Why PIE? The rationale for psychologically informed environments

Wednesday, 8 February 2017 - 1:32pm

For many years, homelessness has sometimes been understood either in terms of problems at a social level or at an individual level. 

Brain with cogs

For many people who become homeless, this ‘either/or’ may not be a particularly useful polarisation of the way we understand the problem. We need to express the complex issues underpinning and maintaining homelessness as an interaction between individuals and their environment.

One way in which this can be done is through psychologically informed environments.

So what is a PIE? Well, at its most basic it is an environment that makes use of methods, which are informed by psychological theories and frameworks. This could be at any level, from the way in which hostel staff members think about the problems that their residents face, or how risk protocols and policies are written. Right up to the way in which a building is constructed and configured.

Psychological theories can be incredibly useful in describing how people may think, feel and behave given a set of experiences and environmental factors. For staff, understanding how we think and feel about the way a person is behaving, may enable us to be more considered in our reaction. It’s useful to understand generally how trauma, e.g. in childhood, warzones or everyday life, can affect the way people cope with difficult situations, so that we are less likely to make judgements about behaviours we find difficult or challenging.

We may take it a step further: we have a number of psychological frameworks, which are uncomplicated and easy to learn. Such frameworks can be used to help service users understand, why they may experience strong emotions in reaction to others’ behaviours, possibly then engaging in behaviours of their own which are not helpful to them. Helping people to understand the relationship between perceptions and emotions, and the way in which we cope with those, is vital if we are going to help people transform lives.

Understanding how we interact with our environment is equally key to improving people’s lives. The systems that govern the way in which an organisation runs, and therefore the way in which staff are caused to behave, can be thought about from a psychological perspective. For example, how does an eviction policy work? How are threats of eviction understood by a resident? How might they interact with an individual’s negative expectations of the way the world will treat them? Understanding how service users may perceive the implementation of systems may shape that implementation.

All of these issues throw up questions, which can be answered through evaluation. We can measure the effectiveness of any interventions we try, by being clear about what we hope or expect to change as a result of what we do. If we choose to change our behaviours in a psychologically informed way, we need to note any changes in response from what may have been a baseline. Over time, this data may be useful in indicating whether we should continue or stop a particular intervention.

So why should we continue to set up psychologically informed environments? For one thing, inherent in the method is continual reflection; on what we do, why we do it and whether it is to the benefit of the people we serve.

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Dr Nick Maguire

Dr Nick Maguire

Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology

Dr Nick Maguire is an Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology Director of Programmes, Psychology University of Southampton.