Psychology and the Environment

Welcome to the website of the Psychology and the Environment Interest Group.

The APS Environment Interest Group – An Invitation 

The Psychology and Environment Interest Group has become active again, following a period of inactivity from 2003, with the energy and commitment of some new members, and reflecting continuing strong interest of members across the environmental domain and the urgency of issues such as climate change, habitat loss, water scarcity, and environmental degradation. 

The group would like to extend an invitation to any interested psychologists, including psychology students, to become a member and be involved in some way in the greening of our profession and the profiling of some of the diverse involvements which psychologists have with ‘the environment’, with an emphasis on the Australian context. 

So what does ‘Psychology and the environment’ encompass? We see this as umbrella phrase encompassing environmental psychology, ‘conservation psychology’, and many other areas of psychology and applications of psychology where the nature of people’s perceptions of, experience of, connections with, or impacts on and of their natural and built environments are particularly important, and/or where pressing ‘environmental’ issues or problems would benefit from a psychological analysis and consideration, or from psychological theory and research findings, ideally in a collaborative, interdisciplinary context. 

The most frequently asked questions of psychologists working in the environmental domain are typically: What is environmental psychology?  What is conservation psychology? What are psychologists actually doing in the environment arena? There are no brief answers to these questions, but for the present purpose we would answer that: 

  • Environmental psychology is an area of applied psychology which places particular emphasis on people-environment interrelationships and transactions. While the ‘environment’ of interest and focus is typically the physical environment, including both the natural, biophysical, environment and human designed and modified physical environments, the ‘environments’ encompassed within environmental psychology include human and social environments and ‘behavior settings’, institutional environments, learning environments, information environments, virtual environments, and local and global climactic environments.

    Environmental psychology is a now well-established area of applied psychology which has been going strong since the late 1960’s, with specific environmental psychology journals, courses, textbooks, handbooks, and graduate programs (e.g., Bechtel & Churchman, 2002; Bell et al., 2001; Bonnes et al., 2003; Gifford, 2007; Ittelson et al., 1970, 1974; Stokols & Altman, 1987). 

    Areas of specialisation within environmental psychology and bridging other disciplines include architectural psychology, urban and regional planning and design, environmental evaluation and impact assessment, environmental perception and cognition, restorative environments, place attachment and identity, clinical environmental psychology, disaster preparedness and response, conservation behaviour and sustainability initiatives, the effects of climate, ergonomics, natural resource management, etc.

    While psychology programs in Australia offering subjects in environmental psychology are few, there are now many psychologists working in Australia whose honours or postgraduate research focus was in an environmental psychology or other environment and psychology area. 

  • ‘Conservation psychology’ is a new name for a convergent area of applied psychology which has been more directly involved with conservation initiatives, targeted behaviour change to protect the natural environment, people-animal interactions, and the human side of natural resource management. Conservation psychology is also a network of researchers and practitioners who work together to understand and promote a sustainable and harmonious relationship between people and the natural environment (e.g., Saunders, 2003; Saunders, Brook & Meyers, 2006).

  • Ecological psychology refers both to the work of environmental perception and cognition, following from the work of Gibson (1966, 1979) and the revolutionary and paradigmatic shift proposed by more contemporary theorists (e.g., Heft, 2001; Reed,  1996).  Ecological psychology also refers to the work and perspective of Barker and his disciples (e.g., Barker, 1968, 1976; Wicker, 1979, 2002), the developmental framework of Bronfenbrenner (e.g., 1979), and some more recent psychological perspectives on environmental problems and sustainability (e.g., Howard, 1997; Winter, 1996).

  • Ecopsychology is a much more encompassing humanities and cultural studies perspective and movement concerned with people-natural environment connections and well being, with some psychology representation, but with roots in the broader environmental and human potential movements, and strong spiritual and therapeutic leanings and objectives (e.g., Reser, 1995; Roszak et al., 1995).

There are other similar sounding names to environmental psychology, but which cover overlapping and typically multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary domains. These include environment-behavior studies, environment-behavior research, and people-environment studies or transactions. A source of some confusion is that ‘environmental psychology’ is frequently used by nonpsychologists as an encompassing term synonymous with all of the above. 

The membership of the Psychology Interest Group is diverse, with some members having a long history working in the area of environmental psychology, others having spent much of their professional lives working in areas such as architectural psychology, urban design and planning, organisational psychology, natural resource management, CSIRO, therapeutic environment design, and outdoor recreation and leisure studies. Other members are psychologists working across diverse areas of psychology, who are concerned about and/or are directly involved in initiatives relating to the sustainability and integrity of our natural environment, and local, national and global multidisciplinary projects relating to climate change, urban renewal, and environmental degradation. 

An important objective of the interest group is to foster a greater involvement by psychology and psychologists across the spectrum of environmental issues and challenges facing Australians and the global community. We feel that phenomena such as climate change constitute particularly critical social as well as environmental issues which require a renewed commitment and involvement - and an informed ecological literacy - on the part of psychology. 

There are many excellent sources for finding out more about psychology and the environment. Click here to go to the Resources page.