Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Environmental Psychology Chapter I: The Why, What, and How of Environmental Psychology

Chapter 1:

On page 2 of Bell's Environmental Psychology text, the authors compare "the environment" to the stage and scenery of a play. Shakespeare's adage "all the worlds a stage, and we are merely players in it" comes to mind.
The environment is the place where our stories unfold. Unlike the setting on a stage, the authors caution, the real life environment provides more than context or meaning, it provides the basic needs essential for life -- food, water, air, shelter, resources -- and it is modified by our actions.

A question came to my mind as I was reading the text: Now that we humans have created evolving on-line virtual environments, such as SecondLife (, are we blurring the lines between "play" environments and "real" environments? In what way is the metaverse environment of "Second Life" (or "There" or "World of WarCraft" or Active Worlds or the Open Source Metaverse Project) analagous to a true ecosystem? In what way are the contextual elements in Real Life (henceforth to be referred to as "RL") different from those found in Second Life ("SL", which I will use in this course to refer to all metaverse environments)?

The authors define "affordances" as "possibilities allowed or provided by an environment" that are "strong determinants of behavior". In this sense, we can view the constraints and limitations as well as the possibilities provided by the on-line virtual environments of the metaverse as "affordances". SL permits us to play with the way in which affordances affect our behavior.

Since we will be exploring SL throughout our journey into environmental psychology, my recommendation for this course is that you pop down to Best Buy and get yourself a Logitech Dual Action GamePad Controller for your PC or Mac. It plugs into a USB port and enables you to navigate within the metaverse exactly as if you were in an XBox or Playstation game. It will set you back about 20 bucks (I got mine on sale at Best Buy for $16) and it comes with driver software for the PC. To use it on the Mac you need to download USB Overdrive and configure the buttons. This is not difficult at all.

We can consider the presence or absence of a gamepad (or joystick) as enhancing the affordances that the virtual environment provides, and it will be interesting to see if students who must interact with their environment via a keyboard experience it differently and thus behave differently than those with gamepads or joysticks. This would be an environmental psychology study in and of itself! People entering the metaverse with only a keyboard might feel "handicapped", just as if they were forced to enter the real world on crutches or in a wheelchair.

One can go even further and integrate the new Nintendo Wii wireless controller into SL (if you are a Mac user you can download DarwiinRemote, a program from, that will enable your Mac to talk to the Wii and vice versa; the Wii controller will set you back about 40 bucks). Some people are already using the Wii (pronounced "We") as a virtual light saber!
Down the pike we will see full body suits that enable us to merge with our avatars and control them by walking, jumping, dancing, turning our heads, swinging our arms and pointing, grasping and holding. At that level of interface technology, the affordances of the virtual environment will appear very real, and we should be able to conduct better empirical experimental research on environmental psychology!

Recall from pages 10 and 11 of Chapter 1 that one of the biggest problems in conducting research is the presence of "confounds". Confounds are "variables other than the ones being tudied that also vary across different conditions." In experimental research we need two forms of control. One is the random assignment of participants into experimental treatments. The other is that "only the independent variable is allowed to differ between experimental conditions." When "the effect on the independent variable is due to differences in the independent variable and not due to any other factors" the experiment can be said to be high in "internal validity". But experiments with high "internal validity" usually do not have high "external validity", meaning that the results are not generalizable to the real world.

The real world is messy. Our text states, "The degree of control required [to conduct experiments with high internal validity] often creates an artificial situation, which destroys the integrity of the setting... any artificiality reduces experiential realism, defined as the extent to which the research experience resembs that of the real world and impacts the participants as intended."


To get around this problem, "some researchers have responded by using simulation methods -- introducing components of a real environment into an artificial setting. By simulating the essential elements of a naturalistic setting in a laboratory, experiential realism and external validity are increased, and some experimental rigor is retained... simulation techniques are useful for studying numerous aspects of human-environment behavior." (Bell et al. 2001 p. 11)


Your first task in this course is to start exploring the metaverse, get familiar with its affordances and with the limitations of your interaction with it, and start thinking of an experimental design that has high internal validity and approaches a higher external validity.

