Environmental Psychology: Origin, Theories, Scope, Applications

Synopsis: Environmental psychology is a branch of psychology that mainly deals with the interface between human behaviour and the sociophysical environment. It can be defined as the study of transactions between individuals and their physical settings during which individuals change the environment, and their behaviour and experiences are also changed by the environment. In this article, we look at the origin, some theories, the scope as well as some practical applications of this subject.

What is Environmental Psychology

Origins of Environmental Psychology

Environmental psychology was a new subfield of psychology developed towards the end of 1950s and during the 1960s. It mainly deals with the interface between human behaviour and the sociophysical environment. It can be defined as the study of transactions between individuals and their physical settings during which individuals change the environment, and their behaviour and experiences are also changed by the environment. Environmental psychology includes theory, research, as well as practical applications that are aimed at improving our relationship with the natural and built environment (“What is environmental psychology? | APS”, n.d.). The origin of the discipline comes from a research in New York by Ittelson and Prohansky in 1958 which studied the effect of spatial and architectural settings of a psychiatric hospital on patients’ behaviour. Ittelson then introduced the term ‘environmental psychology’ at the Conference of American Hospital Association, 1964 in New York. They worked in this area for almost 10 years and Ittelson, Prohansky and Rivlin published their volume Environmental Psychology: Man and His Physical Settings in 1970 (Bonnes & Secchiaroli, 1995). In 1987, the Handbook of Environmental Psychology was published under the editorship of Daniel Stokols and Irwin Altman.


Initially, two main theoretical approaches were used to understand the crucial effects that physical features of the everyday environment have on human behavior and experience.

  • The first theoretical approach refers to the psychology of perception which was developed in the more ecologically oriented perspectives like Brunswik’s “lens model,” the transactional school of the Princeton group, and Gibson’s “ecological approach” to perception. This was more associated with a ‘molecular’ approach to the spatial-physical environment. It paid greater attention to the discrete sensory-perceptual features of the environment, which directly interacted with our senses.
  • The second approach was based on the social psychology approach which evolved through works of authors like Lewin, Tolman, Barker, and Bronfenbrenner. The second approach takes on a more ‘holistic’ or ‘molar’ perspective, which developed in the transactional contextual approach to the person-environment relationship. This approach is still considered the main founding theoretical perspective for environmental psychology.

“The main characteristics of this approach can be synthesized as follows:

  1. The person-in-environment provides the unit of analysis.
  2. Both person and environment dynamically define and transform each other over time as aspects of a unitary whole.
  3. Stability and change coexist continuously.
  4. The direction of change is emergent, not preestablished.
  5. The changes that occur at one level affect the other levels, creating new person environment configurations” (Bechtel & Churchman, 2002).

Scope of Environmental Psychology

Environmental psychology is mainly focused on improving the work of design professionals like architects and urban planners to optimise and improve human environments. It is concerned with maintaining a balance between humans and their environment. This includes studying urbanisation, city planning, effects of crowing, improving slum environments, improving work environments and office spaces, residential environments etc. Another important aspect that expands the scope of environmental psychology is ergonomics which is the scientific study of designing objects and spaces that are optimal for human use.

Additionally, in recent times, tackling environmental problems like pollution, climate change, deforestation etc. have become crucial. Environmental psychology also aims to change behaviour in ways that benefit the environment and challenge these environmental problems while also having a good quality of life and ensuring human well-being. This leads to the concept of sustainability which is an important principle in environmental psychology.  This is broadly the main scope of environmental psychology today (Steg et. al., 2013).

Environmental Psychology and Climate Change

In the recent past, the ecologically considered environment has become increasingly central to environmental psychology. There has been a shift in priority from architecture and built environments to the natural physical environment. Specific interest areas like ecological psychology, green psychology, psychology of sustainability have emerged. Recent research in environmental science, climate change science, and public policy research journals have emphasized the crucial need for a much stronger engagement with the human aspect of climate change and the need for social and behavioral science research. The way in which people experience, appraise and respond to the threat of climate change needs to be considered when making sustainable policies and changing the economy (Bechtel & Churchman, 2002).

