Environmental Psychologist

Environmental psychologists study the relationship between the physical environment and human behaviour. They focus on both natural and constructed environments on a scale ranging from individual homes and offices to entire urban areas and geographic regions. Their research looks at issues of attention and how people notice and perceive their environment, why people prefer different environments, and how people cope with environmental stress. Environmental psychologists play an active role in examining human behaviours that have caused environmental problems such as global warming and resource depletion, as well as in initiating the necessary substantial changes to human lifestyles to achieve a sustainable future.

At a Glance

Imagine you are sitting in your office poring over journal articles about factors that influence the kinds of decisions people make when choosing where to live. You are an environmental psychologist and you have just been hired by the City to research how environmental considerations make some neighbourhoods more attractive to homebuyers than others.

The City is starting to put together a long-range plan to combat urban sprawl: one of its solutions is to increase density in inner-city communities. These communities are being redeveloped, and city planners want to make certain they will attract buyers while still following the higher-density strategy. They have asked you to evaluate different approaches to community development that will satisfy buyers’ concerns with respect to their urban environment and turn these inner-city communities into sought-after real estate.

As an environmental psychologist, you specialize in studying how the physical environment affects people and how people affect their environment. For this project, you want to know how the physical environment of these inner-city neighbourhoods can be made more attractive to homebuyers. You start by conducting a thorough review of all published literature relating to the subject. Issues of urban sprawl and inner-city revitalization are common in major cities, so a number of studies have already been conducted.

You also want to gather opinions from city residents, so you design your own study whereby several groups of homebuyers are surveyed as to the factors influencing their choice toward or away from inner-city neighbourhoods. For example, higher-density housing in inner-city neighbourhoods often calls for condo complexes, townhouses, and detached homes with smaller lots, all of which give homeowners very little lawn or outdoor space. You want to know if buyers are more interested in living in a community where lawns are smaller if the neighbourhood has lots of parks and open green space.

Buyers might also be more interested in inner-city communities when they consider the environmental cost of commuting from the suburbs and their contribution of greenhouse gases, as well as the better access to public transit that these communities afford. You will study a number of environmental considerations and how they affect decisions when it comes to choosing what community to live in. The results of your study will be incorporated into the City’s plans for its inner-city neighbourhoods.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an environmental psychologist:

  • Investigate the challenges that arise from the interaction of people with natural and constructed environments using various research methods, measurements, and data analysis.
  • Construct and administer questionnaires and other research instruments.
  • Analyze data from behavioural measurements and questionnaires using statistical analyses appropriate to the research design.
  • Assess how environmental factors affect individual attitudes and behaviours.
  • Examine how attitudes and behaviours affect the physical environment, for example, with regards to water conservation, public transit, and littering.
  • Prepare reports and present study results to a variety of audiences using different media, including scientific journals and trade magazines.
  • Interact with scientists in other fields to understand problems and implement strategies to find solutions.

Work Environment

Environmental psychologists work in a variety of locations, including:

In the office:

  • Analyzing data and preparing reports
  • Conducting literature reviews and other research
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, stakeholders, government departments, colleagues, and the public

In the field:

  • Presenting information to stakeholders, clients, and the public
  • Conducting research and visiting sites
  • Attending conferences and meetings

In the lab:

  • Conducting studies and recording observations

Where to Work

There are a number of places environmental psychologists can find employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal governments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Self-employed consultant
  • Not-for-profit, non-governmental, and international organizations

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as an environmental psychologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • English
  • Biology
  • Mathematics
  • Social Studies
  • Chemistry

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an environmental psychologist is a university undergraduate degree. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an environmental psychologist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology

It is not mandatory to be certified in order to work as an experimental environmental psychologist conducting research. Clinical psychologists, however, must be licensed through their provincial association.  A master’s degree is necessary in order to be licensed as a clinical psychologist.

Education and Skills

Jennifer Veitch

Jennifer Veitch began her first years of university with an interest in science, chemistry, and zoology. It wasn’t until she took an introductory psychology class that a professor introduced her to the idea that "the physical environment affects what people do and how they feel.” With that, her interest in environmental psychology began. Years later, Jennifer is now an environmental psychologist working as a senior research officer with the National Research Council in Ottawa.

She studies the interrelationship between the built environment (such as office design) and human behaviour and, conversely, how human behaviour in buildings affects the environment, particularly by influencing energy use. On any given day, Jennifer can be found working with a variety of industry professionals on studies of such issues as how office lighting or noise affects people’s work performance, mood, and health. She enjoys this team-oriented, interdisciplinary nature of her work: "Nothing happens in isolation here.” And she’s always busy. "We always have more than one study on the go.”

When Jennifer’s not designing studies or questionnaires, she’s writing project proposals, analyzing data for reports, or presenting her research to practitioners such as architects, engineers, and facility managers. Still, Jennifer says, one of the biggest drawbacks of her job is the lack of understanding among the public about the breadth and potential of psychology. "[Psychology] is more than just a good way to treat depression…it’s about understanding what people do and developing ways to apply that understanding to all aspects of human activity.”

She adds that the research and work she’s doing now will greatly help people in the future. "The role of environmental psychologists is to help the building professions design, construct, and operate buildings that are comfortable, healthy, and suitable to our daily lives.”

Your Impact

Occupational Classification

The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.

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