The More You SEE, the More You Know

The Supportive Environments for Effectiveness (SEE) framework gives me a way to view the world from the perspective of what people need to be their best selves. As I look through the lens of SEE, I’m noticing new things, understanding people’s behavior at a deeper level, and seeing how I can improve my own life and my interactions with others.

Have you ever taken a course or read a book and started seeing examples of the ideas everywhere? That was my experience with the first environmental psychology class I took with Steve Kaplan the year I began graduate school. The course was called “Neural Models and Psychological Processes” but it was really about the interactions between people and their environments. We covered a wide range of issues, from how people perceive and think, to what types of environments they prefer, to how different environments can help or hinder reasonable behavior.

As the class progressed, I couldn’t help but start looking at everything around me through this lens of environmental psychology, much as a student of Freudian psychology probably can’t help but analyze everyone they meet. Things I’d never really noticed became relevant. I’d never thought, for example, about why being confused is both painful and hard to admit. Things that had mystified me yielded to explanation. I could now understand why my statistics professor, although clearly an expert, was so bad at explaining basic concepts. And solutions to certain problems came into view. Perhaps the antidote to my fatigued brain, I realized, was in my own backyard.

Many years later, environmental psychology still colors how I see the world. And now the Supportive Environments for Effectiveness framework (SEE) provides an even finer-grained lens for understanding people. The framework brings together decades of ideas and research in environmental psychology in a way that spotlights what people need to function effectively and how environments can be created or tweaked to help meet those needs.

The SEE Framework

The needs addressed by the SEE framework are cognitive needs rather than physical needs. People need sufficient food, water, and shelter, but they need so much more. Cognitive needs also have little to do with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – that general model of motivation proposed in 1943 that many psychologists now consider to be of limited use but that has nonetheless proven to be quite cognitively contagious.

What are cognitive needs? They are the needs we have for knowledge and understanding. People’s survival has always depended more on their brains than on their speed or raw strength. Because of that, we have become hard-wired to need information. We are driven to gather information, to make sense of it, and to use it to make decisions and interact with the world. We are at our best in environments and situations that support these needs.

There are three basic cognitive needs addressed in the SEE framework: 1) the need to make sense, 2) the need to feel capable, and 3) the need to make a difference. These needs are deceptively simple. Making sense, for example, has very little to do with how smart you are. It’s more about how your brain represents and understands the world around you. The need to feel capable isn’t just about having the right skills to do the job, it’s also about having the mental bandwidth to focus on the task at hand. And the need to make a difference isn’t necessarily about doing something big, it’s more about feeling that you have the ability to impact your world and that your contributions are valued.

SEE – Bringing the World into Focus

Looking at the world through the lens of SEE gives me a new perspective on my everyday experiences and environments. Once again, I am feeling the excitement and energy of noticing new things, understanding people’s behavior at a deeper level, and seeing how I can improve my own life and my interactions with others. I plan to share some of these observations in future posts, with the hope of helping bring the SEE framework to life. Along the way, I’d love to hear about how your own experiences are explained or guided by SEE and about how you might apply the SEE framework, in ways both big and small, to bring out the best in yourself and others.

What happens when you start looking at the world from the perspective of what people need to be their best selves?


Anne Kearney is an artist and writer living in Barcelona, Spain. Her writing and artwork are inspired by her decades of experience as an environmental psychologist working for universities, non-profits and NASA. She has a B.A. in Cognitive Science from Stanford University, and a M.S. in Resource Policy and Behavior and Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology from the University of Michigan.