Environmental Psychology

from De Young, R. (1999) Environmental Psychology. In D. E. Alexander and R. W. Fairbridge [Eds.] Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Hingham, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~rdeyoung/envtpsych.html

Areas of study in environmental psychology


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 manage the 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.


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.