading up to it and contextualizing them. Environmental psychology is a
discipline that looks at the interaction between individuals and their
‘natural’ and ‘human-made’ environment as well as the ‘social’ environment.

This entails that environmental psychology studies how the environment
influences human experience, behavior, well-being, and the influence of humans
on the environment (for example, pro-environmental behavior and ways to
encourage it). Major contributions to the field as well as theories and
research methods will be examined.

Historical and Theoretical Roots


Environmental psychology has been recognized
as field of psychology since the late 60s and is a relatively ‘new’ field in
psychology as a whole (Altman, 1975; Proshansky, Ittelson, & Rivlin, 1970;
Stokols, 1977, 1978). Pol (2006) asserts that Willy Hellpach was one of the
very first scholars to introduce the term ‘environmental psychology’ in the
beginnings of 20th century. Hellpach (1911) looked at the impact of
different stimuli in the environment, like color and form, the sun and the moon
on human behavior and activities. Much later in his work, Hellpach looked at
urban occurrences such as crowding and overstimulation as well as
differentiating between different types of environments (e.g. social,
historical-cultural & natural environments) (Pol, 2006). Although
Hellpach’s work is what environmental psychologists look at since the field’s recognition
in the 60s, it was way ahead of its time and it was not the time for the
establishment of a field on its own with research directed towards
human-environment interactions.

Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) and Egon Brunswick
(1903-1955) are thought to be the ‘founding fathers’ of environmental
psychology (Gifford, 2007a). Both of these scholars did not have enough
empirical work that would be classified under the research conducted in the
field. Regardless of that fact, their work, such as the interaction between
physical environment and psychological processes as well as studying human
behavior in real-life observational settings instead of laboratory settings,
was highly influential and inspired many studies years later. Brunswick was one
of the very first psychologists to put forth the idea that psychology should
pay attention to the organism’s environment as much as it focuses on the
organism itself. He believed that one’s physical environment could affect our
psychological processes on a subconscious level. Moreover, he advocated for a
different type of research, which included all aspects of the surrounding
environment rather than the artificial environments studied by psychologists at
the time. Lewin likewise argued that psychology should be driven to research
social problems that occur in the real world. He coined the term ‘social action
research’, which is a problem-oriented, non-reductionist approach that
practically applies theories and emphasizes the urgency of using research to
solve social problems (Benjamin, 2007). Much akin to Brunswick’s work, Lewin
asserted that the environment is a key factor of human behavior. He argued that
behavior is a function of the person and the environment (Lewin, 1951). However,
Lewin’s focus was more on the social or interpersonal influences instead of the
physical environment (Wohlwill, 1970). He inspired his students to expand on
his ideas and these included Barker and Bronfenbrenner, who are both regarded
as antecedent figures of environmental psychology.

Human behavior interactions received more and
more acceptance as a full discipline thanks to the emergence of pioneering
studies such as human factors in work performance (Mayo, 1933), the lighting of
home (Chapman & Thomas, 1944), and child behaviors in natural settings
(Barker & Wright, 1955). These studies really gave the necessary push for
this research area to be taken more seriously. Interestingly, they were
labelled as studies in ‘architectural psychology’ to distinguish them from the
more traditional forms of psychology, due to their reference to how
environments influenced people’s behaviors and perceptions (Canter, 1969; Pol,
2007; Winkel, Saegert & Evan, 2009). Early on in the life of the field, Bonnes
& Bonaiuto (2002) suggested that the bulk of attention was given to the
built physical environment, so the focus was more on architecture, technology
and engineering, and its effects on human behavior and well-being. The
zeitgeist at the time, especially the sociopolitical context, was the main
driver behind said focus because contemporary architecture was looking at the
challenges of providing housing and facilities for people in the post-war times
(Pol, 2006). Craik (1973) and Wohlwill (1970) highlighted that as a result of these
aforementioned circumstances, questions about the implications of environmental
stressors in the design of said homes and facilities on human performance and
well-being were raised, and that was the major focus of many studies. Thus, the
convergence of architecture and environmental psychology was born.

