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date: 06 March 2021

Introduction: Environmental and Conservation Psychology

Abstract and Keywords

Environmental psychology has been an established field for half a century. The term “conservation psychology” has a much more recent history. What is conservation psychology, and what is its relationship to environmental psychology? How will the combination affect the further development of the field? This chapter provides a definition and places the terms in a historical as well as a functional context. After an explication of the name of the present handbook, a framework for the organization of the book is presented.

Keywords: history, terminology, environmental psychology, conservation psychology


It is probably fair to say that in the mind of the general public, psychologists focus more on what happens inside a person’s head—the mental and neurological processes that constitute experience and determine behavior—than on what is happening in the surrounding environment. But from the field’s earliest origins, psychologists have recognized, and emphasized, the ways in which people are affected by their environments. Many studies have documented ways in which the social environment is influential, through parental socialization, conformity to social norms, and so on; it is a fundamental tenet of social psychology that we should consider external causes of behavior before making attributions to internal dispositions. Equally important is the physical environment. In addition to providing the materials that either promote or compromise well-being, it shapes behavior through reinforcement contingencies as well as through affordances—although as Gifford (1976) has noted, people are often unconscious of environmental impacts and changes. Because the built environment is amenable to change and to intentional design, its effects have been well studied by psychologists as well as by researchers from other fields. Although the natural environment has received less attention, it was still recognized as important by early to mid-20th-century psychologists (e.g., Adler, 1956).

The environmental challenges that have become salient as we begin the 21st century provide a pressing reminder of the ways in which human well-being is bound up with environmental health. These challenges also illustrate the reverse relationship: the impact of human perceptions, attitudes, and especially behavior on environmental well-being. This handbook addresses the expanding body of research on these relationships and presents a snapshot of current work on environmental and conservation psychology. Such a snapshot captures a moment in time for an evolving and increasingly important area of research. To understand what this handbook will and will not do, this introductory chapter will situate the field within its temporal context, describing some of the history behind this area as well as its goals.

Environmental Psychology

Environmental psychology began to emerge as a self-identified subdiscipline in the 1950s. Certainly (p. 2) the visibility of the environmental movement in the 1960s, and the accompanying awareness of limits on environmental resources, were part of the context that led to the institutionalization of the field. Concerns about population growth and environmental degradation during the 1960s led to two task forces within the American Psychological Association—one on psychology, family planning, and population policy and one on environment and behavior—which later joined together to form Division 34, on population and environmental psychology (Richards, 2000).

The first core text in environmental psychology, Environmental Psychology: Man and His Physical Setting, was published by Proshansky, Ittelson, and Rivlin in 1970. The same year saw environmental psychology described in American Psychologist (Wohlwill, 1970) and in a volume on “new directions in psychology” (Craik, 1970). Key topics in environmental psychology at this early stage already included perceptions of the environment, social uses of space, use of environmental resources, perceptions of environmental risk, and attributes of built environments. Environmental psychology was alert to social issues involving the natural environment and natural resources. It recognized, too, that a psychological experience of the environment incorporated a confluence of social and physical environments, and that the relationship between people and their environments was bidirectional. However, only a subset of research within environmental psychology is substantially relevant to the natural environment or to problems concerning environmental degradation or depletion of environmental resources. Indeed, in a key article reflecting on the identity of environmental psychology, Stokols (1995) described five promising research trends, only one of which involved threats to and change in the natural environment.

One of the main periodicals in environmental psychology, Environment and Behavior, was established in 1969 as an interdisciplinary journal that would publish “rigorous experimental and theoretical work focusing on the influence of the physical environment on human behavior.” Despite the unidirectional nature of this statement (influence of the environment on humans), the journal also welcomes research on the ways in which people conceptualize environments and on policies or planning aimed at changing environments. It is published in association with the Environmental Design Research Association and has traditionally included a strong focus on design and on the built environment. Nevertheless, the publication has also incorporated topics as abstract as morality, attachment, and religious perspectives on environments, as well as practical topics, such as recycling, composting, and energy conservation.

A journal more specific to environmental psychology is the eponymous Journal of Environmental Psychology, established in 1981 to “serve individuals in a wide range of disciplines who have an interest in the scientific study of the transactions and interrelationships between people and their physical surroundings.” Topics covered in the journal are very similar to those in Environment and Behavior, with perhaps a greater emphasis on human cognition, human experience, and theory. The inaugural issue included a reflective essay by David Canter and Kenneth Craik that reviewed the progress of the field, including a significant number of international societies and edited volumes, and attempted to define the field.

