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An environmental psychologist is someone who is interested in how people interact with their environment. The environment could include the natural environment or the social environment as well as the environment we have built around us such as cities and houses. Other examples of an environment that an environmental psychologist may focus on include the learning environment and the informational environment. The informational environment refers to how information is collected, organized and disseminated.
Environmental psychology is a relatively new field and did not come into prominence until the 1950s and 1960s. The actual history of the movement is still debated with various scholars proposing different people and different roots when discussing the history of environmental psychology.
Environmental psychology was initially interested in how the physical environment can have an effect on a person's psychology. One of the first research studies done in the field was conducted by William Ittelson and Harold Proshansky in 1958. They were asked by a psychiatric hospital to look at how the physical surroundings of a psychiatric hospital can affect patients. The were asked to look at how the placement of rooms within the psychiatric hospital affected the mental health prognosis of the patients.
Another person who influenced the development of environmental psychology was Roger Barker. Barker disagreed with the use of artificial labs when it came to studying behaviour and set up a field station where he could observe the real behaviour of children outside of the laboratory setting. Barker felt that it was impossible to get valid results by having test subjects perform in an artificial environment such as a laboratory.
In 1969, G. H. Winkel founded the journal Environment and Behaviour which was to become one of the main journals for environmental psychology. Shortly after this, in 1970, Ittelson and Proshansky published a book entitled Environmental Psychology which moved beyond simply looking at the environment's effect in a psychiatric hospital and provided information about behaviour and the general physical environment most people find themselves in.
At this time, other articles began to be published that looked at the field of environmental psychology. Two of the first included a chapter written by Craik in the book New Directions in Psychology and an article by Wohlwill entitled "Environmental Psychology" which was published in American Psychologist.
In the early 1970s, a number of organizations were developed which dealt with environmental psychology. New divisions of environmental psychology were developed within psychology associations such as the American Psychological Association (APA), the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP), and the International Association for the Study of People in their Physical Surroundings (IAPS).
The Environmental Design Research Association was developed in the 1970s as well with the aim to bringing together architects, planners and psychologists to share information and develop ways of incorporating psychological research into new buildings. This association, while doing important work, has not become as popular with the majority of architects and psychologists as originally hoped although it continues to work interested participants.
As Environmental psychology developed, it slowly moved away from looking at the physical environment found in buildings and began to look at a variety of different subjects such as the global environment, the role of culture and even criminal behavior.
What Does An Environmental Psychologist Do?
An environmental psychologist will typically be involved in research looking at how the environment affects a person's behavior. An environmental psychologist will not only look at the physical structure of the environment but will also look at factors such as temperature, noise level and even the smell found in an environment. An environmental psychologist will look at these and other factors to determine how they affect different aspects of a person’s behavior. An environmental psychologist will develop research into a variety of different areas.
Cognitive Maps: Cognitive maps and how they are formed has been part of environmental psychology since the discipline began to be developed. Cognitive maps relate to how people create an image of the environment around them. This environment could be the natural environment or the built environment. The built environment refers to the buildings and other structures created by people. This image or information about a person's environment is stored in the brain in what environmental psychologists call cognitive maps.
People use these cognitive maps to understand the environment as well as develop and carry out plans. People do not only include the external physical information into their cognitive maps but also include their expectations and prior knowledge. Environmental psychologists have also found that people do not record their whole physical environment within their cognitive maps but still believe these maps to be complete.
Attention: Another area that an environmental psychologist will focus on is studying how people pay attention to their environment. There are two kinds of stimuli, voluntary and involuntary, that people notice within their environment. A person has no choice but to respond to involuntary stimuli but the person has to actively focus their awareness on voluntary stimuli. Being able to increase a person's ability to focus their attention allows a person to block out distractions and less important information in order to become more productive and effective in both their working life as well as their social life.
Environmental Stress: Environmental stress is another area on interest to an environmental psychologist. These stressors include physical stressors, such as noise and temperature, as well as more cognitive stressors such as stimulus overload, unpredictability of the environment and the level of uncertainty. As a result of these environmental stressors, a person could experience a number of side effects.