Like any movement or emergence of a
discipline, environmental psychology saw a second wave of growth that started
in the late 60s when the general public become more aware of environmental
issues. This, in turn, resulted in the focus of studies on ‘environmental
issues’ such as explaining and changing the negative influences of human
activity on the biophysical environment and the negative effects of
human-caused problems (such as pollution and noise) on human well-being. This
research area saw interest with initial studies focusing on air pollution (De
Groot, 1967; Lindvall, 1970), urban noise (Griffiths & Langdon, 1968) and
the appraisal of environmental quality (Appleyard & Craik, 1974; Craik
& Zube, 1976). Moreover, in the 70s and beyond, the subject matter widened
with the inclusion of studies on energy supply and demand (Zube, Brush &
Fabos, 1975) and the perceptions of risks and risk assessment associated with
growing energy technologies (Fischhoff, Slovic, Lichtenstein, Read & Combs,
1978). In addition, the first studies that looked at conservation behavior,
such as relationships between consumer attitudes and behavior (Cone &
Hayes, 1980; Stern & Gardner, 1981) first started in the 80s. In addition
to these factors, the emergence of the environmental movement was a major
contributor to the sudden shift to people becoming more socially and
environmentally aware. This was fueled by Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac
(1949) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which through literature,
criticized the recklessness and disregard people had around pollution, mainly
air and pesticide use. Moreover, something that really changed the collective
consciousness of people globally was when the first photos taken of Earth were
released by NASA in 1947. This made people more aware of their surroundings and
of the preciousness of our green planet. This sudden collective awareness of
global citizens fueled the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) in the US in 1970, which is a federal agency dedicated to looking for
sustainable solutions and protecting the environment from harm. This was also
partly due to the multinationals dumping waste in the rivers in the US around
the same time. As we can see, the zeitgeist in which a field is developed plays
a huge role in the research interests and subject matter that it looks at. This
field has a broad subject matter but it proves its usefulness through
breakthroughs of the areas of interest and the research conducted.

Focus and Attributes of the Field

            According to the Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment (2005), it became increasingly clear that problems such as
pollution and climate change largely impacted ecosystems on a global scale. It
identified human behavior as one of the main contributors to said environmental
problems. Therein lies environmental psychology’s continual concern with
instilling pro-environmental behavior, in an attempt to reverse the problems
caused while still keeping humans’ well-being intact. On this front, the World
Commission on Environment and Development (1987) in the Brundtland Report came
up with a broad concept of sustainability that looks at environmental as well
as social and economic aspects. It reads as follows: “Sustainable development
is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on
Environment and Development, 1987). This quickly became the guiding ideology
when it came to research in the field (Giuliani & Scopellitti, 2009).

People have gone so far and said that the field evolved into the ‘psychology of
sustainability’ (Gifford, 2007b).

            Environmental psychology has certain
attributes that set it apart from other fields, as well as motivating its
current state. The main attributes are: an emphasis on the interaction between
humans and the environment, an approach that is interdisciplinary, an applied
focus, and the use of varying methods of research. As the definition already
states, environmental psychology concerns itself with the interaction between
humans and the environment (natural or built) and looks at how the environment
influences behavior and vice versa. A good example of this would be the
available infrastructure for the means of transport whether public or private
may influence the level of car use, while at the same, the level of care use
may influence certain environmental problems such as air pollution. So, we can
say that humans and the environment are interconnected in a reciprocal yet
dynamic relationship. The research conducted may yield many insights into this
relationship, we can look at the positive and negative influences of
environmental conditions on humans, or the positive and negative influences of
human behavior on environmental problems and ultimately gaining knowledge to
develop pragmatic strategies to instill and motivate pro-environmental behavior
and create sustainable environments all around. If anything, environmental
psychology should be praised for its use of an interdisciplinary approach and

Many environmental psychologists work in settings where they collaborate
with scholars from various disciplines. Each discipline provides their own
respective perspective on subject in question in the research study, and this
results in a more comprehensive view on the problem they are tackling.

