“When I say I’m not judging you, I think I really mean ‘not more than other people’.”
I’m a little nervous that, during this Zoom meeting, Dr. Lindsay McCunn and Dr. John Zelenski might be judging my decidedly cluttered Zoom background. All my kitchen appliances are on a shelf behind me, giving the (accurate, it turns out) impression that my home office space is a cramped corner by the kitchen. Dr. McCunn and Dr. Zelenski are environmental psychologists, experts on the spaces we occupy and how we interact with them. Dr. Zelenski is being quite nice, and honest - we as human beings do pick up on these subtle clues based on each others’ spaces, but that is probably not unique to environmental psychologists. We all judge Zoom backgrounds, if only a little bit.
Dr. Lindsay McCunn is a Professor of psychology at Vancouver Island University. She is the Chair of the Environmental Psychology Section of the CPA and the Co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of Environmental Psychology. She says examining peoples’ Zoom backgrounds, or the way they lay out their gardens or living spaces, is a curiosity for all of us.
“The way people express themselves and set up their homes and place meaningful things around is really interesting. Sam Gosling wrote a book called Snoopology, it’s a study of how you can sort of deduce peoples’ personality and thought processes based on how they arrange their trinkets and belongings in their homes and offices.”
Dr. McCunn specializes in Environmental Psychology, and describes it this way.
“Environmental psychology is the study of the transactions between people and place. I mean a lot of different types of places – a coffee shop, an office, a school, a park, an ocean, a mountain. We study the different ways in which people interact with their settings. Much like the way a social psychologist might study and understand relationships and interactions between people and other people, environmental psychologists study and understand the relationships between people and places. In my research, I look at how people interact in communities and work environments, especially hospitals, schools, and offices. In that capacity, I look at staff, mostly, and people who use the environments in different ways than you might expect like students and patients, teachers, and so on.”
Dr. John Zelenski is a Professor at Carleton University in the department of Psychology. He is also an environmental psychologist, but he specializes in a much different area than does Dr. McCunn. One might say they represent the two major branches of environmental psychology – the architectural (Dr. McCunn) and the conservationist (Dr. Zelenski).
“In addition to being an environmental psychologist, I also think of myself as a bit of a personality psychologist and a positive psychologist. I’ve been very interested in what we call nature-relatedness, or what others call ‘connectedness to nature’. It deals with peoples’ subjective impressions – are they a part of nature, or is nature separate from them and something that has little to do with their sense of self? I’ve also been interested broadly in what I call a ‘happy path to sustainability’. That’s the idea that we know that nature is good at putting people in a good mood. Nature is associated with happiness both over long periods of time and also right there in that moment. We know that people who spend a lot of time in nature and feel very connected to it behave in more pro-environmental and sustainable ways. In the last couple of years, we’ve started thinking that maybe the reverse is true as well. That if you could get people to do a couple of nice things for nature, by engaging in some sustainable behaviours, there could be ways to use that to make them feel more connected to nature and also feel happier about these activities. The idea is that doing nice things for the environment doesn’t have to be onerous, that we might be able to link it to positive emotions.”
What ‘spending time in nature’ means to each person is subjective. Maybe it’s taking a weekend to go hiking in the hills, or spending a day ice fishing, or just going into your backyard and tending to your radish garden. For Dr. McCunn, it has meant a big shift since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is speaking to us via Zoom from what appears to be a cabin in the woods. She and her family lived in the downtown core of Nanaimo BC for a few years, living across the street from the ambulance service, the police service, and the fire station. Sirens increased significantly when the pandemic began, their sleep patterns began to be affected, and they decided to rent a place in the country.
“It was kind of a good case study in environmental psychology, in that we could realize what was stimulating us in our home environment, and then decide how best to alter that for our mental health. So we thought about moving to a larger natural setting where we can have a little bit more control over the things that stimulate us. We were very lucky to be able to rent something in the country. It was interesting, because I was quite attached to the house that we owned. One of the things we study as environmental psychologists is the ‘sense of place’, or a sense of place attachment/identity/dependence. At the start of the pandemic, I was hearing a lot of questions about how people could address the feelings of loss they had now that they were working from home. Not just feelings of loss in terms of social elements, but also a loss of the habitual ways in which they got to those places. Maybe they took the same bus every day, or stopped at the same coffee shop on their way to class or work. Even physicality of the office environment or the classroom itself – they were missing the setting. So I really wondered how I would react when I moved away from this familiar home environment to which I had become so attached. I didn’t want to put myself in a position of place-loss, but I quickly formed a strong attachment to this place, and the natural features around it. It has been a nice journey to explore environmental psychology from the inside out in this circumstance.”
