Recently, I had reason to consider the field of environmental psychology from the perspective of someone interested in a slightly different discipline – one closer to zoology, or biology in general. I was inspired to explore how some of the theories that have driven research in environmental psychology are similar to others rooted more broadly in animal behavior. I believe that retreating to the theoretical roots of one’s chosen field of study can be refreshing and somewhat romantic. This exercise reminded me why environmental psychology is so relatable, interesting, and, important.

One of the key functions of a theory is to provide generalizations that offer order and meaning to specific observations. For environmental psychology, some typical questions based on observations might be: ‘why do people feel stress in certain settings?’ or ‘why do people bond to particular places?’ To answer questions like these (and undoubtedly several others) environmental psychologists have looked to theories of stimulation (Gifford, 2007).

Stimulation theories consider the physical environment an important source of sensory information (Wohlwill, 1966). Sensory information coming from a built environment might be simple (e.g., light, color, sound, noise, temperature), or quite complex (e.g., a whole building, part of a neighborhood). It’s the same idea for natural settings… humans are constantly stimulated by both simple and complex environmental cues (Gifford, 2007).

Before noting how these cues affect our attitudes and behaviors, let’s continue our discussion about the cues themselves. Environmental stimuli can also vary in amount (e.g., intensity, duration, frequency, number of sources) and meaning. For instance, environmental information might vary with respect to a person’s unique interpretation of the stimulus (Gifford, 2007). One might think about the effect different sounds (and their meanings) have on the productivity of individuals working an in open-plan office. Regular, expected office sounds can sometimes be compounded into distracting levels of noise if there are ongoing conversations in an open-plan layout. For some people, hearing voices and conversations that are directly relevant to the task at hand can be particularly distracting. For others, hearing someone talk about a topic totally unrelated to the work being done is worse (see Smith, 1985 for similar meaning-related research concerning sound and semantic processing).

So, it seems that the meaning of environmental stimuli matters to our levels of stimulation. But how much environmental stimulation one is used to matters, too.

One branch of stimulation theory is adaptation-level theory (Helson, 1964). The theory holds that individuals adapt to particular levels of stimulation in certain environmental contexts. With a nod to the power of individual differences, adaptation-level theory highlights that no particular amount of environmental stimulation is good for everyone at all times. Indeed, stimulation levels that differ from our adaptation levels can often change perceptions and behaviors in particular settings.

How about a concrete example: Remember this previous post about people that study in coffee shops? If you do, then you know that this ritual is quite crucial for me… but might seem a little crazy to others. What's happened is that I have adapted to certain levels of social (e.g., interruptions, personal space constraints) and physical (e.g., noise, lighting) stimuli for activities that involve concentration and learning. We all have our own tolerance thresholds for noise and light and movement when trying to perform different tasks. For some people, learning occurs best in a low-stimuli environment. For me, and many others, the dynamic buzz of a coffee shop (or similar setting) is so essential to concentration that environments with fewer stimuli would likely negatively affect my ability to learn.

In the same vein, arousal theory (another branch of stimulation theory) posits that our behaviors and experiences are related to how physiologically aroused we are by environmental stimuli (Berlyne, 1960; Mehrabian & Russell, 1974). Thus, overload theory concentrates on the effects of too much stimulation (Cohen, 1978; Milgram, 1970). Consider whether the high frequency and intensity of mechanical sounds influence patient recovery time in hospitals, or the extent to which crowding affects stress levels in urban residential zones. Arousal theory can help environmental psychologists answer these kinds of questions. 

On the flip side, theories to do with stimulation have helped environmental psychologists understand how different settings can be psychosocially positive for people. This often means examining environmental stressors using research on human perception, as well as notions of place-based meanings.

And this is the part where I smile at the theory of things. After all, my dissertation has its theoretical underpinnings in the merger of human perception, meaning, memory, and environmental (i.e., architectural) stimuli.

Cool, hey?

We know that psychological responses to environmental stressors involve cognitive appraisal (i.e., our ability to assess the seriousness of a situation and cope with the stressor). This means that the meaning of a stressor is important in how we respond to it (Lazarus, 1966). Forming place-based meanings is among the ways in which people remember the environments they encounter... and, how humans bond with settings and treat them over time (Campbell, 1983). I believe this is partly why the study of sense of place (i.e., place attachment, place identity, and place dependence) is so compelling and popular in the field of environmental psychology.

Future posts will likely expand on this line of enquiry as I move forward with interpreting the data for my dissertation. I hope you follow along!


Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Campbell, J. M. (1983). Ambient stressors. Environment and Behavior, 15, 355-380.

Cohen, S. (1978). Environmental load and the allocation of attention. In A. Baum, J. E. Singer, & S. Valins (Eds.), Advances in environmental psychology (Vol. 1). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gifford, R. (2007). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice. Victoria, BC: Optimal Books.

Helson, H. (1964). Adaptation-level theory. New York: Harper and Row.

Lazarus, R. (1966). Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill.  

Mehrabian, A., & Russell, J. A. (1974). An approach to environmental psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science, 167, 1461-1468.

Smith, A. P. (1985). The effects of different types of noise on semantic processing and syntactic reasons. Acta Psychologica, 58, 263-273.

Wohlwill, J. F. (1966). The physical environment: A problem for psychology of stimulation. Journal of Social Issues, 22, 29-38. 

About the Author

Lindsay J. McCunn

Lindsay J. McCunn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in environmental psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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