Friday, July 29, 2011

The Effects of Population Density and Noise

Population density and noise can have a variety of effects on people. When privacy, personal space, and territory are infringed upon by other people or short-term or chronic noise, the effects can range from simple annoyance to severe intrusive anxiety-producing illness (Straub, 2007). As population density increases and territory, privacy, and personal space are accroached, such accommodations demand acknowledgment to prevent the psychological effects of crowding, and to prevent aggression, anxiety, and frustration.

Understanding Territoriality, Privacy, and Personal Space


Altman (1977) defines privacy as “selective control of access to the self or to one’s group” (p. 67). Privacy involves control over information about oneself as well as control over interactions with others (Hutchinson & Kowalski, 1999). In contemporary society, new technologies raise concern about the control over the information of others, which has forced defining balance of privacy versus public information. Privacy needs and values vary between individuals and also between situations and cultures (Clayton & Myers, 2008).

Personal Space

Personal space is the physical distance we choose by which to maintain interpersonal relationships (Hutchinson & Kowalski, 1999). Personal space and territoriality are two mechanisms for maintaining privacy. As defined by Sommer (1969) personal space is “an area with invisible boundaries surrounding a person’s body into which intruders may not come” (p. 26). Altman (1981) suggests such space is changeable, similar to privacy, and varies between individuals, situations, and culture. Neuroscientific research claims personal space is created and mediated by the human brain, and although boundaries shift within circumstances, it is of value and consequence to all people (Kennedy, Gläscher, Tyszka, & Adolphs, 2009).


Human territoriality encompasses temporarily durable preventive and reactive behaviors including perceptions, use and defense of places, people, objects, and ideas by means of verbal, self-marker, and environmental prop behaviors in response to the actual or implied presence of others and in response to properties of the environment, and is geared to satisfying certain primary and secondary motivational states of individuals and groups (Edney, 1974, p. 963).

Although not usually survival based as in animal territoriality, similar to animals, we maintain space by specific behaviors that infer a particular space is owned or in use. Humans have the capacity to attack and demonstrate aggressive display, and maintain other intrinsic reactions toward encroachment such as women’s nesting instincts when pregnant, or after bearing children. Research suggests it is important to emphasize ecological variables as major factors in determining territoriality and it becomes important to address the proclivity to defend resources as a factor of increasing human territoriality (Dyson-Hudson & Smith, 1978). As critical resources become limited, people seek to protect personal area and belongings.

Territoriality, Privacy, and Personal Space as Population Density Increases

Straub (2007) refers to a study by John Calhoun by which he experiments with population density within the living conditions of rats. In this study, rats behaved normally by all standards when there was ample living space, although as the population increased, the rat’s social environment deteriorated. They fought, became more territorial, infant mortality increased sharply, reproductive capacity diminished, and some rats became cannibalistic. Although these discoveries may not necessarily translate to human behavior under similar conditions, population density certainly has practical affects on populations.

Population density affects people, and it also contributes to the psychological effects of crowding whereby people feel confined and limited with less access to necessities. Crowding has been linked to aggression, social withdrawal, increased criminal acts, and inappropriate social interaction (Stokols, 1972). To decrease the symptoms of crowding, it is essential to preserve privacy, personal space, and honor territoriality as a basic human social need. As the resource of space decreases, privacy and personal space demand greater acknowledgment to prevent psychological affects. Without privacy and personal space people tend to feel less control, more competition, and have an increased tendency to react negatively to minor annoyances (Straub, 2007).

Perception is a revealing component of population density in that, if ample space is perceived, the crowding effects diminish. Therefore, changing the perception of space is as influential as actually providing more space. According to Straub (2007), the crowding effects of population density are not inevitable, and perhaps designing space in such a way to appear bigger than it actually is can affect psychological crowding. In any event, mitigating the perception of crowding is of consequence as space becomes a limited resource, and perceiving ample space has far-reaching effects on subjective well-being and health (Straub, 2007). When individuals perceive ample space, they report feeling a stronger sense of control over their environment and are less prone to anxiety and stress (Straub, 2007).

The Effect of Nature on Individuals Living in Urban Environments

Managed natural settings such as zoos, parks and other green spaces can create support and social context for interaction with nature. Not only does such interaction provide interaction, but also nurtures an environmental identity that is so often inhibited in urban living situations. Natural settings found within urban living areas encourage a perception that people should, and need to convene with nature. Maller et al. (2005), refer to beliefs promoted during the Civil War that claimed the influence of the natural environment on people’s health reduced disease, promoted health, supported community health and reduced crime. Contemporary evidence continues to supports these theories.