Environmental psychology has collaborated in three main domains among others.

To begin with, it has always worked closely with architecture and geography to
make sure they correctly utilize the physical and spatial aspects of the
relationship aforementioned. Furthermore, the field of social, gestalt and
cognitive psychology can largely be credited for the theoretical and
methodological base on which the field looks to. Last but not least, the
collaboration with environmental scientists is of utter importance to correctly
evaluate the impact of different behaviors on the scale of the environment. It is
also important to mention environmental psychology’s problem-oriented approach,
as researchers in the field do not simply conduct studies out of intellectual
curiosity, but they actively try to contribute to finding solutions to
real-life problems. However, that does not mean they are not interested in
theories. They also spend time building and testing theories in an effort to
comprehend, explain and predict human behavior in regard to the interaction
with the environment, whether it be on a local scale or on a more global scale.

In terms of methodology, environmental psychology largely employs
similar quantitative and qualitative methods to its counterparts in the field
of psychology. Whereas other fields have a defined, dominant paradigm,
environmental psychology is attributed with using a wide variety of methods.

Environmental psychologists, in an effort to secure high internal validity,
attempt to ideally replicate findings on the same phenomenon using different
research methods; this is a way to ensure the balancing out of the weaknesses
of some the methods used. The methods used vary according to setting. There are
methods that can be used independently from specific environmental settings,
methods employed in artificial settings and finally those applied in real
settings. To begin with, the method utilized when it comes to environment-independent
settings is questionnaires. This method aims to describe behaviors and to
gather people’s perceptions, opinions, attitudes and beliefs about different
issues. This type of method is popular within the field for a
plethora of reasons. First, manipulation of environmental conditions and random
assignments of participants to the conditions in question is unethical or
impossible at best. For example, you cannot double the price of fuel in an area
when looking at the effect of transport prices on car use. Questionnaires also
possess high external validity and are cost-effective and easy to apply.

Second, when it comes to artificial settings there are two methods used to
yield results; laboratory experiments and simulation studies. Laboratory
experiments take place in a controlled, artificial environment for the purpose
of research. They enable causal relationships between variables being tested.

However, for experimental psychology, the strong control in experimental
settings makes for low external validity, and may yield results that are unlike
the real world and may not be generalizable. On the other hand, computer
simulation studies enable the creation of situations that are otherwise
impossible to create in real life. An example of why this is needed is a study
that wants to look at complex systems that involve a huge amount of people
(thousands) or studies that examine how people evaluate future environmental
scenarios. This method is getting more and more popular among the environmental
psychology community. These simulations include immersive virtual environments
created with computers that aims to give the participant a realistic impression
of how it would be like if a situation or event were to happen (e.g. De Kort,
IJsselsteijn, Koojiman & Schuurmans, 2003). Simulations offer a good middle
ground as they make it possible to control some aspects of the environment thus
increasing internal validity while preserving external validity.

Moving on to methods used in real-life settings, both case studies and
field studies offer an alternative to the other methods by providing relatively
high external validity. Case studies refer to in-depth studies on a particular
situation rather than a general description or analysis. It is used to narrow
down a broad topic into a one single case i.e. a person, a place, a situation
or event. The main purpose of them is to explore and understand the meaning
people ascribe to social or human phenomena. People or events are looked at
within a ‘natural’ setting, such as the home, the university or the street.

