The Psychology of Place

April 02, 2012

By Leigh Perkins Brown

Tag along with a group of high-schoolers on a prospect tour of Rollins College and you’ll hear a predictable response: “This campus is so beautiful.” Outwardly, they’re responding to the arching live oaks, the Spanish-Mediterranean architecture, and, of course, the sunshine. But internally, they’re processing spatial perception, territorial behavior, density, even the formation of mental maps.

All of these elements and more influence our connection to place and our behavior in that place. Figuring out how and why is the business of environmental psychology.

“It’s about the interrelationship between us and the environment—built spaces or nature,” said Paul Harris, professor of psychology, who has been teaching a course on the subject since 2000.

“It is by nature a very multidisciplinary field,” Harris said, that draws on geography, political science, sociology, physiology, architecture, ecology, and psychology—the ultimate liberal arts subject.

If the term, if not the experience, is new to you, it’s likely because environmental psychology is a relatively new discipline. Earliest studies date only to the 1960s, and there are only a handful of graduate programs in the world.

But if you have heard the term, it’s likely because of a single man, William Whyte. Although he became famous in the ’50s for his scathing take on white-collar life with the book The Organization Man, it was his groundbreaking work in the 1980s that brought environmental psychology to the masses. His Street Life Project, using time-lapse film to show precisely which of New York City’s public plazas were most popular (and why), became a book and then the film Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. His findings were more than entertaining: They became the standard for urban planning courses and civic design throughout the country.

“Every space is idiosyncratic,” Harris said, “but Whyte’s work proved that you can generalize some things about how people use spaces.”

For instance, the most popular public spaces have a higher proportion of women, who appear to be pickier about where they’ll hang out. Men, on the other hand, gravitate toward pillars, walls, and flagpoles. They like to have something solid at their backs (you’ll start to notice it from now on). And, although it seems obvious in our current era of the ubiquitous café table, it was groundbreaking when Whyte reported that benches are a false lure: people prefer chairs so they can move them into the sun, away from noise, toward their companions.

“And you’ve got to have food,” Harris said. “If you want people to come, give them food and a comfortable seat where they can eat it.”

Mind Games

So how, exactly, do environmental psychologists figure out how many cleverly spaced palm trees will get us to relax (spatial perception), the right ratio of footpath to sod, how loud and how tightly packed to make a dance club feel youthful and popular (density)? They take the multidisciplinary approach.

“We use a wide variety of methods: lab experiments, field work, coding behavior, surveys,” Harris said.

Like crime scene investigators, environmental psychologists analyze spaces, checking for traces of trash accumulation or wear on paths (accretion and erosion, they call it). Harris often has students track their blood pressure and heart rates walking down leafy Park Avenue and then walking the same distance on Fairbanks. He gets a predictable outcome.

“Studies have shown that more natural settings create a biological response,” Harris said. “In one, patients were randomly assigned hospital rooms, some overlooking buildings and some overlooking trees. The ones with exposure to nature healed faster and had less stress.”

This plays out in the places we choose as our favorite “spots.” For students, more often than not, it’s a quiet place (but not too quiet) enveloped by nature, which Harris says restores a sense of balance and comfort. Jazzmyn Iglesias ’13, for instance, gets away from it all lakeside, behind the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, “the best place to think and relax.”

She’s onto something. According to a study in the 2010 Journal of Environmental Psychology, 90 percent of people report increased energy when placed in outdoor activities, even for just 20 minutes a day.

This plays out in the broader sense of “favorite place,” too. A Gallup poll in 2010 named Boulder, Colorado, the happiest town in America. Yes, it has good health care and a steady job market, but it also has 300 days of sunshine per year, the powder of the Rockies, and a greenbelt surrounding the city with 120 miles of hiking trails. Nature’s impact is not lost in more metropolitan areas, though. Washington, D.C., with its carefully tended forests and carpet of grass, consistently ranks in the happiness poll, too.

Although there are exceptions, Harris said, “We seem to be hardwired to respond to certain aspects of nature with relaxation.”

The rest of what the studies find, however, is a bit more interpretive. Just because it’s designed with scientific principles in place does not mean the public will respond to it or use it in the way it’s intended. Likewise, city planners unschooled in environmental psychology sometimes get it just right. Harris calls this the difference between architectural determinism and architectural probabilism.

Nowhere is environmental psychology’s body of research more diabolically exploited than in Las Vegas, which consistently ranks at the bottom of the happiness poll. Las Vegas is where human probabilism tends to race mindlessly toward determinism. If you give people a space with no windows, no clocks, easy-to-win slots by the front door, bottomless glasses, and topless waitresses (and, rumor has it, oxygenated air systems to up the feel-good factor), you get another fairly predictable outcome.

“There are manipulations everywhere,” Harris said. “But not just in Vegas. In Washington, D.C., the monuments are all designed to move people to different areas and to prompt a particular feeling, and airports and theme parks are designed around human behavior.”