Reflecting its growing influence, environmental psychology was further described in a comprehensive, two-volume handbook edited by Dan Stokols and Irwin Altman in 1987. This handbook included chapters on all the core topics of the field: cognition, personality, and emotion; children and aging; human spatial behavior, territoriality, and crowding; and environmental stress. It also covered a variety of environmental contexts, including residential, school, and work environments; environmental problems including crime, transportation, and diminishing natural resources; and environmental psychology in a number of different countries, from Europe and Asia to Latin America and the Soviet Union. In addition, the 1987 handbook engaged in an extensive evaluation of the field, beginning with four chapters on the origins and scope of environmental psychology and ending with four chapters looking toward its future.

A second edition was published in 2002, edited by Robert Bechtel and Arza Churchman. This volume did not try to repeat the focus of the original handbook. Instead the emphasis was on demonstrating the breadth and applicability of environmental psychology. It included chapters making connections to other disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, and clinical psychology, and others describing applications in specific settings (work, museums), for specific groups (women, children), and to specific problems (conflict, disasters, climate). This volume also reflected on emerging new conceptual and methodological approaches within environmental psychology. Particularly significant to the current handbook, the 2002 version included a chapter by Bonnes and Bonaiuto that described a (p. 3) shift over time in environmental psychology’s focus, from an emphasis on the physical environment to a greater concern on sustainable development. They argued for a “full ecology perspective” that would recognize human beings as “the major force or organizing principle of…every ecosystem” and thus would attend to human dimensions of environmental issues (Bonnes & Bonaiuto, 2002, p. 34).

Environmental psychology emphasized three significant themes that were often overlooked or minimized by other areas of psychology. One was the need to understand behavior in context: people in a specific place. Although controlled laboratory research is valuable, it can never provide a full understanding of behavior, learning, or motivation, any more than the behavior of a caged laboratory rat can tell us everything about rat behavior in the wild. The second was a recognition of the reciprocal relationship between people and their environments. Although people are affected by their surroundings, they also both choose and modify their environments; arguably, this is one of the characteristics that distinguish humans from other species, whose impact is more gradual and less deliberate. This indicates the important practical implications of environmental psychology: understanding how people are affected by their environments might suggest helpful ways to modify those environments, and understanding how people choose and modify their environments suggests some of the ways in which they are affected by those environments. For example, recognizing that people benefit from views of nature suggests that buildings be designed to provide such views, and the fact that people spend great amounts of time personalizing their homes and gardens implies that gardens can affect their sense of self. Finally, a third theme is that from its beginning environmental psychology has emphasized the need to be interdisciplinary: to interface with urban planners, architects, sociologists, biologists, educators, and others to both benefit from their knowledge and share what psychology has to offer.

Conservation Psychology

These themes are particularly relevant in conservation psychology, which emerged in the late 1990s and early 21st century. At this time, interest in the natural environment was blossoming, with a growing number of academic programs devoted to environmental studies and an increased awareness of looming environmental problems. A small group of psychologists set about quite deliberately to address a few lacunae: the near-absence of psychology from discussions about environmental issues, both within the academy and in the public sphere, and the limited focus on the natural world in mainstream psychological research. There was also a desire to refocus efforts to use the insights and tools of psychology toward understanding and promoting human care for nature. Several names were considered: Green psychology? Ecopsychology? Psychology of sustainability? Conservation psychology was selected as the name for this new effort, in part because it paralleled the history and goals of the existing field of conservation biology. The term “conservation” does not, in this case, take a position on the historical debate between conserving resources for human use versus protecting nature for its own sake. Rather, it reflects the conservation movement of the late 20th century and particularly the movement’s political focus on responding to environmental challenges, such as pollution, loss of biodiversity, and (more recently) global climate change.

Conservation psychology deliberately enlists contributions from the many subdisciplines within psychology toward understanding and promoting healthy and sustainable relationships with nature. The tools it brings to bear are the conceptual and methodological techniques of empirical research in psychology. Like conservation biology, conservation psychology is distinguished by a clear set of goals and values: it values human and ecosystem health, and aspires to enhance the healthy relationship between humans and the rest of nature. Conservation psychology is not just an applied field, and is not just about understanding determinants of pro-environmental behavior. It is about theory and research aimed at understanding the interdependence between human and natural well-being, and its goal is to make linkages between basic academic research and practical environmental issues.

