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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

Book Review: Applying Psychology To the Environment

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

In the past few months, I have taken some time to read more broadly about Environmental Psychology to discover some hidden gems that are not part of the “usually recommended” literature and are not part of academic journals that are often inaccessible to practitioners. In this process I came across “Applying Psychology to the Environment'' which I will be discussing briefly today.

Mini overview.

Book title: Applying Psychology To the Environment

Author: Susan (Sue) Cave

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date: 1998

Topic: Environmental Psychology, Applied Psychology

Audience: Students, Enthusiasts, Architects

Level: Introductory / Textbook

Book Type: Non-fiction

No. of pages: 256

ISBN: 0340647574 / 9780340647578


Applying Psychology To the Environment was originally published in 1998 by Hodder & Stoughton as part of a larger series of books around applying psychology to various contexts, including health, crime, organisations and more. The book is aimed towards an audience with little to no prior knowledge of the topic, e.g. students in secondary education or related undergraduate courses, and enthusiasts who are interested in getting a more general overview of the subject. Several ways in which the environment affects people are outlined in nine chapters and related back to psychological theories, with specific reference to applications through practical examples. Topics include perceptions of environment, physical and social conditions, urban and rural environments, environmental stress and how people affect the environment and more.

Susan Cave is a lecturer of Psychology with experience ranging from GCSE to degree level studies. Her most recent known academic position is as part of the University of Kent but she has also worked as an occupational psychologist, and published various books on psychology and other topics for students and educators. Susan has a very minimal online footprint so it is difficult to find more information on her background and current activity.


The book is split into nine chapters covering the following topics:

Chapter 1: What is Environmental Psychology

Covers the definition and scope of the field, and outlines aspects of theory, methodology, challenges and assumptions. The chapter ends with a proposed general model for Environmental Psychology and includes examples of the topics discussed.

Chapters two to nine are structured the same way discussing a range of relevant topics to the title of the chapter followed by an example of a real world application.

Chapter 2: Environmental Cognition

Discusses ways humans think about, evaluate and understand their environment. This includes aspects of environmental perception, spatial cognition, and environmental appraisal, which refer to the process of making sense of our surroundings using our senses, internal mental representations of the environment, and the impression that is formed of a place respectively. The author references key research on these topics such as Gibson’s ecological perception theory, Brunswick’s lens model, Girling’s work on wayfinding, Kaplan’s model of environmental preference, Lynch’s cognitive mapping and more. Cognitive maps are also the example of real world application for this chapter, with a focus on city planning, citing design guidelines by Evans around landmark and road placement and characteristics.

Chapter 3: The Physical Environment

Focusses on the effects of physical characteristics of the environment. These include noise, temperature, light, air quality, toxicity and environmental load. The author presents a wealth of examples of research, highlighting connections between these parameters and a range of physical and psychological responses including aggression, stress, specific illnesses, and behaviours. Sick building syndrome is the applied example of this chapter which refers to illness without other defined causes that is triggered by a combination of environmental, occupational, cognitive and personal factors when spending time in specific buildings.

Chapter 4: The Social Environment

Highlights aspects of personal and interpersonal use of space. This includes concepts such as personal space, territoriality, privacy, crowding and density. Seminal research by Sommer, Gifford, Hayduk, Duke and Nowicki, Hall, Little, Aiello, Altman, Stokols, and more, is used to discuss topics such as conceptualising and measuring personal space, the effects and impacts of crowding on perception and behaviour, definitions and requirements for privacy from an ethnographic perspective, and various effects of territorial marking and disruption. As an applied example, territoriality is discussed in the context of personalisation and marking of various types of territories, as well as aggression, criminal behaviour, control and dominance.

Chapter 5: The Built Environment

Discusses the implications of environmental psychology for designers, highlighting research on various types of built environments including residential and office settings, as well as institutions, neighbourhoods, communities and cities. Concepts such as place attachment as described by Altman and Low, Osmond’s description of sociopetal and sociofugal spaces, Gifford’s model of residential satisfaction, and topics on personalisation and preference are presented with a stronger focus on residential and interior spaces. The effects of living in high-rise flats are discussed as a real-world application of this research, with reference to projects such as Pruitt-Igoe, with reference to Newman’s defensible space and its surrounding discussions around attributing the failure of such projects to difficulties around surveillance.

Chapter 6: The Natural Environment

Focusses on the relationships between people and the natural environment including attitudes towards nature, social norms, environmental preferences and what influences them, aspects related to our connection to nature through recreation and travel and more. Wilson’s biophilia, and Ulrich’s research on the effects of views of green on patient recovery are mentioned in this chapter, along with Kaplan and Kaplan’s on environmental preferences model, and various well-known scales such as the Environmental Personality Inventory (EPI), Environmental Response Inventory (ERI), Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS) and more. The discussion then moves into accessing natural environments for recreation with an example focussing on the adverse effects of overusing natural environments for tourism and other similar activities. Different travel behaviours and personas are also discussed.

