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17. Explaining the Emotion People Experience in Suburban Parks

DescriptionThis study looks at the way in which physical characteristics of parks influence emotion. The paper also examines the relationship between affective or emotional response and preference.
MethodologyThe park environment was simulated by photographs. Results were evaluated using the 'circumplex model of affect' suggested by Mehrabian and Russell (1974) and Ward and Russell (1981) with the major axis of pleasure and arousal (see comments below). The park's tree densities, under-storey vegetation densities, and the presence or absence of pathways were used to explain the visitors' evaluation of affect.

The researchers concluded:

  • Evaluations in pleasure are influenced more than evaluations in arousal by variations in the physical characteristics of the park.
  • In general, pleasure increases as tree density and size increases and understory density decreases.
  • Arousal increases with increasing understory vegetation density, which may be because 'way finding' is more difficult without pathways.
  • People prefer parks that are pleasant and arousing in general. People differ slightly in the affect they associate with different park characteristics but not in the level and type of affect they prefer to experience in parks.
  • Results suggest that considerable control over affect can be exercised through manipulation of a park's physical characteristics.
  • The authors conclude that the circumplex model of affect seems a useful tool for the study of environment and behaviour.
PublishedEnvironment and Behavior, 21( 3):323-345, May 1989
AuthorsHull IV, B.R. and Harvey, A
DateMay 1989
PublisherSage Publications, Inc.
Pricesubscription c. 183 p.a. (6)
Keywordscognition ( affect/ emotion/experience); perception (built environment/natural environment); landscape (assessment/evaluation/preference)

Emotions are said to be pancultural, innate and independent of sense modality. It is argues that emotions mediate the impact of environment on behaviour (Mehrabian and Russell, 1974).

This study is concerned with helping to establish the reliability and validity of the circumplex model of affect as refined in Russell and Lanius, (1984) and Russell and Snodgrass (1987).

The paper is of primary interest as a commentary on a research method and provides useful discussion of the pitfalls encountered with the use of this model. It illustrates, for example, the following points:

  1. The arousal index did not discriminate well among parks. Problems were encountered with the selection of words used in the arousal index: in some cases words take on specific denotative meanings while in other situation the words imply affect. Perhaps affective and denotative constructs are distinct and should be measured separately. The physical characteristics of the parks associated with arousal may have been too similar.
  2. The level of analysis i.e. molar (in this instance 'park') or molecular (physical characteristics of these parks) may be significant. Molar environments, or places, may differ from one another in ways not fully explained by differences in the "molecular", physical characteristics of environments. Thus a backyard may share characteristics such as amount of open space, tree density etc. at molecular level but the two environments may be recognised and regarded as different by the potential user, (p326). The researchers conclude on balance that the circumplex model is valid regardless of the level of analysis, (p341). (but see also Daniel and Ittleson, (1981))
  3. The authors accepted that it was possible that people differ in their emotional responses to parks: (p327)
  4. people may differ in the emotion they feel in a park;
  5. people may differ in the emotion they prefer to experience in a park.

However they concluded that there were not significant variations in response based upon personality, style, and past experience. They did concede that the subject groupings may not have been sensitive enough to these factors.

They list, in passing, the influence of past experiences, current expectations, and previous moods on affective responses (Mehrabian and Russell, 1974) and mention that age, culture, gender and lifestyle may be important. These issues are not addressed in this research project.

For a fuller discussion of emotion and cognition in environmental preference see Russell, J. and Snodgrass, J. (1987)


Daniel, T.C. and Ittleson, (1981), Conditions for Environmental perception research: comment on the Psychological representation of molar physical environments by Ward and Russell. Journal of Experimental Psychology; General, 110: 153-157).

Mehrabain, A. and Russell, J.A. (1974), An approach to Environmental Psychology. Cambridge MIT Press.

Russell, J. A. and Lanius, U.F. (1984), Adaptation Level and the Affective Appraisal of Environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology 4 :119-135.

Russell and Steiger (1982), The structure in persons' implicit taxonomy of emotions. Journal of Research in Personality 16: 447-469.

Russell, J. and Snodgrass, J. (1987) "Emotion and Environment" in D Stokols and I. Altman (eds) Handbook of environmental psychology. Ch 8, pp245-281, New York: Wiley.

Russell, J.A. (1980), The circumplex model of affect Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39: 1161-1178.

Russell, J.A. and Pratt, G. (1980), A description of the effective quality attributed to environments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38: 311-322.

Ward, L.M. and Russell, J.A., (1981), The psychological representation of molar physical environments. Journal of Experimental Psychology; General 110: 163-168.