6 Major Theories In Environmental Psychology And How They Affect Us

There are six major theories in environmental psychology.

They are:

  1. Ecological theory
  2. Behavioral constraint theory
  3. Adaptation level theory
  4. Arousal theory
  5. Environmental stress theory
  6. Environmental load theory
environmental psychology theories
Photo credit: Psychology Careers

Ecological Theory

Ecological theories suggest that a person and his environment co-exist. More like a symbiotic relationship. A person’s behavior exists because of the environment they are put in. Roger Barker was the major profounder of this theory. He examined the way in which the number and variety of behavior settings remains remarkably constant even as institutions increased in size (Barker & Gump 1964).

He observed that there was no difference in the behavior exhibited by students in large and small schools. Therefore a student in a small school took on many roles and a student in a large school selected the roles he or she was interested in taking.

Another example exists with behavior on the plane. Sitting on a plane is fixed for the duration of the journey due to safety reasons and one can hardly change seats or move up and down as they like, as opposed to sitting in an office or sitting in a movie theater. If I for instance, do not like the seat given to me in the Movie Theater or office, I can change it. I can even decide to leave.

But this is not the case with sitting on a plane.

Behavioral Constraint Theory

This theory suggest that when we feel our behavioral freedom is threatened by elements in the environment, we form a certain degree of reactant in order to escape the stressor or cope with the stressor. Whether the stressor is real or just “in our heads”, we sense them because we can feel a certain form of limitation on behavior in that environment.

As humans, when we are in one situation, we can actively recall a previous similar situation. Therefore, when in distress in a particular environment, we can bring to fore, lessons we have learned from previous similar situation and use it to cope or escape the stressors in that environment.

An example exists in a commercial bus. If a passenger happens to be very lousy, other passengers can choose to either plug in their headphones (coping with the stressor) or simply alight from the bus (escaping the stressor).

If however, a person cannot escape or cope with the stressor, learned helplessness occurs. Learned helplessness is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness.

Adaptation Level Theory

This theory posits that a person would adapt to a certain level of stimulation from the environment. This level of stimulation is what he/she requires to function optimally as too little or too much of that stimulation would result in unfavorable results.

An example exists with the classroom model. In most primary schools in Nigeria, the number of children per classroom or allotted to one teacher is 25:1. Too few children in a class may cause the child to act unserious while too many children in a class may cause the child to get distracted.

Another example exists with crowding. We humans tend to avoid crowded spots but we also do not want to be lonely. So we have to find a balance, a certain amount of people we can cope with at a time.

Arousal Theory

This theory posits that our behaviors and experiences are related to how physiologically aroused we are by environmental stimuli (Berlyne, 1960). We seek an optimum level of excitement or arousal. People who have higher optimum levels of arousal are known for behaviors involving high excitement or risk. While, other people with lower optimum levels of excitement are satisfied with behaviors involving less excitement or risk.

This perceived optimum level of arousal also varies depending on the task. We may require a high optimum level of arousal in order to perform a simple task, but then, require a low optimu level of arousal in order to perform a harder task

An example exists with preparing for an examination. A higher than normal level of arousal will affect our preparations, and in the end, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we find it hard to concentrate. In the same vein, if arousal levels are terribly low, we still would not give our best into prepping for the exam.

Environmental stress theory

It states that environmental stimuli causes responses within an organism. These responses occur due to a cognitive and an autonomic evaluation of the stressor. Cognitive and autonomic factors examine an environment to determine if the stressors there are threatening or not. Threatening stressors lead to stress reactions.

This theory deals with appraising stress from threatening issues which may arise in the environment.

An example is the 9/11 attacks in the United States. This theory would evaluate how the people in that city or the people who witnessed the attacks reacted. How did they react to the stress levels of that day? How have the events of that day affected the security measures taken by an individual? With hate crimes channeled at Muslims in the United States and even the recent ban by the President Donald Trump on certain Muslim countries from entering the United States, we can safely assert that these are all accumulated reactions to the 9/11 attacks.

Environmental Load Theory

This focuses on the how human beings can only focus on one stream of information per time. This theory also details how individuals develop tunnel vision due to information overload.

Tunnel vision refers to focusing on relevant information and ignoring others. This is due to the fact that we can only invest limited effort in processing information at a time.

An instance occurs with social media and how it affects a student’s academics. Due to information overload coming from every person’s efforts at “keeping up with the joneses” on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, you realize that more students are beginning to lose sight of what is priority-their books. And this is due to the overload of information coming from these different communication channels. So, eventually the student develops tunnel vision, focusing on social media which is more interesting and seems relevant at the time, and ignoring their books.

Another example exists with a man wearing a multi-colored shirt. In the moment we see this man, a load of information hits us, that is the multi colors on his shirt and we try to process this information. When we leave him however, we may not remember the color of his trousers or his shoes because our tunnel vision screened those out and only focused on the different colors of his shirt.

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