Beginning in 2000, a series of workshops hosted by the Chicago Zoological Society and a conference funded by the Rice Foundation brought together groups of researchers to discuss the parameters of the field and the best way to move forward. An early outcome was a special issue (2003) of the journal Human Ecology Review, edited by Carol Saunders and Gene Myers, that focused on conservation psychology—describing it, defining it, and suggesting some important directions. The definition in this issue described conservation psychology as “the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world” (Saunders, 2003, p. 138).

(p. 4) Theoretical perspectives emphasized in the special issue focused on behavior change; emotional connections to natural entities (especially animals and places); and communication about environmental issues. A 2005 paper by Clayton and Brook followed, making a further argument for conservation psychology and illustrating a social psychological model of behavior with reference to conservation behavior.

Conservation psychology did not represent a new area of study. What it intended was to offer a new label for previous work that existed, which would in turn establish a new focus to motivate future work and a new identity for psychologists interested in this area, encouraging new opportunities for collaboration between conservation professionals and psychologists. Conservation psychology was established in part to provide a framework for work on the topic that met the accepted standards of psychological research and built on established psychological theory. Sommer (2000), discussing ways in which environmental psychology in general has struggled for a clear label, provides a useful definition of the difference between a subdiscipline and a field of study. According to that definition, conservation psychology is more clearly a field: it comprises people who have been trained in different areas, particularly in the various subdisciplines of psychology, and focused on a common problem area. It draws from research in all the established subdisciplines of psychology, including social, developmental, cognitive, and clinical, in addition to environmental.

Despite the long history of environmental psychology, there is currently a clear desire among psychologists to have a more explicit focus on the natural environment and to have this focus recognized. In a 2000 article in the flagship journal of the APA, American Psychologist, Stuart Oskamp issued a call to arms, asking psychologists to play a bigger part in addressing environmental challenges (a call that was still seen as necessary by Robert Gifford in 2008). At the same time, conservation professionals had a corresponding desire to learn more from psychologists. In 2003, Mascia et al. wrote an essay in Conservation Biology calling for greater involvement of the social sciences in conservation efforts. As recently as 2008, prominent environmental writer David Orr wrote (also in Conservation Biology):

This is an urgent challenge for the discipline of psychology and students of mind more broadly to apply their professional skills to better understand our connections to nature and how to help foster the psychological traits of mind and behavior necessary for a decent future. (p. 821)

Expanding Interest

Response to the challenge from both within and outside the discipline of psychology has been accelerating. Several recently established journals reflect this interest. For example, Ecopsychology, whose goal is to make connections between environmental and psychological well-being by publishing papers on such topics as therapeutic aspects of human-nature relationships and concern about environmental issues, first appeared in 2009; PsyEcology, a bilingual journal on topics in environmental psychology, was first published in 2010; and the Journal of Fostering Sustainable Behavior, whose goal is to provide practical research of use to those designing environmental programs, launched its first call for papers in fall 2010. Somewhat further afield, Environmental Communication, which began in 2007, includes work from the field of psychology, as does Conservation Letters, which appeared in 2008 and explicitly encompasses conservation work from the biological and social sciences. New books continue to appear, including Gardner and Stern’s (2002) Environmental Problems and Human Behavior, Schmuck and Schultz’s (2002) Psychology of Sustainable Development, Ray Nickerson’s (2003) Psychology and Environmental Change, and Koger and Winter’s (2010) The Psychology of Environmental Problems. Clayton and Myers’s (2009) Conservation Psychology was the first text to use this term. A listserv and website for conservation psychology have been constructed, and Division 34 of the American Psychological Association recently voted to change its name from the Society for Population and Environmental Psychology to the Society for Environmental, Population, and Conservation Psychology. A number of other organizations around the world promote and support research on the relationships between humans and the natural world, including Division 4 of the International Association for Applied Psychology, the International Association for People-Environment Studies, and the Australian Psychological Society.

In addition to academic literature and organizations, psychologists have been working to integrate environmental topics into the curriculum (Koger & Scott, 2007) and to make the results of psychological research more available to conservation practitioners. Recent examples of this include a task force of the American Psychological Association that was (p. 5) convened to examine “psychology and global climate change” (APA, 2009), and several publications from the World Wildlife Fund–UK, one of which examines the relevance of identity factors in promoting conservation (Crompton & Kasser, 2009) and another emphasizing the significance of cultural values and frames in encouraging human protection of the natural world (Crompton, 2010). These initiatives are important reflections of the desire to utilize research results to advance conservation initiatives. As conservation practitioners recognize that simply providing people with information is not enough to promote sustainable behavior, there is increased interest in hearing about relevant psychological research (Fraser & Sickler, 2008).

