Behaviour always occurs in a physical environment. In many cases, the physical environment is crucially important to our thoughts, feelings, performance, behaviour, and well-being. For example, many people feel uncomfortable in the heat, and are more easily annoyed by others when temperatures are high. Traffic noise may result in stress and cardiovascular diseases, while the presence of nature improves people's health and well-being. The availability of recycling facilities increases recycling rates, and people tend to litter more in a littered environment. On the other hand, human behaviour has an impact on the environment. For example, the use of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, urbanization reduces farmland and natural landscapes, and some species of animals become extinct by human activity.
Environmental psychologists study such interactions between humans and their physical environments. Traditionally, environmental psychologists focused on how the physical environment (e.g., buildings, noise, pollution, and the weather) affects us. More recently, much research is directed at explaining behaviour that affects the quality of the environment, for example, through energy use, water use, vehicle use, and land use. These two research directions are closely connected: individuals continuously change the environment, and, in turn, their cognitions, feelings, behaviour, and well-being are changed by the environment. Our behaviour may affect environmental conditions that are crucial for our well-being. For example, car use increases local air pollution, which can result in health problems.
Why is the relationship between humans and their environment of concern to social psychologists? The reason is that many of the topics studied by environmental psychologists have social psychological aspects. For example, to be able to design human-friendly buildings, we need to know how people perceive and value various construction designs, and how they interact and perform in different physical settings. Similarly, to promote pro-environmental behaviour, we need to know which factors influence various types of environmental behaviour, and understand which interventions may encourage pro-environmental behaviour. Not surprisingly, various social-psychological theories, research methods, and intervention techniques have been applied to the understanding and improvement of the relationship between humans and the environment.
This chapter offers a brief overview of how social psychology can be applied towards better understanding and management of human–environment relationships.