Pollution and Psychology

Have you come across the field of environmental psychology?

When Professor asked me this question, I was a bit unsure to answer. I knew that interest in environmental psychology exists and several books and research papers have already been written. There are also university based academic programs that let you earn a degree in this subject.

In India however, I had not come across a discussion on this important subject and had not seen professionals engaged in this arena.

Environmental psychology is a field of psychology that deals with the study of effects of environment or surroundings on humans. The study focuses on the human reactions to environments, to gain insight on how change in environment can manipulate people’s feelings, thoughts and possibly actions. The field defines the term environment broadly, encompassing natural environments, social settings as well as built environments. Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field.

Every day we are affected in some way by the environments we live, work and recreate. For example, some surroundings may make us feel secure while other may make us feel nervous. Our exposure to the digital data, infographics, videos on the subject of environmental pollution influences our psychology and hence our reactions.

The frequently published Air Quality Indices (AQI) across Indian cities scare many. But compared to the talk on air pollution, we discuss little about the noise pollution. Today, India operates 500 automated noise monitoring stations that record noise on 24×7 basis. This continuous noise data is not shared with the public. So, we are perhaps less sensitive about the status and impact of noise pollution. Due to our festivities and an affinity to make noise, an average Indian seems to be indifferent to the decibels of noise exposed.

On our perception of solid waste, campaigns under Swatch Bharat Abhiyan have made a difference. Increasing fines for not segregating the waste at source and discouraging littering has made us at least conscious about the mounting problem of the waste we generate. We have started hating plastic and are now thinking about the challenge of electronic waste and its disposal. But the issues are not limited to pollution.

I remember Prof Ikeda, one of my Japanese friends, specializing in urban behavior, came to “experience”  crowding in Mumbai. We stood outside the Victoria Terminus Station at 9 am to see the crowd pouring out. Ikeda was comparing this crowd with Tokyo. He was impressed. When we interviewed a few people, we realized that people travelling in the crowded trains were under significant stress. The fist-fight to get inside the compartment, building tenacity to stand and breath till you reach the destination and then applying all the skills and energy to get out at the desired destination was a nightmare to many. Under these situations, when people reached office, their behavior was loaded with anger and frustration  –  but can we blame them?

I must recommend you a book on “Emotive Cartography” edited by Christian Nold.  This book is a collection of essays from artists, psychogeographers, designers, cultural researchers, futurologists and neuroscientists, brought together to explore the political, social and cultural implications of visualizing people’s intimate biometric data and emotions using technology. Case studies are given of different cities of the world showing the map of emotions. The maps are fascinating. Think about the emotion maps of mega cities like Mumbai, Delhi and compare them with medium size cities like Bhopal, Nagpur. Sure they will be different.

But the purpose of an environmental psychologist is not just make people aware of the problem, or understand their emotions towards the environment, but find how to alter a person’s perception, bring in a behavioral change and find ways how a more pleasant environment can be created for everyone. So, we do need trained environmental psychologists.

“But do you think an environmental psychologist will get a job in India?” I asked Professor. Even the techies in environmental science and engineering are not getting employment today and if they get one, they are poorly paid.

Professor lit his cigar

“Well Dr Modak, I agree but I expect that in the course of few years, environmental psychology will be a rather coveted career”

He seemed confident.

He took a deep puff and explained

We need to “expose” the people to the “information” surrounding us so that they understand the invisible or out of sight. For example, we cannot feel radiation arising from the mobile phones and transmission towers but realize the gravity of the issue only when it is too late. We can see smog, especially from a distance, or while the aircraft lands in the city; but  we cannot see the particulate matter. Other problems, such as scraps of plastic floating in the oceans or inside the animals that ingested are visible in principle, but they are “outside” our “normal” view. Visiting a beach that is littered with plastic will make us get disgusted and hence take on action.  Many suggest the public could potentially become motivated if powerful images were carried on everyday products, similar to that already being used on cigarette packaging. But does a chain smoker of cigarettes give up smoking because of these horrific images and warnings? An environmental psychologist will tell.

Second challenge is cognition. We need to explain the causes to impairment to health – one of them being environmental pollution. People may find it difficult to connect pollution with health-related outcomes such as illness especially when pollution is an omnipresent feature of the background. We need well conducted surveys and analyses of data to establish potential cause-effect relationship. Still the cognition could be difficult and debatable. Environmental benefit of unleaded petrol or phasing out to CNG is not easy to understand. We understand the economics more easily. So, an environmental psychologist will tell us how to overcome this challenge.

Finally, we need to help people discover that role can be played as an individual. Some people may understand the perceptual, cognitive, and interventional issues, but simply don’t care. Here it is necessary to link pollution to core values. People often revolt against pollution when the issue is moralized. Moralization, in turn, enables the generation and enforcement of norms, laws, and punishments, as well as rewards. An environmental psychologist will need to take us back to our core values, reminding us of the traditions, beliefs and culture to become more sensitive and responsible towards environment.

The field of environmental psychology is thus committed to the development of a discipline that is both value oriented and problem oriented using the science of human nature.

I was more than convinced with Professors explanation.

Since India now boasts of 14 most air polluted cities out of the top 15 across the world, I asked Professor about what role the subject of environmental psychology can play.

“Oh, Dr Modak, Haven’t you come across the new research that links air pollution to higher levels of crime and other unethical acts? This research was just published in 2018″ Professor said while extinguishing his cigar.

Evidence of a link between pollution and crime has been growing for several years. Findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science indicates that exposure to air pollution, either physically or mentally, is linked with unethical behaviour such as crime and cheating. The experimental findings suggest that this association may be due, at least in part, to increased anxiety. This association was held even after the researchers accounted for other potential factors.

To establish a direct, causal link between the experience of air pollution and unethical behaviour, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in China, United States and India. The results showed that participants who thought about living in a polluted area cheated more often than did those who thought about living in a clean area. The authors conclude that air pollution not only corrupts people’s health, but also can contaminate their morality.

I was simply aghast with this finding.

Clearly, controlling air pollution in Indian cities should be our first priority – at least on this ground!

Cover image sourced from https://blogs.haverford.edu/haverblog/2016/04/11/cool-classes-environmental-psychology-and-conservation/

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5 thoughts on “Pollution and Psychology

  1. Dear Dr Modak, This time you are not a story-teller but a ‘jagte raho’ guard. I recall that in a public meeting, a journalist kept on asking me how long would it take to end pollution in India. I had to reply. My reply was that it would take just one year after rape was eliminated from our society. My reply was off-hand but it did bring out a powerful relationship between morality and environment. Best wishes for you to continue your excellent blogs and the usual ‘long time no see’! — Paritosh Tyagi

    I would prefer any further mail for me addressed to *paritya@yahoo.com * With personal regards — Paritosh Tyagi Telephone: 0120-4253616; Mobile 9810823131


  2. Very well written sir! Being a sustainable management student I feel ignorance plays a major role in the society. Though there is awareness, as we can see people have started using a mask, air purifiers because they know the hazardous effect of air pollution but still not willing to substitute with cycling or using public transportation.

    Liked by 1 person

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