Persons, Places and Processes: The Three Ps of Environmental Psychology

This is an invited post by Dr Denise Dillon.

As with many other species, we humans often find ourselves thriving in certain places but languishing in others and, of course, much of this comes down to individual differences. We know that people have their own preferences according to personality, motivations and other factors, and we know that individual differences are the concern of social and personality psychology researchers. So where does environmental psychology fit in? In essence, we shape our physical environment and our environments shape us.  

Robert Gifford, a professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada, sums it up as the interplay between the Person, the Place and the (psychological) Process. Here is Gifford’s (2014) summary description of environmental psychology:

Environmental psychology examines transactions between individuals and their built and natural environments. This includes investigating behaviors that inhibit or foster sustainable, climate-healthy, and nature-enhancing choices, the antecedents and correlates of those behaviors, and interventions to increase proenvironmental behavior. It also includes transactions in which nature provides restoration or inflicts stress, and transactions that are more mutual, such as the development of place attachment and identity and the impacts on and from important physical settings such as home, workplaces, schools, and public spaces. As people spend more time in virtual environments, online transactions are coming under increasing research attention. Every aspect of human existence occurs in one environment or another, and the transactions with and within them have important consequences both for people and their natural and built worlds. Environmental psychology matters. (Abstract)

It may interest you to know about applications of environmental psychology research here in Singapore. NParks (2018), for example, draws on scientific principles in their approach to the design of therapeutic gardens to assist in their aims to promote well-being for our elderly. Stephen and Rachel Kaplans’ attention restoration theory (1989), and Roger Ulrich’s stress recovery theory (1984) provide foundational explanations as to restorative experiences in natural environments, and Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis (1984) further explains our “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” (p. 1). Wilson goes further: “Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life” (p. 22). Of course credit for coining the term ‘biophilia’ goes to the psychologist Erich Fromm (1964), who framed biophilia as “an orientation which we may call love of life…it is the normal orientation among healthy persons” (p. 22).

Healthcare design approaches for the Khoo Teck Puat and Ng Teng Fong hospitals (CPG Corporation, n.d.) also benefit from environmental psychology principles including those of biophilic built design. This latter combines insights from the fields of psychology, architecture and the natural sciences as an “innovative approach that emphasizes the necessity of maintaining, enhancing and restoring the beneficial experience of nature in the built environment” (Kellert & Heerwagen, 2008, vii, in Kellert, Heerwagen & Mador). Khoo Teck Puat hospital brands themselves a “hospital in a garden” and “a garden in a hospital” (A healing environment, n.d.) drawing focus from the integration of green spaces in many forms throughout the built hospital environment and surrounding grounds.  

On a broader scale, Singapore is a member of the Biophilic Cities network (Biophilic Cities, n.d.), with member cities aiming for enhanced opportunities for nature connection for their citizens through strategic city planning that allows nature to flourish within and throughout the city. Such large-scale planning is obviously beyond the scope of environmental psychology alone, and more aligned with urban planning and design; however, even here environmental psychology principles can be applied. For example, people’s aesthetic preferences, affective states, mental energy and performance outcomes can all be measured and recorded according to environmental psychology methods, with findings used to inform urban planning with respect to the interactions amongst the People, the Place, and the psychological Processes at play in that particular city or region.

Other applications of environmental psychology principles can be found in learning environments, with attention to the effects of noise, light, colour, and crowding, for example, in the design of classrooms and other learning spaces. For example, architects and landscape designers draw on various combinations of these aspects with a view to enhancing learning experiences for children in kindergartens (e.g., Lister, 2017; Weller, 2017).

Imagine yourself waiting in a queue for an attraction at your favourite theme park – what was your queuing experience like? A more novel application of environmental psychology research that we might not have guessed at is the understanding of people’s perception of their waiting time while queuing for a theme park attraction. A team of researchers from the fields of landscape architecture, environmental design and environmental psychology studied this effect with a view to improving efficiency and effectiveness of queuing systems at places such as Walt Disney World (Daniels, Burley, Machemer, & Nieratko, 2017). The shift from queuing in physical lines to virtual queuing via ticketing or online systems is another innovation for which we have environmental psychology to thank.

As a niche area, environmental psychology courses are sparse, but you can find generalist psychology courses offering individual units or subjects embedded in degree courses in Australia (including JCU Singapore) and the US. For those seeking to specialise in environmental after graduating with a Bachelor degree, the American Psychological Association’s Division for the Society for Environmental Population & Conservation Psychology provide a list of Graduate Programs in Environmental and Conservation Psychology. In the UK, the University of Surrey’s MSc in Environmental Psychology has the reputation for being the first of its kind in the world.

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Gifford, R. (2014). Environmental psychology matters. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 541-579. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115048
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