According to DeVries, Verheij, Groenewegen, and Spreeuwenberg (2003), urban parks play a significant role in physical activity and some research provides evidence in support of the notion that people living in urban settings reported fewer health issues. Clayton and Myers (2008) cite a Japanese study that found mortality rates were lower for individuals with green space in close proximity to their residences. Furthermore, green space reduced the stress of noise in urban settings, even those located near severely noisy environments (Gidlofgunnarsson & Ohrstrom, 2007). Greener neighborhoods seem to promote less aggressive and violent behavior, closer interpersonal relationships, better academic performance, and more positive social interaction between members of communities (Clayton & Myers, 2008).

Noise and its Effects on Individuals

Health psychologists have studied the negative health affects of chronically noisy environments. In human and animal studies, the damaging effects of noise raise blood pressure and cortisol levels, which indicates increased levels of stress (Straub, 2007). Chronic exposure to noise can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and decrease learning ability. Children are especially vulnerable to the disruptive effects of chronic noise as they learn maladaptive skills that provoke them to block specific stimuli. This can be problematic since children do not have the capacity to fully understand which stimuli should be blocked and which is essential to their learning experience (Straub, 2007). Verbal skills are decreased because when children block noise they are likely to block verbal elements as well.

According to Straub (2007), investigation into chronic noise effects in laboratory settings showed louder noise can disrupt short-term memory and decrease the ability to perform simple tasks. Individuals vary in their appraisal of noise, and the more disturbing the individual finds the noise, the greater the affect the noise will have on the individual. Even though noise may not be directly responsible for stress, the affects on sleep, anxiety provoked, and subjective attitude toward the noise has a direct effect on individual health (Straub, 2007). Noise, over which individuals have little to no control has a more severe affect on stress levels.

Noise Reduction Strategies

Fabric Placement as a Noise Mediator

Many outside noises make their way inside the home and there is often little control one can exert over such noise. One way to reduce noise inside the home is to install additional fabric over windows, and as wall décor, as well as fabric and stuffed furnishings. Noise travels more easily through glass than walls with insulation, so covering windows with layers of fabric (or blinds and curtains) can greatly reduce the amount of noise entering a home through the windows (Gaddis, n.d.). Trapping sound waves between the spaces in the layers over windows works efficiently to block out unwanted sound. Additionally, carpeting muffles and absorbs sound waves better than hard floors, which echo and increase sound as it bounces off the wood or tile (Gaddis, n.d.).

Auditory Masking for Noise Reduction

“Auditory masking is when the perception of one sound is affected by the presence of another sound. Masking can be simultaneous or non simultaneous” (Pro Audio Support, 2011, para. 1). The addition of natural or artificial sound (sometimes referred to as white noise) effectively masks sound waves in many environments and is often used in a home setting where intrusive noise from external sources becomes a problem (Hawkins, 1950). Sound masking machines are inexpensive to purchase and take a small amount of electricity. In place of purchasing a machine, running a fan or other consistent background sound will effectively block out noise. Auditory masking does not change pre-existing sound but reduces awareness of them.


Territoriality, privacy and personal space involve personal choice and individual perceptions of the use of space for normal functioning. Psychological effects of these perceptions vary between individuals, but limited space has an eventual profound effect on humans. In urban environments, when space is limited, aggressive and violent behavior, poor academic performance, and more negative social interaction between community members is observed (Clayton & Myers, 2008). Intrusive noise causes limited to severe annoyance, depending on how individuals interpret and perceive the intrusion (Straub, 2007). Noise reduction strategies can range from simple to complex, but are worthwhile especially in cases in which individuals have little control over anxiety- and stress-provoking noise.


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  1. You're a lifesaver. I hate this stupid class. Feng Shui at its most expensive. Grrrr.

  2. Great breakdown of information. Thank you for writing it.

    1. You're welcome, and thanks for your kind comment!

  3. Great paper!!! Thank you for sharing this!!

  4. I have looked to your writting a lot for direction in my last few classes. Words can not express enough how much of a help you are, (even if I cannot cite you) you always help me with direction

    1. Hi Loretta,
      Thanks for that! Glad to help.