Change of Scenery

Despite its 21st-century theme-park applications, the concept that environment influences behavior and well-being is as old as civilization itself. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates taught that humankind’s health is affected by where people live, noting that hillside residents were healthier than people who settled on marshes (he did not need to know that malarial mosquitoes were to blame, rather than the “bad air” of the bogs, to know that cool breezes made for a more hale population).

Twenty centuries before the first experiments with sunlamps and SAD (seasonal affective disorder), Hippocrates taught that the greatest environmental influence of all—the seasons—could not be underestimated: “Diseases (that) increase in the winter ought to cease in the summer, and such as increase in the summer ought to cease in the winter.”

The father of modern medicine (and maybe patron saint of seaside resorts?), Hippocrates prescribed sunbathing for any number of ills.

Humans have been using geography to improve psychology ever since.

Ancient Romans took long weekends. The Russians had their dachas; the Japanese their bucolic minkas; the British Raj their bungalows. The French have long been famous for deserting Paris in July and August to lounge on the beach, with five weeks off mandatory by law. The United States has no statutory minimum. And, in fact, Americans on average are given 12 days off a year but use only two, giving up $34 billion in paid vacation annually. American women, who take the fewest vacations, have higher rates of depression and lower marriage satisfaction. Men who rarely take a trip for pleasure have higher blood pressure and greater risks for heart disease. Plus, they’re grumpy, which is not the Hippocratic ideal.

Like a desk-bound American worker, science has until recently foolishly disregarded the wisdom of the ages as it relates to place and state of mind. The Industrial Revolution is partly to blame, writes author Winifred Gallagher in The Power of Place. “Turning away from the natural world, huge populations gravitated toward a very different one made up of homes and workplaces that were warm and illuminated regardless of season or time of day.” It is only now, 200-odd years into this new way of living, that scientists are beginning to study the effects of such artificial comfort, a world that Gallagher writes is structured around economic rather than biologic concerns.

“While we readily accept that a healthy seed can’t grow into a plant without the right soil, light, and water and that a feral dog won’t behave like a pet,” she writes, “we resist recognizing the importance of environment in our own lives.”

As environmental psychology develops, researchers more and more examine broad eco-issues, such as pollution, global warming, and overcrowding. But then there are the issues closer at hand, as small as the cellphones we hold next to our brains all day, as personal as the color of our bedroom, as intimate as the womb.

Person as Place

The womb, in fact, is our first place, fertile ground for the study of environment’s influence on psychology. Named after a 1993 study, the Mozart effect found test subjects performed better on spatial exams while listening to classical music. Our environmental manipulation: Endless rounds of sonatas played in neonatal units, baby DVDs featuring toy trains and mobiles moving to the beat of a kettledrum and a harpsichord. Surely, American marketers surmised, nocturnes played on a continuous loop through speakers attached to a pregnant woman’s belly would produce a genius.

Not quite.

“Despite the importance of the fetal and neonatal acoustic environments,” Gallagher writes, “one thing they don’t do is prepare a baby to take his SATs.”

A fetus’ sense of hearing is more highly developed than its other senses, but not for precocious music appreciation or word recognition (as some “baby universities” suggest is possible). The purpose of early hearing seems to be voice recognition, so that the baby, once born, knows its mommy’s voice. And that’s real genius, since mommy is where the food is. Studies bear this out. In one, newborns had a better suck response when listening to muffled recordings of their mothers’ voices, similar to what they would hear in the womb.

As in other areas of environmental psychology, humans have been intuitively creating prenatal environments that nurture the unborn child, with no studies, just common sense and folklore. “Stay away from funerals” when pregnant may sound like so much superstition, but studies bear out the idea that emotional distress absolutely produces harmful effects on the unborn. Research at UCLA found that high-anxiety pregnancies resulted in lower-birth-weight babies, preterm labor, and higher infant mortality. Lower cognitive development and poor health often accompany low birth weight.

The whole “pickles and ice cream” joke isn’t so far-fetched either. It actually makes for a healthy prenatal environment. Pregnant women, a University of Connecticut study showed, crave salty and sour tastes in later stages of pregnancy, when blood volume increases dramatically, and their sodium needs are at an all-time high. Likewise, a sudden passion for Cherry Garcia and all of its creamy sweet calcium seems to be linked to the timing of bone development in the fetus.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, and the horrors of thalidomide, that science discovered everything an expectant mother consumes affects her baby. Until 10,000 children were born with serious birth defects caused by their mothers taking the anti-nausea medication, scientists assumed the placenta provided a barrier to harmful substances. Soon, smokers were advised to quit when pregnant, drinkers to skip the cocktails, and all expectant moms to avoid even over-the-counter medications.

Our first environment has much to teach us and so does our second, the nursery. Even in newborns, our species has a highly tuned cyclical sense of time. Stripped of our natural rhythm, babies (and, yes, non-vacationing cubicle-dwelling adults) face unprecedented environmental stressors. As soon as medicine created the technology to keep premature babies alive, it discovered that preemies weren’t thriving in their incubators unless their mom’s touch and voice was nearby. Quickly though, this led to bright lights, constant traffic, and the ubiquitous Mozart track, the thinking being that if a little stimulation is good, a lot is better. But babies need dark and light cycles to develop properly.

