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Environment

The combination of physical, social, and cultural conditions that influence an individual's development and behavior.

The relative importance of heredity and environment in shaping human lives—nature versus nurture— has long been a topic of debate taken up by thinkers as diverse as John Locke, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud, and forms part of current policy debates in areas

Cross-section of a human adrenal gland, one of the endocrine glands. (Photo by Martin M. Rotker. Phototake NYC. Reproduced with permission.)

such as crime and education. Traditionally, this controversy pits those who believe that human nature and intelligence are biologically determined (eugenicists) against those who contend that, given a positive and enriching environment, most individuals have the potential for high levels of human development (euthenists). It is agreed that such human characteristics as sex, height, skin and hair color, and, to a certain extent, temperament, are genetically determined at conception. However, there is disagreement over the extent to which other aspects of human development—including behavior, personality, and intelligence—are influenced by such environmental factors as nutrition, emotional climate of the home, and quality of stimulation and parental feedback. In addition to the immediate family, many experts consider the social class and culture in which a child is raised as important environmental factors in determining his or her development.

Intelligence testing and race has resurfaced as a volatile topic in the nature/nurture debate, since African-Americans as a group score 10 to 15 points lower on standard IQ tests than whites. Some experts claim that this disparity demonstrates the differences in inherited ability among the two races, while others attribute the gap to environmental influences. In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, in which they asserted that low-income blacks have innately lower cognitive abilities than whites (based on the gap in IQ scores), a situation that cannot be significantly remedied through government social and educational programs. Many social scientists, however, consider environmental and genetic factors to be so closely intertwined as to make it impossible to clearly separate them. Thus, the contrasting positions of eugenicists and euthenists are actually at opposite ends of a continuum, with most observers of human behavior taking a middle position that emphasizes the interaction between biological predispositions and life experiences.

Social learning theorists refer to another layer of complexity in the relationship between environment and human behavior: the self-generated environment. This concept refers to the fact that a certain behavior or behaviors may produce environmental conditions that can affect future behavior. People who behave in an abrasive manner, for example, help create a hostile social environment, which in turn leads to further hostility on their part. Similarly, the behavior of friendly persons will tend to generate a supportive environment that reinforces and perpetuates their original behavior. Thus, a group of persons who find themselves in the same "potential environment" may experience different "actual environments" as a result of their contrasting behaviors.

Since the 1960s, environmental psychologists have studied the relationship between human behavior and the physical environment, including noise, pollution, and architectural design. Like ethologists, who study animal behavior in their natural habitat, environmental psychologists maintain a holistic view of human behavior that leads them to study it in its natural setting rather than in a laboratory, or at least to supplement laboratory experiments with field research. Environmental psychologists study such topics as the ways in which the architectural design of a psychiatric hospital affects its patients; the effects of aircraft noise on children at a school near an airport; and overcrowding in a college dormitory.

Environment psychology is basically an applied field geared toward solving specific problems rather than a theoretical area of study. Like social learning theory, it is heavily concerned with the reciprocal relationship between behavior and environment, including the ways in which people cope with their physical surroundings by altering them. One exception to this orientation is a position known as determinism, which has influenced much research into the effects of architecture on behavior. The determinist approach emphasizes the adaptation of people to their surroundings, and considers behavior largely as a function of those surroundings, with little reciprocity involved.

Further Reading

Altman, Irwin. The Environment and Social Behavior: Privacy, Personal Space, Territory, Crowding. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1975.

Gray, Jeffrey Alan. The Psychology of Fear and Stress. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Additional topics

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