The Physical Environment Reinforces Who We Are

The Physical Environment Reinforces Who We Are


In mythology, film, literature, and daily living, setting is important: Zeus on Mt.Olympus, Poseidon in the sea, Hades in the underworld, Artemis in the forest, and Hestia at the hearth inside the temple. In film, as in literature and in daily life, the words “don’t move,” when uttered in a doctors’ office versus in a jungle, or onstage, or in a dark deserted alleyway, conjure different meanings because of the setting. Being in a basement or a ballroom, a church or a courtroom, a library or a subway station, each setting has its own distinct effect on a person. Setting signal behaviors, impart information about the users or occupants, invite our projections and imaginings, stir our feelings, and engage our unconscious.

Settings and the Gods

The ancient Romans paid a great deal of attention to setting. When entering a  setting, one might pass through a vestibule, (named for the Roman Goddess Vesta, whose Greek counterpart was Hestia, keeper of the hearth, or “focus” in Latin), and pass three different gods of the doorway (the door, the threshold, and the hinges). These gods prevented bad luck from entering the ancient home. Juno (or Hera in Greece) oversaw the “psychic and material well-being of the household.”

What gives a place its identity, its persona?

What is a place? What gives a place its identity, its persona? These questions occurred to the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg when they visited Kronberg Castle in Denmark.  Bohr said to Heisenberg:

“Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here?  As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together.  The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle.  None of this should be changed the by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely” (Tuan,Y., Space and Place: the perspective of experience, 2002).

We have never been separate from our setting:

In the Handbook of Environmental Psychology, Brian R. Little (1987), author of the “Personality and Environment” chapter, notes “The interdependence of human personality and the surrounding milieu is so complete that human thought about environment was most likely coterminous with the emergence of consciousness.”

Setting has a “major claim on behavior”:

“In contrast to perspectives that assumed that the major causal influences on behavior were endogenous to the organism (e.g., motivational state, perceptual set), Barker insisted that the behavior setting itself has a “claim” on the individual that deserved serious psychological examination”

(Little, B., Personality and Environment, 1987).

People respond immediately and unconsciously to an environment:

“When people encounter an environment, they respond immediately and unconsciously to its rather general features” (Zajonc 1980; Ulrich 1983; Orians and Heerwagen, Journal of Cultural Geography, 1992).

Our setting displays our image and teaches us back:

Objects, like people, come in and out of our lives and awareness, not in some random, meaningless pattern ordained by Fate, but in a clearly patterned framework that sets the stage for greater and greater self-understanding. In our own lives, we select the sets and props of different “acts” (or periods of life) in order often >unconsciously to display images of ourselves and to learn by reflection of the environment around us” (Cooper Marcus, C., House as Mirror of Self: exploring the deeper meaning of home,1995).

Physical environment reinforces who we are:

“…we hypothesize that individuals also select and craft physical environments that reflect and reinforce who they are” (Gosling, S., Sei, J., Mannarelli, T., Sapient, M., Journal of Personality and Social Pathology, 2002).

Notice where you sit when you’re working and what you’re surrounded by. What is it reminding you about you? As you move through your home, look at what’s on the walls, the shelves, on the floors and ask how that reinforces your sense of who you are.  You may not always like what is being reinforced. The New Year is a good chance to change it! Use your setting as the powerful psychological tool that it is.

Katherine Morris, M.A.,Ph.D., is an Environmental Psychologist

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