“It’s striking how often the observations of scientists trying to design the perfect place for preemies also apply to the rest of us in our jumped-up, fast-forward world,” Gallagher writes.

In the last 20 years, how many articles have been written about how to get a good night’s sleep? Sleep disorders are a national plague, apparently, thanks to our insistence on ignoring our natural circadian rhythms (grande lattes don’t help much either). Many studies correlate our widespread sleep deprivation to the loss of our innate rise-with-the-sun pattern of living that served us so well throughout millennia and has only recently been replaced by fluorescent bulbs and digital alarm clocks. Likewise, the national epidemic of depression (almost 9 million Americans sought treatment for depression in 2007, 75 percent of whom received antidepressant medication) has also been linked to a lack of sleep and natural light.

“From the cradle to the schoolroom, the home to the workplace,” Gallagher writes, “our well-being depends on the delicate business of getting just the right amount of stimulation from our surroundings at the right time.”

That right amount and that right time, however, is different for every quirky human.

The Individual Preference Factor

Psychologists can fairly accurately predict that human beings will take the most appealing path laid out for them. But individual personality and background do play a role.

Consider the introvert. In the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain contends that designing spaces for forced connectedness is anathema to contemplative types.

“Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has a ‘room of one’s own,’” she writes. “During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.”

Research suggests the noise and nosiness of such closeness creates hostile and distracted workers, even prompting a host of health issues, from high blood pressure to exhaustion. Cain writes that open-floor workers take twice as long to complete their work.

Finishing slowly (and with more errors) is one thing, but attaining true mastery of a subject is quite another. For that, forget about brainstorming and committees. Mastery requires solitude.

Quoting research by Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson, Cain writes that focused concentration on a difficult task is the only way to achieve expertise: “And often the best way to do this is alone.”

Privacy—or its lack—is a hot topic in environmental psychology. Recent studies have looked into the “personal space” responses of American students versus Turkish students (Americans expect more of it than Turks); another compared the advantages of living in private suites rather than traditional bunk-dorms (high density triples lost). Dorms, in fact, are ripe with environmental psychology issues, where even the kind of mementos a first-year student puts on her shelf can predict her likelihood of dropping out (too many dried-up prom corsages from high school and hometown photos are not a good sign). A well-trained RA might spot the decorative warning signs and intervene before homesickness hits the critical point.

At Rollins, wise planning has created a campus designed for both the gregarious and the less so. “My favorite place is the Alfond Sports Center,” said Jasmine Cohen ’14. “I can be myself and not worry about being graded, just have fun.”

Her fun is a less-athletic girl’s nightmare, no matter how carefully the space is designed.

Brenda Castro ’13 chooses Lake Virginia as her spot to draw, picnic, or meditate. But for an extrovert who feels most alive, say, prowling downtown venues, this scene puts too much environment in environmental psychology. The challenge in applying the research is finding the sweet spot between predicted group response and these quirks of personality.

Creating “place attachment” is critical to the comfort and retention (and—later—alumni loyalty) of students. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, three components emotionally connect people to a place: attachment (mutual caretaking between the place and the person); familiarity (detailed knowledge of the place); and identity (having a sense of self in the place).

When a campus like Rollins gets it right, a lifelong bond between environment and person is forged.

It becomes, as Jazzmyn Iglesias ’13 says, “a place I already call home.”

Our Top Spots

Favorite places on campus where environmental psychology works its secret magic.

Dinky Dock has it. So does that cluster of leather club chairs in the library.

It’s that psychological “something” that draws us in and keeps us coming back to “our” spot.

To demonstrate environmental psychology at work, Paul Harris asked his students to name their favorite place on campus. Results were a mix of quiet corners for contemplation and boisterous areas for socializing. But the ideal spots were designed for both simultaneously.

“Students like to people watch,” he said. So when they’re studying, they like to keep an eye on the Quidditch match on the Green, or be able to glance up at other students cramming for a final. “Even when we’re not interacting directly, we like to feel part of the group.”

Add some grass, trees, and sparkly water (to “decrease physiological arousal and facilitate relaxation”), and the psyche simply cannot help but plop the body down in such a setting.

The Green: Mills Lawn fulfills virtually every psychological need for restoration and connection: The commotion of pick-up soccer or the seclusion of snoozing in the sun between classes, all on an expanse of green. Susanna Richstein ’15 responds to its openness, ideal for “watching everyone’s comings and goings.”

Olin Library: Satisfies the overlapping need to be separate for deep thought but still connected. Comfy chairs and banks of windows add to its allure. Kevin Lopez ’15 stakes out a very particular piece of real estate: second level, all the way to the right, a quiet desk with a view. Daniela Galvez ’15 studies on the top floor, preferably in a pool of sunlight.

Lake Virginia: Exceeds requirements for nature, isolation, and sunshine. Mary Hortenstine ’14 paddles, rows, or sails into its center to get the lake’s full calming effect, but Meredith Lax ’15 prefers the perspective from hiking on the lake trail. Dinky Dock is a favorite of many students, but Jeni Collins ’12 gravitates to the dock behind Sutton for its tranquility.

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