Toward an Integration

The relationship between environmental and conservation psychology has been somewhat ill-defined and has led to spirited debates. Some have argued that all the topics within conservation psychology are already present in environmental psychology; others disagree. There are clearly different points of emphasis and different subcultures of people involved, but there are also exciting synergies. As Schultz and Kaiser state in this volume, research on pro-environmental behavior, with its emphasis on changing the person, did not fit easily within environmental psychology, with its emphasis on specific physical contexts. The field of environmental psychology, as a whole, does not have the emphasis on protecting the environment that conservation psychology represents. However, as many of the chapters in this handbook illustrate, themes relevant to conservation psychology can be discerned in most of the core topics of environmental psychology. The goal of the present volume is to present an integration of the established subdiscipline of environmental psychology, and the new field of conservation psychology. Such an integration should acknowledge both the rich history of environmental psychology and the urgency and vision of the conservation agenda; it also helps to overcome the impulse to divide one from the other by making forced and artificial distinctions between “theory” and “application,” “physical” and “social,” or “built” and “natural” environments. Both environmental and conservation psychologies encompass theory and application, physical and social environments, natural and more engineered settings. Some, but not all, environmental psychology is conservation psychology. Some, but not all, conservation psychology is environmental psychology. In the end, they may represent inextricably intermingled bodies of work, distinguishable if at all by the purpose and professional identities of the researchers and practitioners.

The aims of this volume are both similar to and different from the two earlier handbooks of environmental psychology. Like the first (Stokols & Altman, 1987), this handbook strives to include many of the foundational areas within environmental psychology, but in a way that promotes their applicability to current environmental issues. A number of the topics from the original handbook are revisited, because they are so central to the field and continue to generate so much new research. But we have not attempted to replicate the ambitious scope of that set of volumes. Like the second handbook (Bechtel & Churchman, 2002), the present one emphasizes applied problems, but with an even greater focus on the natural environment.

The chapters are organized so that they proceed from the more abstract and conceptual to the more applied. Environmental and conservation psychology are not purely applied fields but rather include much basic theory and research on how people think about and respond to their environments. Within sections, we also proceed from the more manufactured to more natural environments. Thus, the first section encompasses research and theory on human perceptions, attitudes, values, and emotions. We also look at the role of environments, particularly natural environments, in children’s development and in the development of a sense of self and identity. Acknowledging that the physical cannot be fully separated from the social environment, we include an examination of cultural differences in attitudes and perceptions.

The next section examines some specific environments that have prompted extensive research. We start with built environments, such as residential and work environments; move through environments that are explicitly focused on effecting change in their occupants, such as schools, health care settings, and correctional environments; and end with natural and extreme environments. The focus of these chapters is on understanding these environments, in ways that may contribute to our understanding of human psychology as well as enhancing our ability to design interventions that make the environments more healthy or effective.

The third section emphasizes the ways in which people are affected by their environments. Much of this research has focused on negative influences: environmental stressors, such as noise, and natural (p. 6) disasters, and the characteristics of environmental conflicts. But environments also have great potential, in a way we are just beginning to recognize, for positive effects. We include research on therapeutic effects, restorative effects, and the role of nature in promoting health, peak experiences, and positive social interactions.

In our last section, we flip the causality around. Given the many ways in which humans have harmful effects on the natural environment—from habitat destruction and pollution to global climate change—how can people be encouraged to behave more sustainably, to minimize their environmental footprint? Starting with child development, we examine the promotion of pro-environmental behavior more generally; look at specific examples related to water conservation and cooperation over environmental resources; and focus on effects that occur at a societal level, through education. We close with a review of how psychological research may be able to help mitigate the effects of global climate change, or at least identify ways in which we can adapt.

It is not possible to define environmental and/or conservation psychology as static areas of research. Awareness of societal concerns, developing theoretical perspectives, and cross-fertilization from other disciplines all serve to generate new research questions and methodologies. A final chapter looks back at the chapters that make up the volume to consider what it means to combine environmental and conservation psychology and to sketch out directions in which we see the field developing. One thing that is clear is that environmental and conservation psychology must speak to those outside psychology as well as professional psychologists. Thus, this handbook aspires to serve as a resource for both audiences. The need, and the responsibility, for psychology to contribute to current environmental challenges are urgent.


We thank the Ittleson Foundation for its contributions to advancing the field of conservation psychology, as well as its support for this handbook and for the integration of conservation with environmental psychology.


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