Feeling close to nature can be as simple as being able to go outside and touch a tree, or look out your window at a mountain or a variety of bird species. So how does this translate into more pro-environmental beahaviours, when climate change has become the most pressing issue of our time? Dr. Zelenski gives an example.
“What we have is a lot of good circumstantial evidence and lab studies and we’re trying to assemble it. There have been a few programs that have been promising! My former student/friend/collaborator Lisa Nisbet has collaborated with the David Suzuki Foundation to do something called the 30 By 30 Challenge. They get people to spend 30 minutes in nature every day for 30 days. The people they get signing up for this tend to be pretty pro-environmental, and pretty connected to nature already. But over the course of this month that connectedness does seem to grow. It’s not a randomized control trial, but it seems like spending that time in nature for these folks does make them feel more connected, and along with that comes more commitment to sustainable behaviours.”
Conservation is a (relatively) new branch of environmental psychology, and has certainly become much bigger in the past twenty years, when climate change has quickly become a top-of-mind subject for so many of us. Dr. Zelenski is not alone in having moved in this direction.
“Just the attention and the amount of notice and importance the conservation side of environmental psychology is receiving seems to have really amped up in the past ten or fifteen years. I came to environmental psychology after my PhD just out of personal interest, and I feel like I’m one of a million people who are jumping on this bandwagon! It’s for a few reasons. People seem to be increasingly exhibiting symptoms of depression, anxiety, and so on – and nature seems to be a nice respite from that. Also the awareness of climate change just keeps growing and growing as we’re seeing the effects more and more. And policy-makers are interested in knowing what social science can contribute to try to solve those problems.”
The conservation branch of the discipline has naturally evolved out of the traditional architectural branch, which has been around since the 60s. Dr. McCunn says that there are a few formalized graduate programs in ‘environmental psychology’ in Canada, but there are more in England and the States, the Netherlands and South America. So when she tells people she’s an ‘environmental psychologist’, they often know what she means.
“Some people – and rightly so – split the field into the architectural psychology side and the conservation psychology side. I do that too if I’m going to clarify with people what it is I study, because I’m more on the architectural side. I work with engineers and facility managers and city planners, whereas other colleagues of mine, like John, work particularly on nature-relatedness and with people who study pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours. This idea of conservation has become very popular for the field of environmental psychology – not that it’s taken over the architectural side that deals with building infrastructure and so on. Really, environmental psychology started in this architectural realm but has very much branched out into this line of inquiry that includes asking people questions about eco-consciousness and how they relate to nature.”
The two branches do go hand-in-hand. Think of the push toward ‘green’ buildings, with energy-efficient heating, solar panels, maybe a garden on the roof. Says Dr. McCunn,
“When engineers ask me ‘should we be designing this building with sustainability in mind,’ they want to know – are people going to notice it? Care about it? And make changes in their behaviours inside (and outside) of the building because of it? I can help them study the ways in which people behave and work and function in buildings that are more (or less) sustainable. I did a study in grad school that showed that just because an office building is ‘green’ or sustainable, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will predict strong productivity or satisfaction. It’s important to be quite critical about what you expect from sustainable design and what you don’t.”
Think of some spaces you’ve been in where you felt instantly comfortable with the people around you – and others where you didn’t. It’s possible that one of the reasons wasn’t the people who were there, but the design of the space that made interaction more awkward, or made that room or building or train car feel more comfortable. Dr. McCunn explains further.
“If you want a certain space to feel homey and comfortable, you might design it for a particular number of people to be there to sit at certain distances. I’m thinking of a coffee shop design or a restaurant or even a classroom where you want people to sit in a certain way and get along in a certain way.
I think it’s important to make use of different methods, much like other psychologists do. We’re good at integrating a variety of mixed methods into our work. We use naturalistic observation to watch, and see how people are moving and behaving in a space in order to make design decisions from there. We do a lot of surveys and interviews and from these we can help architects and designers make the most humane buildings possible. If the point of clinical work, and other types of psychology, is to help people feel well, then environmental psychology is very much aligned with that. We want buildings to be designed in ways that can help people feel as healthy, motivated, enthusiastic and well as possible.”
Dr. Zelenski bridges the two sides of environmental psychology as well, in a number of different ways. Collaborations with groups who are already doing some environmental work makes it easier for him to collect data, and the analysis of that data allows those groups to be more efficient and effective in the way they operate.
