Visual Air Quality in Nonrecreational Settings

Investigations into the psychological value of visual air quality in nonrecreational, or urban settings, have been sparse. The research conducted in this area examined awareness of and attitudes toward visual air quality and investigated relationships between visual air quality, stress, and human behavior.

Public Perception Of Visual Air Quality. Survey research of public awareness of visual air quality using direct questioning typically reveals that 80% or more of the respondents are aware of poor visual air quality, and that poor visibility and media publicity are the primary factors that precipitate the awareness (Cohen et al., 1986). These surveys have also shown that awareness is not uniform across the general population of a given area. Persons with higher income and educational levels tend to be more aware of poor visual air quality than those with lower income and educational levels.

People are also less aware of pollution in their home area compared to awareness of pollution in areas adjacent to their home (Evans and Jacobs, 1982; Evans et al., 1982). A suggested explanation for this finding is that people cognitively adjust their awareness level to reduce the dissonance of living in a polluted area with which they are otherwise satisfied or might not be able to leave.

Attitudes toward poor visual air quality vary with socioeconomic status, health, and length of time an individual has lived in the area (Barker, 1976). Affluent and well-educated people consider poor visual air quality to be a more serious problem than others. People who are not economically tied to sources of air pollution, have respiratory ailments, or are new to an area also show the strongest negative reactions to reduced VAQ.

Visual Air Quality and Stress. Reduced visual air quality is an ambient environmental stressor because it is a relatively constant and unchanging situation over which one has little direct control (Campbell, 1983). The associated stress and lack of control is chronic, not salient, and may be manifested in heightened levels of anxiety, tension, anger, fatigue, depression, and feelings of helplessness (Evans et al., 1987; Ziedner and Shechter, 1988). How one deals with this stress is dependent on coping behavior and ability to adapt. The relationship between stress due to poor visual air quality and mental health is poorly understood. However, results from a study conducted by Rotton and Frey (1982) showed that as visual air quality decreased, emergency calls for psychiatric disturbances increased.

Visual Air Quality and Behavior. Evans et al. (1982) found that persons who recently moved to Los Angeles from areas with good visual air quality consistently reduced outdoor activities during periods of reduced visual air quality compared with longer-term residents. Studies have also reported reduced altruism and increased hostility and aggression during periods of poor air quality (Cunningham, 1979; Jones and Bogat, 1978; Rotton et al., 1979). The relationship between aggression, hostility, and visual air quality is curvilinear with feelings of aggression and hostility increasing to a certain point and then dropping off and yielding to a desire to withdraw and escape from the situation. Evans and Cohen (1987) suggest that individuals adjust to poor visual air quality through adaptation and coping behaviors by altering their judgment of air quality based on current and previous exposure.

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