These side effects include physical illness, a sense of helplessness, decreased ability to focus one’s attention and a decrease in willingness to help people. An environmental psychologist will look at ways to diminish these stressors when they occur as well as look at ways to make the environment an overall more enjoyable place. In addition to making physical changes in the environment to decrease these stressors, an environmental psychologist will also look at ways in which people can better manage the flow of information and other stimuli coming in through their senses. An environmental psychologist may also help people develop ways that they can reinterpret the incoming stimuli to make it less stressful.
Preferred Environment: An environmental psychologist recognizes the fact that there are certain environments that appeal more to a person. A preferred environment will help to increase a person's sense of well-being and also help the person to become more productive and effective. People who are in their preferred environment will feel more confident and competent as well as becoming more involved with that environment. For example, if a person is comfortable in his or her work environment, then that person will be more engaged with the work, with co-workers and become overall more productive.
The environmental psychologist will attempt to develop and enhance the environment that a person prefers by making it complex enough to hold a person's attention as well as have enough mystery to promote exploration which will help people become more involved with their environment.
Citizen Participation and Conservation: An environmental psychologist can also be involved in developing strategies to encourage participation in environmental protection. This could involve developing methods to educate people so that they comprehend various environmental issues as well as encouraging people to take action. An environmental psychologist may be involved in rating attitudes and motivations regarding environmental conservation as well as develop methods to promote environmental protection strategies. The concern with climate change has created a lot of opportunity for an environmental psychologist.
As interest in the environment continues to rise, the prospects of finding work as an environmental psychologist is also on the rise.
Some environmental psychologists are able to find work in government doing research on environmental issues. They may be involved in implementing environmental research and helping to develop policy. An environmental psychologist could end up working for the U.S. Forest Service looks at ways to increase environmentally friendly behaviour from visitors to national parks. One way this could be done is to work on the wording of signs in recreational settings to increase positive behaviour from park users.
An environmental psychologist may also work for the municipal government looking at issues related to urban development. The environmental psychologist could be involved developing ways to make children and adults safer in their environment or looking at options for housing the homeless. An environmental psychologist may also be involved in finding ways to increase the sense of community among city residents.
Environmental psychologists may also find employment with a municipal or stage government looking at urban renewal. The environmental psychologist may be called upon to make recommendations in regards to tourist sites, walking areas and park improvement. Other areas of research for an environmental psychologist include researching the effects of sunlight on workers or on studying the relationship between a child's grades and the addition of a new garden or park in an urban setting.
An environmental psychologist could also be involved as a consultant to architecture firms or government urban planning organizations helping develop green architecture and ensuring that new designs take psychological issues into account. Many facilities will hire an environmental psychologist to look at an old building or help plan a new one to make the atmosphere of the building more beneficial for the people who have to spend a lot of time in the building.
Non-profit organizations are other places an environmental psychologist may find work. An environmental psychologist may work on developing strategies to gain public support for environmental causes.
Another option for the environmental psychologist is found within a university setting conducting research and teaching classes although these can be difficult to find if they are focused solely on environmental psychology. A number of psychologists teach social or developmental psychology and incorporate theories on environmental psychology into the course.
As with most jobs, the rate of pay will vary depending on the type of degree and the years of experience. Most environmental psychologists will be involved in research and according to the APA, the median salary for research focused psychologists is $90.000. If an environmental psychologist is involved in a research administration position, then the median salary is approximately $110,000.
In order to become an environmental psychologist, a person first needs to obtain a graduate degree with a focus on environmental psychology. A number of schools are starting to offer graduate courses in environmental psychology but each school has a slightly different focus. For example, one university's graduate program may focus on architecture while another graduate school may focus on environmental activism. You will need to carefully research each environmental psychology program to ensure that the focus of the graduate program is the right one for you.
If the university you want to go to does not have an environmental psychology program, you can still apply your interest in environmental psychology to your courses and even do your final thesis on an ecological topic.
In addition to the regular psychology classes, a person interested in becoming an environmental psychologist should look at taking courses in subjects such as environmental science, natural resource management and cultural geography. An environmental psychology student may also want to join an environmental group and attend conferences on environmental issues.
A job in environmental psychology can offer a lot of advantages. An environmental psychologist will often work outside in parks or zoos instead of being in a laboratory. Also, since the field of environmental psychology is a relatively new one, there is a lot of room to explore issues and push environmental psychology towards new directions. As environmental issues become more prominent, there will be even more opportunities for an environmental psychologist in the future.