These are considered to be ‘open systems’ where the conditions at hand are
affected by the social, physical, historical and cultural context that motivate
change. Therefore, there will never be one objective truth or one interpretation
of something (Willig, 2001). Wolcott (2001) suggests examples of strategies
used such as ethnographies, grounded theory and phenomenology. Moreover, many
environmental psychologists use field studies as their modus operandi. Because
they have high external validity with a relatively intact internal validity,
they are a method of choice for a lot of people. The internal validity is high,
as the experimenter or observer tries to manipulate an independent variable and
trying to randomly assign participants to different conditions of study. The
observed differences are assumed to be due to those changes done by the
experimenter. However, because the field study takes place in real-life, there
is a high chance of extraneous variables affecting the results.  These methods allow for originality and space
to be innovative when it comes to conducting research in the field. Below is a
table (Table 1.1) that will attempt to summarize the research methods used in
the field:

Table 1.1
Summary of Research Methodology in Environmental Psychology








High external
and reaches large populations

manipulate variables
No causal

data for practices or populations
Looking at
relationships between variables being studied


Laboratory experiments

High internal validity
Control of variables

Low external validity

Testing hypotheses
Distinguishing causal relationships


Good balance
between external and internal validity

Needs advanced
equipment and skilled individuals

Looks at
complex human-environment dynamics
Visualize and
examine future developments


Case Studies

High external validity
Rich data

Low internal validity
Time consuming
Limited generalizability

Developing hypotheses

Field Studies

Good balance
between external and internal validity

experimental control
Difficult data

current practices
Evaluating interventions

Note: Retrieved from (Steg, Van Den Berg
& De Groot, 2013).


Research in the Field


            It is very important to note that
environmental psychology is a varying landscape, because of the vast diversity
of topics to be studied and the flexibility and methodological originality
often needed to bring these topics under the scientific gaze. It still rings
true that our knowledge of certain subject areas about certain
behavior-environment relationships has become rather advanced and comprehensive
while there are areas that remain relatively untouched. Some of the more
interesting topics, however, that environmental psychology covers are that
about environmental stressors, especially with focus on noise, ambient temperature,
and crowding. This is important because the environment is somewhat of a
double-edged sword: Everything we require for survival and for us to thrive
originates in the outside world, but so does the dangers and stressors that
challenge us. The same factor could be positive or negative depending on
dimensions such as frequency, duration or magnitude of its presence.

Environmental psychology also tackles the human-constructed environment with
emphasis on work, education, and living spaces. One thing that is surely to be
agreed upon among scholars is that humans, unlike any other organism, have
successfully learned to modify their environment to suit their needs in ways
that are innovative and novel. This unique ability to create entirely new
environments, each associated with different repertoires of behavior, to design
and construct homes, workplaces, educational institutions, and many other types
of buildings has forever altered the relationship between behavior and the
environment. To no surprise, this area has been a focus of the field from early
on. Another thing that the field tries to examine is the natural environment
and the relationship humans have with nature. This may come as a surprise to us
as citizens of modern, industrialized nations, fully dependent on technology,
machinery and designed environments. It is evident that nature has a lot offer
us in terms of benefits and some environmental psychologists aim to find these
offerings and use them to our advantage.



Much akin to many schools of thought and ideologies, environmental
psychology has had its fair share of criticisms from all around. There are
scholars who are big doubters of the validity of such an area of inquiry. This
is because of its applied nature, many of the concepts are used in more
mainstream, non-scientific ways that makes people view it as lesser somehow. It
has also been criticized for having no unifying theory in which to base its
assumptions on and that all the results yielded from this research cannot be
verifiable. It has also been said that it is not worthy of being a discipline
of psychology since a very few universities offer a full degree in
environmental psychology. They only offer it as a course or a selected topic in
a psychology seminar. This sort of conveys the image to other scholars that it
is not to be taken as seriously as other established schools of thought.

However, one could say that much like this field, a lot of the ‘established’
schools of thought also have a lack of unifying theory and a lack of agreement
on the subject matter on which they focus.



            Environmental psychology emerged as
a hybrid form of subfields within the field of psychology, including cognitive,
gestalt and social psychology. From the very start, research in this discipline
has looked at and tackled ‘real world’ questions regarding the
human-environment relationship as well as the behavior-environment
relationship. Recently, the field has seen a shift of focus to understanding
and modifying behavior related to environmental problems and the strong
connection between humans and nature. In line with its roots, environmental
psychology will continue to be a diverse, multidisciplinary applied field
aiming to apply the principles of psychological functioning to problems of
social, environmental and global significance.