Every face-to-face interaction occurs in a specific location. Although it is typically assumed that the course of particular interactions is a product of the individuals involved and their relationships to one another, the surrounding environment has important effects at both the macroand micro-levels.
Where people live has an important effect on social behavior. For example, urban dwellers are less likely to initiate eye contact with passing strangers than are suburbanites or small-town residents (Newman & McCauley 1977). More importantly, helping behavior also decreases as population density increases from small to large cities (Levine et al. 1994). One explanation for the decreased sensitivity to others in large urban areas is social overload. That is, because urban dwellers are consistently overstimulated by the presence of large numbers of people, they adapt by automatically filtering out less important events (Milgram 1970).
Sensitivity to others is affected by more than just population density. Levine et al. (1994) found that, in the United States, the incidence of helping strangers was greater in the south and mid-west than in the northeast and west. Historical and technological changes have also contributed to decreased sensitivity to strangers, and even neighbors, in both low-and high-density situations. Sixty years ago, prior to the common availability of television and air conditioning, people in small towns and large cities spent more time outside, interacting with their neighbors. In addition, although the current technological environment, with the Internet, mobile phones, and palm pilots, extends our ability for remote communication, the frequency and quality of face-to-face communication may be adversely affected (Bugeja 2005).
Weather also plays a role in social interactions. In good weather, people are more likely to be outside and engaged in a variety of activities that, in turn, increase the likelihood of contact with one another. In contrast, stormy weather and extreme temperatures reduce the opportunities for outside interactions. Nevertheless, very hot temperatures can increase negative affect and the probability of aggressive encounters (Bell et al. 2001, ch. 8).
The approach of ecological psychology provides a broad perspective on how the immediate environment shapes social behavior (Wicker 1979). The concept of a behavior setting is basic to explaining the role of the environment on behavior. A behavior setting refers to a geographically limited location with a specific physical design where goals and norms direct the behavior of individuals over a limited time period. For example, a college class on communication, a church service, or a school board meeting all occur in specific locations with distinct design features, have a particular agenda, and last for a limited length of time. Social behavior is also constrained by self-selection, with more similar people choosing common settings. The result of these coordinated influences is that most people in a given setting tend to behave in a relatively homogeneous fashion.
The initiation and development of social interaction are also affected by territory. When individuals are at home, in their office, or simply claiming a picnic table in the park, they have more discretion in initiating and controlling interactions with others (Altman 1975). Visitors typically recognize their own status and defer to the territory holder. For example, territory holders usually meet visitors at the doorway, invite them inside, and direct them to a particular room or location. As a result, territory facilitates order and predictability in interactions. A number of physical characteristics of settings also affect interactions. In the business world, higher-status individuals have larger, better-furnished offices, with nicer views of the surrounding area. Their larger desks not only signal their importance, but also serve to keep visitors at a greater distance. Thus, the immediate physical environment reinforces the office holder’s power in interacting with subordinates. Furniture arrangement also affects the ease of interaction in home settings. For example, the furniture in most living rooms and dens is usually arranged to accommodate the easy viewing of a television. Such an arrangement does not, however, typically facilitate the more comfortable facing positions that most people prefer in interactions. One accommodation might be moving to a kitchen or dining-room table with a closer and more directly facing arrangement. Finally, the number of individuals in a given setting influences affective and behavioral reactions. High-density settings typically increase physiological arousal, precipitate negative attributions (e.g., feeling crowded), and often lead to behavioral withdrawal – but not always (Bell et al. 2001). Parties and sporting events can also be arousing, but precipitate positive attributions (e.g., interest or excitement) and foster greater engagement with others.
Most people assume that they are active agents operating on their social worlds. Nevertheless, research indicates that the physical and social environments not only constrain our behavioral options, but also prime specific actions, often automatically and outside of awareness (Bargh & Williams 2006). An appreciation of the role of the environment on behavior facilitates a better understanding of social interaction and provides an opportunity for greater control in contacts with others.
- Altman, I. (1975). The environment and social behavior. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Bargh, J., & Williams, E. L. (2006). The automaticity of social life. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 1– 4.
- Bell, P. A., Greene, T. C., Fisher, J. D., & Baum, A. (2001). Environmental psychology, 5th edn. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt College.
- Bugeja, M. (2005). Interpersonal divide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Levine, R. V., Martinez, T. S., Brase, G., & Sorenson, K. (1994). Helping in 36 U.S. cities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 69 – 82.
- Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science, 167, 1461–1468.
- Newman, J., & McCauley, C. (1977). Eye contact with strangers in city, suburb, and small town. Environment and Behavior, 9, 547 –558.
- Wicker, A. W. (1979). An introduction to ecological psychology. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.