Encountering the World: Toward An Ecological Psychology

By Edward S. Reed | Go to book overview

4
The Importance of Information

Evolutionary Effects and Behavioral Acts

The affordances of an animal's environment exert selection pressure both developmentally and evolutionarily on the course of an animal's activities. But affordances are merely facts of the environment, and even if these facts are considered in relation to an animal, the obvious question arises: what information is available to the animal about those affordances? We have seen that jumping spiders learn to guide their pounces by starting at an appropriate distance from their prey. Worms pull leaves and other objects into their burrows by the appropriate edge, but what is the information that lets spiders or worms appreciate what counts as appropriate? Psychologists have typically assumed that "experience"--especially trial and error--provides this information. But even in cases where trial and error demonstrably plays a role in nature (and these are fewer than one might think), such trial and error cannot possibly be explanatory. Even granting the effects of trial and error, there is still the residual question as to how trial and error is evaluated as to its meaning by the animal--does this action get me closer to my goal or not? What information does a worm have that distinguishes the edges of leaves in terms of their meaning--that pulling the leaf by this edge (and not by that one) is more efficacious for keeping the burrow snug? James Gibson's concept of ecological information specifying its environmental sources provides a general framework for answering this kind of fundamental question about animal behavior and experience.

One of the most difficult questions about the evolution of behavior concerns the relationship between ultimate evolutionary effects and proximate behavioral activities ( Tinbergen, 1951; Curio, 1994). An animal cannot simply know, as if by magic, that behaving in a specific way will tend to increase its fitness in the future. All sorts of theories have emerged around this problem, from notions of quasi-intelligent, albeit "selfish" genes ( Dawkins, 1976; Williams, 1993), to speculations that animals monitor their physiological processes like cost-conscious economists ( Real, 1992).

There is a much simpler and more plausible hypothesis than those usually put forth to explain the relationship between current behaviors and ultimate evolutionary meaning. However, this simpler hypothesis is not well known and has not been discussed seriously in the literature on animal behavior. This is James Gibson's ( Gibson et al., 1982; Gibson, 1979/ 1986) hypothesis concerning ecological information. Gibson's idea is that, because some affordances of the environment are in fact very persistent, even with respect to phylogenetic time, there may exist in the environment information speci

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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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