Chapter 7: The Environment and Stress

Covers aspects of stress that are influenced by environmental parameters, including types and measurement of stressors and stress responses, extreme environments and theories of stress. Cox’s transactional model, and Sellingman’s work on learnt helplessness and two of the theories discussed early in the chapter, followed by discussion on the psychological and physiological changes associated with a stress response and the parameters that affect it, and instruments use to measure stress responses such as skin conductance - Galvanic Skin Response (GSR). Reference is made to various psychiatric conditions as well as common flight, flight, freeze, and faun responses, often discussed in the context of phobias and trauma recovery. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is discussed as an example of application in the context of hazard perception and extreme events. Towards the end of the chapter there is a list of theories of stress and how it is conceptualised, studied and thought about in the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

Chapter 8: How People Affect the Environment

Discusses environmental challenges in relation to human activity. The chapter provides an overview of wider research on climate change and outlines the role of Environmental Psychology in this context with reference to pro-environmental behaviour, perception and attitudes towards environmental damage, approaches to intervention and wider applications. It touches upon the difficulties people face in tackling complex, long term and large scale problems through various angles and scale e.g. risk appraisal, perceived control, stress, delayed consequences, individual vs collective behaviour etc. Strategies for intervention are explored in relation to behaviour change through positive and negative consequences including law enforcement, ethical appeals, education, and community interventions with a practical application example on increasing recycling behaviours. Adverse effects of environmental damage are also discussed from the standpoints of aesthetics, health, resource management and economic activity.

Chapter 9: Future Applications

The book ends with a very short reflective chapter on human-environment relationships, highlighting the need for extensive research on interdisciplinary topics. Specific reference is made to the need for research related to the potential of fundamental societal changes that may lead to the disappearance of specific social environments (with offices as an example), the effects of global challenges such as pollution, overpopulation, war, loss of various species and natural habitats, and contemporary technological advances such as space travel. The author closes with a reminder of the ethical and political sides of use of space prompting the readers to practise what they preach as active participants in their environment.


I found this book very easy to read. It is written in an accessible language, includes many examples of key research, and provides clarifications and explanations through diagrams and images where needed. This makes it a very useful text for anyone keen to learn more about Environmental Psychology, something that reflects the extensive experience of the author in being an educator. With regards to the topics discussed, I couldn't help but notice the similarities, both structural and thematic, to Gifford’s (1996) “Environmental Psychology: Principles and Practice”, the third edition (2001) of which is a popular textbook in Environmental Psychology to this day. A key difference, and one of the reasons why I decided to read this book, is the immediate relevance to the UK context, through specific examples and references. Given that the latest reprint is from 2004, the examples are a little bit dated, though still relevant and interesting to learn about.

When it comes to its relevance to architecture, this is a good book for architects and designers who are interested in gaining a general overview of the topics and key studies within Environmental Psychology, especially for those of us who are based in the UK. All chapters are of interest, but chapters three and five on the physical and built environment may be of particular interest.

Cognitive mapping, which is discussed in Chapter 2, is a popular topic in architecture and urban design as Lynch’s Image of the City is often part of the core reading in the curriculum. This chapter provides a more holistic view of other ways in which spatial information is obtained, processed, understood and evaluated. The physical environment parameters that are discussed in Chapter 3 are well-known and of great significance to architects who aim to design spaces that are healthier and more comfortable. As a result they are also key aspects of more contemporary indicators of wellbeing in buildings such as the WELL Building Standard and Fitwell which were developed long after the publication of this book and are therefore not referenced. Chapter 4 is useful for architects who are interested in the social aspects of use of space. It discusses concepts that are commonly used in practice such as privacy and crowding from slightly different perspectives to how we approach them as designers. The author briefly touches upon mindsets that are often instilled in architects during our studies in Chapter 5, that may cause us to overestimate the effects of our work on very large social challenges. The position of the author is more towards environmental probabilism though it is not discussed in detail in the example of application, even though a great opportunity is presented in the discussion around the downfall of Pruitt-Igoe. Our relationship to natural environments, highlighted in Chapter 6, is also fundamental to architecture and design. Especially following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, discussions around wellbeing, equity and access to nature for restoration and recreation are increasingly relevant. Similarly, the list of stress theories at the end of Chapter 7 can also be very useful for architects in understanding stress. Although neurodiversity is not extensively mentioned in this book, understanding the research on responses due to under or over stimulation can be crucial to designing more appropriate spaces for a range of people with different preferences and tolerance thresholds. Chapter 8 describes ideas and ongoing research that is currently at the forefront of the field due to the pressing environmental challenges humanity is facing. As architects we often focus on what we can do to alter the built environment and less on how to alter behaviour within existing environments. Although some aspects of physical space are discussed, the research presented on behavioural change provides a good introduction to the core themes of ongoing discussions on this topic.


Overall, this is a very accessible, entry-level text that provides a comprehensive, though slightly dated, overview of the topics discussed within the field of Environmental Psychology. It is recommended for anyone with preliminary or no knowledge of the subject who is looking to learn more about the topic especially in relation to the UK context.


Archontia Manolakelli is an Architect and interdisciplinary Design Researcher based in Manchester, UK. Her commitment to designing more comfortable, inclusive and sustainable places using an evidence-based approach, led her to discover Environmental Psychology back in 2016. Since then she has continued to further her knowledge on this wonderful field through the study of psychology and approach to professional practice in architecture.


Hello. Thank you for stopping by, I hope you have enjoyed your reading! If you have any questions or feedback on this article, please don't hesitate to drop me a line on LinkedIn or via email.



Cave, S. (1998). Applying Psychology To the Environment. Hodder & Stoughton.


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