Psychological Awareness is normal. 

Psychological awareness come fitted as standard in all human beings. In the absence of severe disruption of human development - whether in utero or in traumatic events early in life - humans grow up with a range of intuitive abilities and 'emotional intelligence' that is quite remarkable.

These abilities are central to social and emotional life and relationships; and those in whom these abilities are impaired - or simply temporarily unavailable, as for example under conditions of immediate stress or threat - will struggle to cope with social and emotional life.  We often call such individuals 'vulnerable' or 'at risk'. But such vulnerabilities can come to us all, at times.

It is possible, however, to attempt to ignore such emotional messages, and some organisations or ways of working have attempted to act as if that was no part of their work, even to deliberately discourage any element of person-to-person relationships in their work. There are many studies to confirm that this can actually be very stressful for the staff, who have then no outlet for natural human responses. 

In relation to those socially marginalised and excluded, and especially to those that had suffered severe trauma an/or disruption in their early life, this institutionalised denial of the importance of psychological awareness and of creating constructive relationships appears to be particularly damaging. 

Is 'Psychology' really the right word?

There has been some debate over the use of the term 'psychological', in the term 'a psychologically informed environment' or PIE.

Some have taken this to mean: being 'informed' by a specific approach derived from research of clinical psychology. Others argue that what was originally meant was a recognition of the complex 'psychology' of our clients, and so terms like 'emotional intelligence' or 'active empathy' would have been equally accurate and perhaps more generally applicable.

Some prefer still more specific concepts in psychology, such as 'trauma' (see the specific section here on "Trauma Informed care"), or specific methods, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, psycho-dynamic insights etc. Others have argued that a much wider perspective is needed (and in most cases, is what is actually used), including 'psycho-social' factors, occupational psychology, even anthropology, systems theory. There are certainly many who are trying to make an economic case for recognising the importance of 'psychology'.

In practice, whatever the chosen formal 'approach' - even if there is one - most services and most staff are, in the language of psychological models, 'eclectic' - that is, they draw on a wide range of insights and techniques, both for the 'culture' of the service as a whole, and for the response to any one individual or incident.

A single model

There is some debate over how necessary or valuable it is for all those involved in a service or community for those more vulnerable to work with or abide by one particular "model" of human psychology, for the service to be most effective.

One the one hand, the 'Psychologically Informed Services' guidance of 2012 document suggests:
      "The development of an explicit service philosophy and practice that is discussed with and adopted by all staff will help promote ownership of behaviour by individuals and recognition of the impact of anti social behaviour. If this is developed with the clients, then it will have even greater ownership and will help shift the power balance. This approach also results in a more predictable set of outcomes for specific behaviours, enabling individuals to make more informed choices about their actions.

from: Psychologically informed services

On the other hand, the original paper that coined the term PIE - based simply on observation of what was actually happening in the more innovative services - at the time at least (2010) had said:
      "There is no one set of beliefs that the staff of a PIE need to sign up to, no overall view of the nature of human nature, or even of the underlying problems of the ‘membership’. So it might be any form of psychological theory that might inform the work of the staff, from psychodynamics to behaviourism, from Gestalt to evolutionary psychology, Transactional Analysis, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming to existential humanism, and all points between and beyond."

from: Social Psychiatry and Social Policy for the 21st Century (Part One) : The Psychologically Informed Environment


This more modest or pragmatic approach is echoed in the notes from the (UK) North East Region Homelessness Strategy workshop on PIEs:
       "Adopting "a psychological model" need not mean adopting a particular psychological theory or approach – though that may help – but is more a commitment to recognising psychological and emotional needs. This helps to develop a coherent way of working within each organisation, balancing (for example) consistency with personalisation etc."

from: North East Region PIEs workshop summary notes


One thing, however, is crucial here: whatever psychological model is to be adopted, if there IS to be a particular, single model, then it should not be simply imposed on all staff, irrespective of their own thoughts and experiences. Staff - and this includes volunteers and service users - must always be free to question, to doubt, to challenge and to think for themselves.

Elsewhere it is argued that it is reflective practice that mobilises the thinking and discussions that are central to being a PIE. Reflective practice can only be effective if all workers, volunteers, users etc are free to explore their own way of thinking.

The other key features of the revised version are:

  • Staff Training and Support HERE
  • Learning and Enquiry HERE
  • Spaces of Opportunity HERE
  • The Three Rs HERE

So: where is 'relationships' in the PIEs 2.0 framework? HERE

For more on the development of these areas, see:

PIEs 2.0 - the development process HERE

Pizazz: A new and more customisable working framework for PIEs HERE


Further reading

Psychologically informed services by Helen Keats, Peter Cockersell, Robin Johnson and Nick Maguire

Social Psychiatry and Social Policy for the 21st Century (Part One): The Psychologically Informed Environment by Robin Johnson & Rex Haigh

North East Region PIEs workshop summary notes collated by Sheila Spencer

Creating a Psychologically Informed Environment; assessment and implementation by Claire Ritchie

PIEs, SPIEs and Homo SAPIENs by Tom Harrison



Psychologically Informed Environments and Trauma Informed Care (HomelessLink webinar), Claire Ritchie & Jo Prestidge 

Introduction to Psychologically Informed Environments (Fullfilling Lives training programme,) Ray Middleton & Robin Johnson

A 'Handy' guide to being a PIE (2013) by Robin Johnson (video)

Does it take a psychologist to be a PIE? by Robin Johnson

There is one comment