Encountering the World: Toward An Ecological Psychology

By Edward S. Reed | Go to book overview

the lactose as such has no affordance for me; it is simply one of the things that nourishes me when I ingest milk. This confusion of levels has haunted much of comparative psychology. (See Box 2.)


Conclusion: The Fundamental Hypothesis of Ecological Psychology

The fundamental hypothesis of ecological psychology and of this book is that affordances and only the relative availability (or nonavailability) of affordances create selection pressure on the behavior of individual organisms; hence, behavior is regulated with respect to the affordances of the environment for a given animal. This hypothesis has many important implications. One of the most profound is that behavior (in the most general sense, including perception and cognition) is not caused. Affordances are opportunities for action, not causes or stimuli; they can be used and they can motivate an organism to act, but they do not and cannot cause even the behavior that utilizes them.

To say that behavior is not caused has an unscientific ring--especially within psychology, where a positivist intellectual culture still thrives. Yet "the psychological" is, precisely, the uncaused actions and awareness of animals as they encounter their world. An animal's actions and awareness have a rich causal substrate, not just in the animal's nervous system but in the environment surrounding the animal; however, none of these causal factors, either individually or collectively, completely causes psychological states.

Box 2
Affordances and Resources
The resources encountered by an animal are the affordances of the environment. But no
animal can encounter all the resources of its environment. An animal encounters other
animals, some plants, and many objects, events, and places, but these are not the entirety
of its environment. An animal that encounters a piece of fruit does not thereby encounter
the fructose or carbohydrates contained in the fruit, even though it ingests them. Although
frugivorous animals appear to develop a taste for combinations of sugars and carbohy-
drates, and maybe even for particular kinds of sugars and carbohydrates, this is still not
quite the same thing as encountering those molecular entities as such. All terrestrial ani-
mals need oxygen, but few have encountered oxygen as such.
The ability to encounter an affordance requires a perceptual system attuned to the use
of information enabling that affordance to regulate action. Interestingly, there are micro-
organisms that use oxygen concentrations to guide their locomotion, but this is unknown
among the dominant phyla of terrestrial animals (arthropods and vertebrates). Resources--
or, to be more precise, special combinations of resources commonly found in certain habi-
tats--become affordances when natural selection works to evolve such specific regulatory
activity. And it is always an empirical question as to what affordance an animal is aware of
or acting on--whether one considers burrowing worms or thinking humans.

-18-

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Encountering the World: Toward An Ecological Psychology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface and Acknowledgments v
  • Contents ix
  • Introduction: the Significance of the Psychological 3
  • 1 - Regulation Versus Construction 9
  • Conclusion: the Fundamental Hypothesis of Ecological Psychology 18
  • 2 - An Evolutionary Psychology 20
  • Conclusion 27
  • 3 - Affordances: A New Ecology for Psychology 29
  • Conclusion: the Evolution of Behavior Among the Affordances of the Environment 45
  • 4 - The Importance of Information 47
  • Conclusion 67
  • 5 - Functional Systems and the Mechanisms of Behavior 68
  • Conclusion 82
  • 6: Varieties of Action Systems 83
  • 7 - The Effort After Value and Meaning 96
  • Conclusion 110
  • 8 - The Human Environment 111
  • Conclusion 125
  • 9 - Becoming a Person 126
  • Conclusion: Becoming A Person and Entering into A Culture 138
  • 10 - The Daily Life of the Mind 140
  • Conclusion 151
  • 11 - Entering the Linguistic Environment 153
  • Conclusion 167
  • 12 - Streams of Thought 169
  • Conclusion 183
  • Epilogue: The Significance of Ecological Psychology 184
  • Conclusion 189
  • References 191
  • Index 207
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