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Environmental Psychology (PSY-511) VU
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Lesson 05 STIMULUS LOAD, BEHAVIORAL CONSTRAINT,
AND ADAPTATION LEVEL THEORIES
1. Stimulus Load Theories Central to stimulus load theories is the notion that humans have a limited capacity to process information. When inputs exceed that capacity, people tend to ignore some inputs and devote more attention to others (Cohen, 1978). These theories account for responses to environmental stimulation in terms of the organism's momentary capacity to attend to and deal with salient features of its milieu. Generally, stimuli most important to the task at hand are allocated as much attention as needed and less important stimuli are ignored. For example, while driving during rush-hour traffic a great deal of attention is paid to the cars, trucks, buses, and road signs around us and less attention is paid to the commentator on the car radio, the kids in the back seat, and the clouds in the sky. If the less important stimuli tend to interfere with the task at hand, then ignoring them will enhance performance, (e.g., ignoring the children's fighting will make you a better and safer rush hour driver. If, however, the less important stimuli are important to the task at hand, then perfor- mance will not be optimal; for example, ignoring the road signs because you are attending to the more important trucks, cars, etc., may lead you thirty miles out of your way in getting home (Figure below). Sometimes the organism's capacity to deal with the environment is overtaxed or even depleted. When this occurs only the most important information is attended to, with all other information filtered out. Once attentional capacities have been depleted even small demands for attention can be draining. Thus, behavioral aftereffects including errors in judgment, decreased tolerance for frustration, ignoring others in need of help, and the like, can be accounted for by these theories. For example, the exhausted rush-hour driver eventually might reach the point where he or she doesn't notice the traffic light turn from red to green (or worse yet, from green to yellow to red), even though this is a very important stimulus. Additionally, decreased tolerance for frustration may lead to
While driving during rush hour traffic a great deal of attention is paid to the cars, trucks, buses, and road signs and less attention is paid to the commuter or the car radio, the kids in the back seat, and the clouds in the sky.
"laying on the horn" or "lane hopping" and motorists in the break-down lane may be ignored, if not looked upon with disdain. Stimulus load theories are also able to account for behavioral effects in stimulus-deprived environments (e.g., certain behaviors occurring aboard submarines and in prisons). That is, this approach suggests that understimulation can be just as aversive as overstimulation. So-called cabin fever resulting from monotonous living conditions can also be seen as the result of understimulation. Wohlwill (1966) has argued that environments should be depicted in terms of measurements applied to the dimensions of intensity, novelty, complexity, temporal variation, surprisingness, and incongruity, all of which contribute to stimulus load. Subsequent docsity.com
Environmental Psychology (PSY-511) VU
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behaviors can then be related to the stimulus properties of environments in systematic and comparable ways.
2. Behavior Constraint Theories Behavior constraint theories focus on the real, or perceived, limitations imposed on the organism by the environment. According to these theories, the environment can prevent, interfere with, or limit the behaviors of its inhabitants (Rodin & Baum, 1978; Stokols, 1978). Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic interferes with rapid commuting; loud, intermittent noises limit effective communication; over-regimentation in hospitals can interfere with recovery, excessively high ambient temperatures prevent extreme physical exertion, and extremely cold temperatures limit finger dexterity. In a sense, these theories deal with situations where persons either actually lose some degree of control over their environment, or they perceive that they have. Brehm and Brehm (1981) assert that when we feel that we have lost control over the environment, we first experience discomfort and then attempt to reassert our control. They label this phenomenon psychological reactance. If the rush-hour traffic interferes with getting home in a timely fashion, we may leave work early, or find alternate, less-congested routes. Loud, intermittent noises may be dealt with by removing their source or by changing environments. Extreme temperatures are handled by adjusting the thermostat. All that is needed is for individuals to perceive that they have lost some degree of control, or for that matter, to anticipate the loss of control, and reactance will occur. If repeated attempts to regain control are unsuccessful, learned helplessness may develop (Seligman, 1975). People begin to feel as though their behavior has no effect on the environment. They begin to believe they no longer control their own destiny, and that what happens to them is out of their personal control. These feelings can eventually lead to clinical depression, and in the most extreme form can lead people to give up on life, and to die. On the opposite side of the coin, perceived control over one's environment (even when real control does not exist, or is not used) can alleviate the negative outcomes that the environment might otherwise bring about. Perceived control over noise (Glass & Singer, 1972), overcrowding (Langer & Saegert, 1977), and over one's daily affairs (Langer & Rodin, 1976) has been shown to influence in a positive manner a variety of behavioral responses. For example, residents of a nursing home who were given greater control over, and responsibility for their own well-being displayed enhanced mood and greater activity in comparison with residents who were not given control. Similarly, people who had control over the thermostats in their working and living environments reported fewer health complaints during the winter months than did those who did not have control. These results occurred despite the fact that they did not actually manipulate the thermostats and kept their environments at ambient temperatures similar to those without control (Veitch, 1976). Behavior constraint theories thus emphasize those factors (physical as well as psychological; real as well as imaginary) associated with the environment that limits human action.
