V. George Mathew, Ph.D.


Environmental Psychology deals with behavior in relation to the environment. Concepts regarding the environment and aesthetic preferences are studied and represented in behavioral maps. Environment influences behavior at different levels. Immediate behavior is a function of the setting in which it occurs. The personality make-up of people of a country is shaped by the nature and type of environment in which they live. In unnatural or caged conditions animals show `behavior starvation' and their behavior breaks down. Population stress and the artificial character of urban conditions are supposed to be the reasons for the increased rates of crime and incidence of mental disorders of people living in urban areas. Applied Environmental Psychology attempts to provide norms for better management of the environment for better life and personality development. It studies effective ways of promoting conservation of the natural environment and better ways of designing buildings, towns and cities, taking into consideration the behavioral needs and responses of people.

1. Introduction

Environmental Psychology deals with behavior in relation to the physical environment. The physical environment includes material objects, plants, animals and human beings. Environmental Psychology does not emphasize the interactional processes among people, which form the subject matter of other branches of Psychology. Environmental Psychology follows the systems approach which has become the modern approach in several branches of science. It is holistic and naturalistic and studies the adaptation of organisms to their settings. Organisms are studied as part of the ecosystem, stressing the balance and interdependence of organisms and the `environment. This field of science took shape during the 1960s and `Environmental Psychology and Population' has been included as a division of the American Psychological Association.

The importance of the field has increased in recent years owing to the increased concern with the environment resulting from the pollution problems, problems posed by population explosion, depletion of natural resources and the felt need to conserve wilderness.

2. Concepts of Environmental Psychology

Behavioral Geography studies the cognitive maps of the individual regarding his environment. It traces environmental values, meanings and preferences. Behavioral maps are prepared relating activities to surroundings. Lines to represent direction of movement, colors to represent time spent and so on are techniques used in the preparation of such maps. Behavior maps can be prepared for exploratory behavior, neighborhood feelings, etc. Environmental aesthetics studies preferences in terms of aesthetic judgements. Recently attempts have been made to relate environmental preferences to personality characteristics, race and national character (Hall 1976; Berry 1976).

3. Influence of Environment on Behavior

It has been hypothesized that environment influences behavior at several levels. Immediate behavior is a function of the settings in which it occurs. For example, the arrangement of furniture in a room influences the way in which people in the room interact. The characteristic personality make-up of persons in a country is shaped by the nature and type of environment to which they are subjected for long periods of time. Racial differences in personality can to a large extent be traced to the influence of different environments to which people of different races have been subjected for generations (Moos 1976).

For example, it is supposed that climate influences temperament. The cold climate presumably makes people `Rajasik'. The possibility of freezing induces insecurity and in a cold place one has to keep working to warm up the body. People in a cold region have to plan ahead. hoard food and firewood and make warm clothes and footwear for winter. The hostile and scarce environment makes people aggressive and aggressiveness necessitates artificial moral control. People in such environments develop linear intelligence and they become practical, their approach to the environment being characterized by one of aggression, competition, exploitation and manipulation. It is said that science and technology are the result of this kind of approach to the environment.

In contrast, people in a very warm climate are likely to be `Thamasik'. This kind of temperament is characterized by laziness and inertia. In a very hot place, it is unpleasant to keep working, because of perspiration and fatigue. In the tropics, the seasons do not change much and resource extraction is easy throughout the year. This kind of climate makes for an attitude of surrender and the approach to the environment is marked by fear and superstition.

The moderate climate is most conducive for the `Sathwik' temperament. This is characterized by an awareness of oneself and the relationship of the environment to one's adjustment. Consequently the Sathwik approach involves living in harmony with the environment. The insight into the role of the environment in our well being leads to a felt need to conserve the natural environment. The Sathwik temperament is holistic, intuitive and well balanced.

Every animal is at home in its natural environment and in unnatural settings, its behavior becomes deranged. It has been shown that animals have behavior needs related to their natural habitats. For example, a polar bear which catches fish has the need to perform the movements involved in catching fish. In captivity, if the bear is deprived of the opportunity to satisfy this need, it will exhibit symptoms of behavior starvation, even though it is given enough food. Many caged animals show symptoms of abnormal behavior like compulsions. Increase in population density beyond the optimum point is also part of alteration of the environment and this leads to population stress causing aggression and breakdown of behavior.

Many studies demonstrate the deleterious influence of urbanization on human behavior (Baum et al. 1978). Instinctual behavior patterns of human beings also seem to break down under artificial and overpopulated urban conditions. It has been shown that the incidence of mental illness increases with urbanization. The highest incidence of schizophrenia is at the center of cities. Only about one fifth of the population of big cities seems to be relatively free from debilitating symptoms of pathology. Crime rates in big cities are increasing at an alarmingly high rate and many of the major cities of the world have come to be known as crime cities. The increasing violence of mothers towards children reflected in high rates of baby battering and the rising rates of divorce and illegitimacy point to the breakdown of instinctive behavior patterns in human beings.

Environmental Psychologists also study effects of different types of neighborhood like housing scheme area, flats, red light area, slums, etc. on emerging behavior patterns. Effects of immediate social environment like size of group on immediate behavior (Ittelson et al. 1974) are also studied. Effects of various characteristics of institutions on the behavior of inmates is another topic of study. Research on the effects of monotonous environments and isolation also can be included in this section. Ergonomics, the study of aspects of the working environment like heating, lighting, etc., in relation to productivity also forms part of Environmental Psychology.

4. Applied Environmental Psychology

Applied Environmental psychology aims at better management of the environment for better life and psychological growth. It studies effective ways of conserving the natural environment, better ways of designing towns and cities and means of promoting environmental awareness among people.

Psychology has a great deal of application in town planning. Studies on how the community works, the psychological needs of the people and their likes and dislikes should be considered while planning the growth of towns. Since the environment shapes and limits behavior, proper planning to ensure maximum satisfaction, efficiency and growth is essential.

The Psychology of Architecture studies how architectural styles reflect the needs and preferences of people and how different designs mould and shape behavior. A proper investigation of cultural, social and personal needs of potential inmates is required before an acceptable design can be made. An effective design should maximize freedom of behavior, mobility and flexibility. Some of the other considerations are possible use and misuse of space, and contrasting needs of privacy and socialization. Training people for effective space utilization and follow-up studies of the effectiveness of various types of designs are necessary. Knowledge of modern points of view regarding how an office, school or hospital should function is essential while preparing a design for the purpose. A detailed knowledge of the kinds of activities and programmes and patterns of human interaction that are expected to take place in the type of building is necessary for successful architectural design.

It has been shown that closeness to elements of nature like pools, plants and trees makes people more relaxed. Hence, one of the main considerations of town planners and architects is how to incorporate elements of nature in their designs.


Baum A., Singer J E and Valins S (Eds) 1978 Advances in Environmental Psychology: Vol I - The Urban Environment: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.;New York

Berry J W 1976 Ecological and cultural factors in spatial perceptual development; In: Environmental psychology (Eds) Proshansky H M, Ittelson W H and Rivlin L G. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.