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33. Adaptation Level and the Affective Appraisal of Environments

DescriptionAn affective appraisal is defined as a judgement about the ability of place to alter emotional feelings. The theoretical base for this research is discussed. The first theory concerns the description of the affective appraisal of places (Russell et al. 1981). In this model a value is assigned to a place on pleasantness and arousing quality, the 'circumplex model of affect'. Various descriptors can then be used to appraise the space. The second theory is Helson's (1964) Theory of adaptation level. According to Helson, judgements about a stimulus are always relative to the context of judgement, including peripheral and previously encountered stimuli. Wohlwill (1974) is quoted to show that adaption level is important: migrants from rural areas, for example, judge their city of residence as nosier and more polluted than do migrants from urban areas.
MethodologyThree studies were undertaken, where photographs of various environmental scenes were shown to subjects alternating 'target' scenes with various 'anchor' scenes. The subjects were then asked to rate the environmental scenes. Each study employed different groups of subjects and had different numbers of participants. The first experiment had 234 female students, the second 180 male students and the third, 60 female students.

The study does not present evidence to test all of the assumptions of both theories.

Russell refers to the notion that a person's affective appraisal of a place plays a key role in the person's choice of where to go and in guiding his or her behaviour once in a place. This is discussed further in Russell and Snodgrass, 1987). In this study it appeared that one and the same stimulus can receive widely different affective appraisals.

Russell emphasises that whilst he has spoken about the judgement about the emotive capacity of the place, he has carefully avoided talking about the person's actual emotional state as influenced by the environment. At this stage of research he considers it important to distinguish affective appraisal from other emotional states.

PublishedJournal of Environmental Psychology, 4: 119-135
AuthorsRussell, J.A. and Lanius, U.F.
PublisherLondon: Academic Press 
Pricesubscription c. £71 p.a. (4) 
Keywordsenvironmental psychology, affective appraisal, emotion, visual preference. 

Reference to the text is advised for a detailed examination of research methods. This study is of particular interest because it attempts to conceptualise a multivariate response where previous studies have correlated studies of single responses.

There is a discussion of the need to study responses in actual scenes Reference is made to previous work. Russell et al.(1981) is as an example of a study of affective appraisals in a real environment. Russell concludes that studies of affective appraisal in actual environments have been encouraging but warns that they are of necessity complex.


Helson, H. (1964), Adaption Level Theory. New York: Harper and Row.

Russell, J. et al (1981), Affective quality attributed to environments. Environment and Behavior, 13: 259-88

Wohlwill, J.F. (1974). Human adaption to levels of environmental stimulation. Human Ecology 2: 127-47.

Other ReferencesRussell, 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