I started as a psychology student at a university in Wales. I enjoyed the course a lot, but I had no idea where it would lead me. I have always been drawn to topics not yet categorized into specific subfields, to phenomena not yet explained.
At that time, what interested me most were seemingly random questions. Things like why the Vietnam War veterans addicted to heroin stopped quickly after returning to the US. Or why working in a cozy café might be more productive for some than at a tranquil library.
In my third year, when we started designing our own research, I came across the term “environmental psychology.” And it turned out that this field perfectly captured all the questions I found intriguing but couldn’t categorize. Discovering that it had a name allowed me to dive deeper.
Learning about Attention Restoration Theory
I learned about Kaplan and his Attention Restoration Theory. It explains how and why natural environments might improve our attention span and self-control, and urban settings impair it.
It has been found that natural stimuli are “softly fascinating” to our minds and our brains process them easily. In contrast, cities are not so familiar to our brains from an evolutionary point of view. That means we need to pay extra attention to understand them, which fatigues us more. This can explain why spending a day in a big city can be so tiring, and having a day off in a park or a forest is restorative and nurturing.
My final thesis was inspired by the 2013 study by Van der Wal and colleagues. They found that immersion in nature makes people more willing to delay gratification. The researchers asked their participants a question: “Would you prefer a hundred euros now or a larger sum after ninety days?”
Those who viewed nature photos before answering this question were more likely to wait for a larger sum, while those looking at pictures of a city preferred to get their money right away.
This kind of research helps us better understand people’s self-control abilities. The findings can be applied to almost all areas of our lives, from how we react in everyday encounters with others to eating habits and lifestyle choices.
The Cathedral Effect
My fascination with environmental psychology made me study this subject further through a master’s degree at the University of Surrey in England. The course was fascinating and intense. I learned a lot about how psychology can be applied to architecture.
I remember reading about the so-called “cathedral effect.” It’s about how high ceilings aid creativity by supporting mind wandering and abstract thinking, whereas low ceilings prime more “local” and item-specific thinking.
This means playing with the perceptions of ceiling height can help designers create the desired impression. To elicit a sense of awe in a museum or art gallery, they might make the high ceiling salient, for example, by an exquisite chandelier. And on the other hand, by making the ceiling appear low, they can create a more intimate and focused atmosphere.
During my studies, I found answers to many of the questions I mentioned at the beginning. The war veterans did not get readdicted after returning home because their bodies didn’t need the drug anymore in a place where they felt safe. This points to the massive role of the environment when shaping habits. It also indicates that substance abuse does not happen only on a biological level.
And what about working in a café? If we need to get creative, choosing it over a library might be helpful. Multiple studies support the idea that our minds get more relaxed with ambient noise in the background. We feel freer to come up with new ideas then. However, a quiet environment is better when we want to learn a topic by heart and focus.
I also learned that not all natural settings are always restorative. Sometimes, they can feel a bit dangerous or dull. And not all urban environments lead to unfavorable overstimulation. Bookshops or restaurants can be pretty restorative, especially when perceived as beautiful or familiar.
I discovered a whole intriguing field dedicated to “extreme environments.” These are the unusual and stressful ones, like Antarctica or space stations. It’s pretty unique to live or work in one of these, but studying them can help us understand how humans work under pressure and what are our physical and psychological limits.
What Do Places Mean to Us?
Eventually, in my master’s thesis, I compared the meaning people attach to their favorite places and their favorite objects. I was particularly interested in whether favorite places nourish people on a deeper level than things do.
My hypothesis was supported. According to Ryan & Deci’s Self-Determination Theory, the three fundamental human needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. And meaningful places appeared to fulfill them significantly more than objects.
My research also drew upon studies on materialism and went in line with the idea that people cannot be truly satisfied only with material possessions. Previous research has shown that having a meaningful connection with a place (your home, garden, or even a local café) is essential to our well-being.
I have been fascinated by many topics in environmental psychology in the last few years, but only some of them I was able to study deeper. I believe this is just the beginning of my journey, and there are many more explorations ahead.
Hopefully, my story gives you an overview of environmental psychology. And, most importantly, provide some inspiration for using it to improve the environments we live in.
Agata Bolesta graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Aberystwyth University. As part of her BS, she conducted research with the use of Virtual Reality where she compared attention restoration after a virtual walk in a forest and a big city.
Following her BS, she undertook a Master of Environmental Psychology at University of Surrey during which designed an online study looking at how favourite places vs favourite objects influence eudaimonic and hedonic well-being.
She is interested in how architectural configurations affect cognition, emotions, and behaviour. Especially, how we can design the most supportive and stress-free spaces for forming good habits.
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