“I’ve collaborated with an architect, bridging these two parts of environmental psychology. He was very interested in making buildings that make people want to behave in environmental ways. Also, maybe it’s not just the inside of the building, but what kinds of natural spaces close to the building might encourage that. This is asking a more nuanced question about what kinds of nearby nature might make people feel better, be happier, be more productive.
There’s a small non-profit that provides water testing kits. They distribute them to people and those people go out and test the nearby water quality, then they upload their data to this kind of crowd-sourced database where you can see if the lake or river near you is in good shape or bad shape, and how is it changing over time. It would be hard for me to put together an experiment where I handed out a bunch of water testing kits, but I can try to follow up with the people who are already doing this to see if it’s changing their sense of connection to nature, is it making them happy, and is it making them want to do other nice things for the environment other than just test the water?”
Since the advent of lockdowns as a result of the pandemic, we’re hearing a lot of people saying they’re appreciating nature more. It’s a safe way to get out of the house – if you can’t go to a crowded mall or a concert, you can still go to a park and walk around. People are seeing nature as a source of well-being and coping, and there have been some studies that indicate nature is one of the more positive things people have experienced during these past two years of physical distancing. But this connectedness to nature, along with the awareness of the grave threat posed by climate change, are creating new problems in some ways. Dr. Zelenski says,
“Lots of people are talking about eco-anxiety, where to the extent that people are becoming more aware of climate change it could be a double-edged sword. So it could be motivating – which is a positive outcome, people wanting to behave in a more environmental way – but for some people it might upset or worry them so much that it creates new forms of stress and concern that for some people can be maladaptive.”
One way to combat eco-anxiety, a big new buzzword on the conservation side, is an increased awareness of environmental psychologists and the seeking of their advice. This increased awareness is being felt on the architectural side of things as well, as the contributions of these experts are now seen by many as invaluable. Dr. McCunn says she’s seen this shift first-hand.
“When I come across engineers and architects and facilities planners, they’re more aware of environmental psych and are very willing to work with us. When I was doing my Master’s, I found that very few people in those positions wanted to work with a social scientist. Many said that they did that kind of research off the side of their desk, and that they ‘already knew how to study people’. Now they’re seeking me out, wanting that professional element in their business or in their processes.
Spatial cognition, for example, is very traditional topic in environmental psychology. I think it’s worth noting because the population is aging. Environmental psychologists often consult with designers about how to help people living with dementia navigate a care home, for example. We can observe them and help them with signs and symbols and ways of integrating their psychology into design to make their lives better.”
Have you ever been in a store where there is a very simple pattern on the floor that changes a little as you approach the bathroom, and a little more near the cash? Maybe there are brightly coloured hand rails along the walls, and the toilet seat is a noticeably different colour than the rest of the toilet. It’s brightly lit but not overwhelming because there are few reflective surfaces and no mirrors. A store that looks like this has probably been designed to be accessible to people with dementia, assisted by environmental psychologists.
People with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia of different types usually work with a team of people that can include a neuroscientist (see the profile of Clinical Neuropsychology from earlier this month). Increasingly, environmental psychologists are working on larger interdisciplinary teams, and neuroscience itself is becoming a larger part of the discipline. Dr. McCunn says she is seeing this thanks to articles submitted to the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
“I see a lot of articles coming up that merge neuroscience with environmental psych. This is something I’m also doing in my own work—I’m almost finished a second Master’s in applied neuroscience just to get my research more involved in the realm of environmental neuroscience. I like trying to understand things like ‘what is happening in the brain when we feel place attachment? Is that different from when we feel attachment to a person? What’s happening in the brain when we encounter different settings?” These are important questions that I think are becoming very popular.”
As environmental psychology is becoming a discipline that is more and more in demand, the expertise of those in the field is being applied to a larger and wider variety of subjects. Dr. McCunn hopes this continues, so that the full skillset of her colleagues can be used to help solve significant problems.
“I want environmental psychology to be a part of lots of different teams. Of course architects and urban planners, but also clinicians, doctors, neuroscience teams, and so on. I think that we’re good team players and we can add facets to research questions that can complete an answer and make it more comprehensive. It’s very difficult to draw conclusions from only a few variables. Getting some big data and modeling going in environmental psych can help us help others get more reliable answers to larger questions in society about what makes people act and think in particular ways. I’d like to see environmental psychology at more tables more often.”
But rest assured – if an environmental psychologists ends up at your table, they are not going to be judging the layout of your silverware or the positioning of the gravy boat next to the jar of Nutella. At least, not more than anyone else would.