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Rob Hall

Working in environmental psychology

I began my working life as a trainee engineer in the steel industry, but after reading work by Dr Hans Eysenck and others I rapidly became interested in the people side of engineering projects more than in the infrastructure aspects. I decided to completely change direction, and enrolled in an Honours degree in psychology. The psychology department was very focused on measurement and scaling, and this was reflected strongly in my PhD, which involved signal detection theory.

When I graduated, I felt as if I had a quiver full of methodological arrows, but no target on which to use them. Then I read about a US architect planning an office tower, whose client required that there should always be people milling in the forecourt. The architect solved the problem by building a fountain, programmed so that at certain times it appeared possible to run through the water columns without getting wet. He reasoned that there would always be someone willing to try, and people willing to hang about and watch. I was transfixed by this application of psychology. It seemed that few psychologists were concerned with how well people interacted with the physical world so I wanted to work in that area and to encourage other psychologists to play a role there, too.

In broad terms, as an environmental psychologist I am interested in the way people engage with the physical environment. After some years as an academic, in schools of psychology, environmental studies and marketing, I left the university context to work in the company I created with two colleagues in 1988. Any one day might involve researching the mental models people have of how the city water and sewage system works, the appeal of new exhibits for a museum, or the patterns of shopping behaviour in a duty-free liquor outlet at the airport. Other daily tasks might be reporting research findings, drafting policy recommendations or briefing architects on the "liveability" of particular housing designs.

I have been fortunate to work on a number of interesting and unusual projects, including:

Predicting how people in the Sydney Opera House would behave if faced with an emergency;
Developing a computer model to visualise the social impact on small rural communities of restructuring the timber industry;
Helping redesign the toilet cubicles for the Boeing 767 using slow-motion photography of users; and
Analysing the visitor experience at major zoos.
Some of the most influential people in my past were colleagues at the steelworks who taught me, as a young man, about ‘bullshit' detection and dealt my self-importance a few hard blows. In a similar vein, I found I wanted to emulate those academic psychologists who wrote in simple, clear English, in contrast to the tortuous prose of others.

Graduates from psychology programs can tend to believe that they know very little. They don't notice the way in which their approach to problem solving has been shaped by their courses but this is one of the most important outcomes of psychology training. They often find it hard to link what they learned in social psychology, personality, cognitive processes and so on, to applied problems outside the clinical and counselling domains. It is important that new graduates be guided to understand that they do have something to offer.

Training our students in the critical appraisal of evidence, mostly through courses in statistical analysis, can tend to dampen their willingness to think boldly and creatively, without the support of a forest of references and tests of significance. We need to keep the critical edge but liberate the imagination.

As a career, the path to psychology is clearest in areas where the clients know that they need assistance: clinical, counselling, education and organisational are examples. Environmental psychology lives in the crack between the design disciplines, social psychology, sociology, anthropology, marketing and the like. Clients come from diverse disciplines, often not knowing that a psychologist could make a valuable contribution to what they want to achieve. Environmental psychologists deal with infrastructure that supports daily life and our aim is to make it work in fulfilling ways for everyone.