Environmental psychology is the study of the interaction between the physical world and human behavior. In recent years, the topic of privacy has been a key aspect of this field of study, as research reveals that it directly relates to a sense of well being and control. A supportive physical environment has been proven to contribute to a successful social, private and work life, and privacy is a key factor in creating a positive environmental setting.
Why We Need Privacy
There are many theories as to why people need privacy. Many psychologists believe that people need to maintain personal space between themselves and others to avoid overstimulation. According to Scott (1993), when people are too close to one another, they are bombarded with too many social or physical stimuli.
Some researchers argue that people need to maintain personal space to avoid various stressors associated with very close proximity. This group says that when personal space is inadequate, people have feelings of arousal.
Altman (1975) views personal space as a boundary regulation mechanism needed to meet desired levels of personal and group privacy. According to Altman, privacy is an interpersonal boundary process by which people control interactions with others.
Through variations in the extent of their private space, people make sure that their desired and achieved levels of privacy are consistent. If it is impossible to control and regulate these boundaries so that the desired level of privacy is met, negative effects and coping are the result.
When people purposely invade other people's privacy, the situation often involves negative consequences for both parties. Felipe and Sommer (1966) conducted a field experiment at a 1,500 bed mental institution in which a stranger approached lone patients at a distance of six inches and sat down. If the participant attempted to move away, the stranger moved so as to maintain a close proximity. The majority of the group showed signs of discomfort and many got up and left.
In a separate experiment by Felipe and Sommer (1966), female students were studying at a large table with six chairs on either side of the table, with at least two empty chairs on either side of each subject, and one opposite. There were several experimental conditions, including:
The experimenter sat next to the female participant and moved his chair nearer to hers (close).
Sat two seats away from her, leaving one chair in between them (distant).
Sat three seats away (distant).
Sat directly across from her (control).
The results of this study were:
Left within 10 minutes
Still working after half-hour
Privacy can be broken down into the following classifications: Kaplan (1982)
Solitude: total visual privacy;
Intimacy: privacy, within a small social unit, such as a family at home alone;
Anonymity: privacy, within a social setting, where one is able to observe without feeling observed; people merging with the environment;
Reserve: a psychological barrier against intrusion, allowing people to be themselves within group situations.
People experience feelings of overcrowdedness for a variety of reasons. There are many physical barriers to privacy, including restricted space, lack of open space, and large buildings. There are also many social factors that prevent privacy, including interpersonal relationships. In addition, many individual factors may cause a lack of privacy, such as age, sex, or socio-cultural background.
Desire for Privacy
Humans have a strong desire for privacy, isolation, and sometimes solitude. Anne LaBastille (1992) explains that, "Solitude and silence are positive, precious life forces which every human needs and has the birthright to enjoy" (p. 6). There are many reasons that people seek privacy and solitude, including the normal pressures of everyday life, stress from work, daily responsibilities, social pressures, weather; and any other kind of stressor that one experiences.
When life becomes too hectic, people need privacy. Privacy is used to normalize the access of others to oneself or to a group (Altman, 1975). When someone experiences a sensory or information overload, his or her immediate reflex is to cut off or regulate that sensory stimulation received. Privacy gives them the space and control they need to feel free.
Freedom is one of the strongest desires in the world. With freedom, one can think and do whatever he or she wants. With privacy, one is isolated from others. This makes it easier to govern oneself and make decisions entirely based on one's own opinions and desires. In turn, the individual has more self-esteem and self-respect.
In addition to the freedom factor, human beings often seek privacy from others in order to experience emotional release. Human beings naturally want to be alone when they feel certain overwhelming emotions coming on. These emotions include crying, laughing, and sulking.
In a private setting, people can freely release their emotions, and are more comfortable doing so. For example, many people who have just received terrible news ask to be left alone for a while. This shows that people need a comfort barrier. In a private setting, people do not have to worry about being watched or judged by others. They can concentrate on their own feelings and emotions.
Environmental psychologist Franklin Becker (1981, pp. 109-110) says, "The essence of privacy is the control of information flow," and is thus both an input problem of distractions and interruptions and an output problem of confidentiality.
When people do not feel the privacy that four doors and a wall provide, they often resort to other means to find the privacy they need. For instance, they may attempt to control their environment by listening to a Walkman. This enables them to block outside noises and create a "private" setting.
People often barricade their personal space to limit the activity that can take place. In an office, they may stack books or files to block them from the rest of the workplace. In addition, they may display put up "do not disturb" signs or hang curtains to create privacy.
Privacy in the Home
When design professionals consider what makes a design good, they tend to focus on aesthetic qualities, project economics and technical issues. However, many top designers understand that a good design must accommodate and enhance human social and psychological functioning and well-being.
According to Mary V. Knackstedt, in her book, Interior Design & Beyond (2000), discusses the ways that designed interiors affect human behavior. According to Knackstedt, interior designers have a moral obligation to design interior spaces that have a positive influence on people and their social and physical environments.
Knackstedt stresses the importance of privacy in design. Privacy may be determined to the extent to which a space is planned and designed to be shared or opened to others. Basically, privacy is regarded as a precondition to one's ability to maintain personal integrity.
Baum (1981) compared the behavior of students who lived in various types of dormitories. Depending on how their rooms were designed, students were more or less likely to be social with other students.
One group lived in a dormitory in which the rooms were lined up along a hallway. These students shared common areas with many people. In this case, the students were constantly around other students. Another group lived in suites with bedrooms placed around a common living room. This group had a slimmer chance of running into other students frequently.
While the average amount of space per person was the same in both situations, the students living in the dormitory that shared many common areas felt more like they lived in overpopulated housing.
As a result, they complained of lack of privacy. Many tried to avoid or cut themselves off from other students. They felt a stronger need for solitude and weakened ties with their peers. This study shows that the need for privacy is very important and if disregarded, can have serious effects on social life.
Privacy in the Workplace
Recent studies show that many corporations are neglecting the privacy needs of office workers in their quests to facilitate task flow and communication for teamwork. However, this often works against them, decreasing the efficiency of the individual worker, which can slow down the entire team's efficiency.
Team effectiveness is dependent on the successful management of group-organizational boundaries, the corresponding territorial control, and a supportive physical environment (Sundstrom & Altman, 1989; Sundstrom, De Meuse, & Futrell, 1990).
Many offices to increase communication use open-plan cubicles. However, cubicles typically have the opposite effects, as they create privacy problems. Research shows that people communicate less when they have little or no control over communication (Baum, 1981).
Privacy studies reveal that inability to hold confidential conversations, lack of control over accessibility, inability to avoid crowding, and distractions and interruptions all have negative effects on job performance and satisfaction (Braeger, Bauman, Heerwagen, & Ruland, 2000).
According to a recent survey, the majority of people who work in offices say that they need privacy to do their jobs adequately. The majority of these survey participants also stated that they did not have enough privacy in their…