The ecological environment has a unique exchange with our sensory, perceptual, and cognitive functions. It is characterised by sensory a-modality and temporal graduality. Sensory modality refers to the inability of the sense organs to perceive environmental conditions such as nuclear pollution or ozone pollution. Temporal graduality refers to the slowness of environmental changes, like climatic ones which may take place over very long periods of time, making it difficult to perceive using our immediate senses. This requires us to focus more on a constructivist social psychological approach rather than a reactive individualistic approach. In general, more attention needs to be given to the sociocultural or collective level of the environmental psychological processes. Environmental psychology also seeks to study and understand environmentally relevant behaviours. This includes any behaviour or action in an individual’s everyday life that affects natural processes in the environment or affects the resources of the environment. Consumption of water, sources of energy used like electricity, oil and  recycling materials are all environmentally relevant behaviours which can be studied (Bechtel & Churchman, 2002).

For example, a study conducted by Bradley and Reser (2017) in Australia showed that a majority of Australians accept climate change as a very real threat that many are concerned and distressed about. The study also showed that they are actively engaging with and adapting to the new environmental changes that are being witnessed by them. Almost half the participants of this study also reported that they had experienced environmental events that were a result of climate change. Thus, affective responses to climate change like concern and worry are crucial to people’s adaptation and motivation to bring lifestyle changes towards a sustainable economy.

Other important applications of environmental psychology

Environmental psychology helps in understanding the real-life applications of concepts like spatial cognition and cognitive mapping to design spaces that are easier to navigate. Some important findings like having good signage inside buildings increase the rate of travel within the buildings, using color-coded paths can reduce wayfinding errors in buildings, using simplified maps for bus and train routes is easier for wayfinding in cities than cartographically accurate ones, highly visible landmarks improve spatial cognition of cities, etc. are the result of research in environmental psychology (Bechtel & Churchman, 2002).

Oscar Newman’s defensible space theory which suggests that reducing non-owned space and traffic by non-residents and increasing surveillance by residents due to a sense of ownership will reduce crime rates. These changes were applied in a neighbourhood in Dayton, Ohio and observed a significant decrease in crime rates. This was an important practical application of environmental psychology (Bechtel & Churchman, 2002).

The design of learning settings can affect the learning of individuals. One study found that adding soft lighting, cushions, plants and rugs to a plain classroom showed a significant increase in scores of students after 5 weeks. Another study found that similar changes brought about an increase in student participation during class. These studies point to a very interesting finding about the manner in which classrooms are designed and that they need not to be harsh and plain for students to concentrate (Bechtel & Churchman, 2002).

Therefore, environmental psychology has a wide scope in both built as well as natural environments. It deals with a variety of subjects like city planning, architecture, interior design as well as behavioural modifications for sustainable practices. It is a fairly new subfield that has a lot of scope to grow and interact with other disciplines. The ever-changing environment demands for new and more updated research from environmental psychology.


Bechtel, R., & Churchman, A. (2002). Handbook of Environmental Psychology (pp. 28-54, 323-335). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Bonnes, M., & Secchiaroli, G. (1995). Environmental psychology: A psycho-social introduction. (pp. 1-8). Sage.

Bradley, G. L., & Reser, J. P. (2017). Adaptation processes in the context of climate change: a social and environmental psychology perspective. Journal of Bioeconomics, 19(1), 29-51.

What is environmental psychology? | APS. (2021). Australian Psychological Society. Retrieved 25 May 2021, from https://www.psychology.org.au/About-Us/What-we-do/advocacy/Advocacy-social-issues/Environment

Steg, L., Van Den Berg, A., & De Groot, J. (2013). Environmental Psychology: An Introduction (pp. 1-10). Sussex: British Psychological Society.

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Nanditha Ravi is a student at FLAME University currently pursuing her degree in Psychology with a Digital Marketing minor. She is passionate about mental health, understanding the functioning of the human mind, animal rights and art.