The final project in this course will be to create an environmental psychology experiment and run it on no fewer than 10 subjects. Since this is an on-line course, I offer you the option to do this on-line, and invite you to use the metaverse as your environment. Once you have become familiar with ways of interacting with others in virtual reality you will have a better handle on how this might be done. So for starters, to get prepared, get familiar with virtual reality, and write on your blog the experiences you've had and the similarities and differences you have found between RL and SL.

You are free to use any virtual reality environment you like for this first assignment. XBox, Playstation, Gamecube and other such interactive environments are welcome. Does that sound like child's play? In fact, serious environmental psychologists are using these types of environments for real research!

Read the top of page 12 where we learn that Ellison-Potter, Bell and Deffenbacher (2000) created a simulated drive down a roadway using a computerized driving simulator to study the situational factors that increase aggressive driving, and where we learn that Parsons, Tassinary, Ulrich, Hebl and Grossman-Alexander (1998) studied how a simulatied drive through nature dominated scenery reduced stress. Does that sound like a fun and productive way to use a driving simulator? Real pilots and astronauts train in flight simulators, and environmental psychologists study the stresses they undergo before sending them into the stratosphere or into space. The authors of our textbook state, "with the increased sophistication of computers and computer-aided design systems, sophisticated computer-graphic simulations can aid research on various environments (e.g. homes, offices, and parks)."

That world is now available to all of us and we should use it in this course. My own professors from the UCLA school of Urban Planning (where I am a doctoral candidate) have been building simulated environments since the mid 1990s. Professors Robin Liggett and Donald Shoup showed me how they have been working with Professor Bill Jepson on the Urban Simulation Laboratory wherein they have created almost all of the city of Los Angeles in a 3D fly-through/walk through interactive environment that has a level of resolution so high you can read grafitti on the walls. Don Shoup used this VR urban simulation to convince city hall of the value of planting street trees by having the mayor's office look out their virtual window and walk down the virtual street with various species of trees at different stages of growth. When the politicians complained that they were worried about thieves lurking in low lying branches of one species of tree, Don simply changed the vegetation lining the boulevard to palm trees.

This kind of manipulation of the virtual environment is improving by the hour, and is now available to all of us, not just to people with access to the UCLA servers. As Bell et al. say on page 17, "Finally, engineers, architects and designers have developed techniques to measure the full range of ambient conditions, such as the amount of light, noise, temperature, humidity and air motion (see Fraser, 1989 for a description of these measures)." Second Life has rainfall, snow and wind, and the sun sets and rises.


Whether you design your research protocol for your first assignment in an off-line environment (such as stand-alone Playstation, XBox or Nintendo boxes) where you are interacting with AI's (Artificial Intelligences) or an on-line environment (such as Second Life) where you interact with avatars (real intelligent human beings controlling animated meshes) you will have to consider the ethical implications of your research.

All research is a form of manipulation. You will need to think about how intrusive, unobtrusive or obtrusive your research methods are. On page 18 our text says "many measures are obtrusive -- their use means that participants are aware of being measured (as well as of what is being measured). " While obtrusive methods are easier to use, it can affect the behavior of the person being observed. On the other hand, unobtrusive measures often require informed consent, or might be construed as invasions of privacy. One of the ways around this, according to page 20, is to observe people in "public settings." It is for you to decide how to deal with ethical issues in the new public and private environments of the metaverse.


The major thrust of this course is captured by the "Preview of the Content Areas of Environmental Psychology" where the authors state,
"...we will discuss environmental perception and cognition, examining the ways in which environments are percieved, how these perceptions are retained and altered by situational factors, and how we negotiate through environments... we will then look at ways in which the environment influences behavior, beginning with theoretical perspectives on environment-behavior relationships... we will examine the behavioral relationships involved in defined settings... in doing so, we will see how knowledge of environment-behavior relationships can be used to design environments for maximum human utility [and] conclude with intervention strategies for modifying environmentally destructive behavior and improving our relationship with the environment."

For the first time in history YOU are invited by the new technological environment that surrounds us to actually begin designing your own eutopia -- your own "perfect environment", and see what affect it has on others!


PS: For those who are interested in getting into the nuts and bolts of designing their own 3D interactive world, the open source design program Blender 3D can be downloaded for free here! Blender for Architects can be found here.

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