3. Adaptation-Level Theories Adaptation theories are similar to stimulus load theories in that an intermediate level of stimulation is postulated to optimize behavior. Excessive stimulation as well as too little stimulation is hypothesized to have deleterious effects on emotions and behaviors. Major proponents of this position include Helson (1964) and Wohlwill (1974). While all environmental psychologists emphasize the interrelationship of humans to their environment, adaptation-level theorists speak specifically of two processes that make up this relationship—the processes of adaptation and adjustment. Organisms either adapt (i.e., change their response to the environment) or they adjust, (i.e., change the environment with which they are interacting). Adaptation to decreases in ambient temperature include piloerection (hair on the body standing up or what is commonly called getting "goose pimples"), muscle rigidity, increased motor activity, vasoconstriction; adjustments include throwing another log on the fire or turning up the thermostat. Either process brings the organism back to equilibrium with its environment. Another value of this approach is that it recognizes individual differences in adaptation level (i.e., the level of stimulation/arousal that the individual has become accustomed to and expects or desires in a given environment). Thus, this approach is capable of explaining the different responses of two individuals to the same environment. For example, a boisterous party may be perceived as pleasant to a person high in need for sensation, but as overwhelming to the person who prefers a low level of sensation. By the same token, some people revel in the crowded atmosphere of last-minute Christmas shopping while others abhor the inconvenience of having two or more shoppers in the same store with them. These individual differences docsity.com
Environmental Psychology (PSY-511) VU
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in adaptation level lead to quite different behaviors. The person high in need for sensation will seek out boisterous parties whereas the person preferring low levels of sensation would avoid them or seek out havens of solitude within them. We have all seen the "life of the party" and the "wallflower." Some of the differences in their behaviors can be ascribed to differences in their adaptation level. Stress theories emphasize the mediating role of physiology, emotion, and cognition in the organism- environment interaction. Basically, environmental features are seen as impinging, through the senses, on the organism, causing a stress response to occur when environmental features exceed some optimal level. The organism then responds in such a way as to alleviate the stress. Part of the stress response is automatic. Initially there is an alarm reaction to the stressor, wherein various physiological processes are altered. Resistance then follows as the organism actively attempts to cope with the stressor. Finally, as coping resources are depleted, a state of exhaustion sets in (Selye, 1956). Increasingly, though, psychologists have concerned themselves with additional aspects of the stress response. Lazarus (1966), for example, has focused on the appraisal process. According to him, people must cognitively appraise the environment as threatening before stress occurs and behaviors are affected. Our harried rush-hour driver of a few pages back would not, by this criterion, be stressed unless this individual appraised the traffic as threatening. Behavior would, thus, presumably not be affected. By the same token, if the traffic was what the driver was accustomed to, or had come to expect and desire, the situation would be within the individual's adaptation level as discussed above. Later we will deal with stress theories in great detail. For now, it is enough to say that stress theories provide a very powerful tool for studying person- environment relationships.