Picture your favorite room. What do you love about it? The art on the walls? The way the light filters in through the windows? The view beyond the curtains?
It’s no surprise to psychologists that our surroundings
influence our moods, thoughts and behaviors. Wherever we go,
sensory elements such as light, color, texture and scent mingle
with our cultural associations and personal beliefs, allowing us
to make sense of our surroundings. “It all adds together in a
messy equation to create our total experience of a place,” says
Sally Augustin, PhD, an applied environmental psychologist
and past president of APA’s Div. 34 (Society for Environmental,
Population and Conservation Psychology).
For decades, environmental psychologists have explored
the interactions between people and their surroundings, and
architects and designers have tapped that knowledge to create
more pleasing places and spaces. But the field has changed since
its early days. In the 1970s, global overcrowding and urban strife
were top concerns, says Daniel Stokols, PhD, a psychologist at
the School of Social Ecology at the University of California,
Irvine. As a result, many environmental psychologists of the era
concentrated on issues of human spatial behavior, crowding
and urban stressors that might prompt violence.
While such topics are still of interest, Stokols says,
the field has shifted to reflect modern concerns, such as
ecological sustainability and public health. As we adapt our
urban environments for the challenges of the 21st century,
psychologists have a particularly important role to play in
making sure human nature is part of the plan.
Top among today’s environmental psychologists’ concerns
is how technology has shaped our lives. “When the field [of
environmental psychology] started, there was no Internet,”
Stokols says. Since then, technology has fundamentally changed
the way we live, work and play.
In the late 1990s, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, at the
University of West Florida, posited that there were three types
of human environments. “First places” are the homes where we
sleep, eat and escape from the world around us. “Second places”
are the office buildings, factories and other locations where we
go to make a living. “Third places” are the informal settings of
public life, such as coffee shops, theaters and parks (American
But in today’s wireless world, those distinctions are blurred.
The home, for instance, is no longer a refuge from the
outside world. “The home is now a hub,” Stokols says — a place
where residents do online banking, respond to work emails and
socialize on online forums. Similarly, workplaces have adopted
features of first and third places: Many now offer domestic and
recreational amenities such as daycare centers or gyms. Our
public spaces, too, have changed. Coffee shops were once places
to relax and talk with friends or strangers. Today they’re just
as often remote offices filled with people staring at laptops or
tablets, doing solitary work.
The technology that brought about these changes has made
our lives easier in many ways. We can stay in touch with friends
on the other side of the world, work from our living rooms and
watch the latest blockbuster movie without leaving the couch.
But technology has also thrown new cognitive and behavioral
challenges at us — challenges that scientists are only beginning
Take “smart” buildings. Modern offices and other public
buildings are increasingly equipped with sensors that
automatically adjust the temperature, dim the lights and flush
toilets without any help from humans. These designs can help
conserve electricity, water and money — an obvious benefit.
However, the inability to crack a window could have
unintended side effects. When people lack control over their
environments, their stress levels climb, says Suzanne Holt
Ballard, PhD, a psychologist in the department of social
medicine at Ohio University. “There’s a disconnect between a
technologized environment and what it can do, versus what we
as human beings need to flourish,” she says.
Jennifer Veitch, PhD, a psychologist at the National Research
Council of Canada who studies the effects of indoor lighting,
has found that job satisfaction and commitment to the
organization increased when people could control the lighting
in their offices because it enabled them to meet their individual
needs. In related research, she found that when people judge
the lighting as better, they experience better moods and better
health outcomes, including fewer sick days (NRC Institute for
Research in Construction, 2010).
Though our Information Age tools may be new, learning to
live with technology is something we humans have been doing
since our ancient ancestors chipped their first stone tools, says
Patricia H. Hasbach, PhD, a psychotherapist who also consults
with architects, land-use planning firms and other businesses.
As much as we’re a technological species, we’re also deeply
connected to our natural environment, Hasbach says.
The biophilia hypothesis posits that humans have an