As humans, we tend to believe that we are somehow separate from or superior to other animals. Our capacity for thought, invention, and emotion are often cited as evidence of our exceptionality. Our accomplishments in building civilizations, developing languages, and exploring far-flung places make an even stronger case for why we are at the top of the pecking order in the animal kingdom.
Yet for many researchers, humans are just another subject worthy of being studied, another creation that is part of a much larger, highly interconnected system of life. It is in this context that ecological psychology was born.
What is Ecological Psychology?
Ecological psychology is actually two separate, yet closely related schools of psychology. The first, which developed in the mid-twentieth century, was established to examine the relationship between psychological mechanisms and the physical and social environments in which humans operate. There was a distinct effort to explore human behavior in its natural state, not in a laboratory setting as other psychologists of the time, namely the behaviorists, sought to do. This first school of ecological psychology is considered the forbearer of modern environmental psychology.
The second school of ecological psychology is more or less congruent with environmental psychology. Developed in the 1990s, it is closely related to the disciplines of natural and environmental science. This newer branch of ecological psychology, like its twentieth century antecedent, explores issues related to humans and their interaction with natural and man-made environments. There is also a focus on environmental sustainability issues, as well as an emphasis on understanding how the human destruction of the environment negatively impacts human life.
Both the first and second schools of ecological psychology are built on the foundational idea that human behavior occurs in the context of an environment. Researchers like Urie Bronfenbrenner helped guide the development of the concepts and theories upon which ecological psychology is based. As a result of his work, ecological psychologists examine microenvironments, such as the members of one’s immediate family, and macroenvironments, such as the community in which one lives, and how those environments interact with one another to influence how humans learn, grow, develop, and behave.
Ecological psychology is a research-based discipline. While the data collection tools available to today’s psychologists have changed greatly from those available in the 1940s when the first school of ecological psychology developed, the approach to studying human behavior – direct observations – remains unchanged. Also unchanged is the continued interest in studying human behavior without influencing it in any way.
What Does an Ecological Psychologist Do?
There are a variety of job functions for ecological psychologists, but the vast majority of people in this field of work are employed in the research sector. As discussed above, psychologists in this specialization conduct observations of human behavior in a natural environment. For example, an ecological psychologist interested in learning the impact of time spent outdoors on the stress level of suburban, white-collar workers would conduct research on that specific group of people as they actually spend time outdoors. Ecological psychologists would observe their subjects, collect and analyze data, and report those findings without ever bringing their subjects into a laboratory environment.
Some ecological psychologists also work for private companies or government agencies to help direct the development of environments that improve the wellbeing of the community. They might also serve in an advisory role, providing their expert opinion to help in decision-making processes. Environmental activism is another potential job duty for ecological psychologists.
Why is Ecological Psychology Important?
Ecological psychology serves several important functions. First, it helps inform us about our interactions with one another, with natural environments, and with man-made environments. Developing a deeper understanding of these interrelationships can lead to improved insights about why humans behave one way in one environment, and another away in another environment.
Second, ecological psychologists are playing an increasingly important role in protecting natural habits from overuse, misuse, or destruction by humans. Bringing a better balance between man and environment is a critical component of the global effort to mitigate the negative effects human activity has had on the natural world. In addressing our role and function within the macro ecosystem, ecological psychology can inform us about how humans can grow, change, and develop in a manner that brings about positive results for every member of that ecosystem.
Lastly, ecological psychology sheds light on how the individual pieces and parts of an ecosystem can have enormous impacts on the others. In this regard, the study of ecological psychology is important for raising awareness that our individual actions, or those that take place on a micro level, can influence what occurs on the macro level. In other words, ecological psychology gives us a glimpse into the potential of us both as individuals and as a species.
What are the Career Opportunities for an Ecological Psychologist?
Workers in this field can be employed in a variety of career settings. Some work for colleges and universities conducting research and teaching undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral-level courses. Others work for private research institutions, examining specific human-environment interactions, such as how children interact with a newly designed piece of playground equipment. Yet other ecological psychologists might work for government agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, to carry out research that improves our understanding of mental health issues and the best ways to treat those issues.
Consultation and advisory positions are also popular for ecological psychologists. For example, an urban planning commission might consult with an ecological psychologist to determine the size, location, and features of a proposed park. Ecological psychologists might also serve in an advisory role, helping local governments to determine the best means by which they can develop, maintain, and protect man-made and natural habitats for human use.
Activism is another area of work that is ripe for opportunity for ecological psychologists. In this capacity, ecological psychologists might work with preservation societies to protect historic buildings to maintain the community feel of a neighborhood. Likewise, workers in this field might join forces with environmental protection groups to preserve and protect natural habitats that are integral to the survival of human and non-human animals.