The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception

By James J. Gibson | Go to book overview
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the shark under the calm water and the electric shock in the radio cabinet. In the natural environment, poison ivy is frequently mistaken for ivy. In the artificial environment, acid can be mistaken for water.

A wildcat may be hard to distinguish from a cat, and a thief may look like an honest person. When Koffka asserted that "each thing says what it is," he failed to mention that it may lie. More exactly, a thing may not look like what it is.

Nevertheless, however true all this may be, the basic affordances of the environment are perceivable and are usually perceivable directly, without an excessive amount of learning. The basic properties of the environment that make an affordance are specified in the structure of ambient light, and hence the affordance itself is specified in ambient light. Moreover, an invariant variable that is commensurate with the body of the observer himself is more easily picked up than one not commensurate with his body.


The medium, substances, surfaces, objects, places, and other animals have affordances for a given animal. They offer benefit or injury, life or death. This is why they need to be perceived.

The possibilities of the environment and the way of life of the animal go together inseparably. The environment constrains what the animal can do, and the concept of a niche in ecology reflects this fact. Within limits, the human animal can alter the affordances of the environment but is still the creature of his or her situation.

There is information in stimulation for the physical properties of things, and presumably there is information for the environmental properties. The doctrine that says we must distinguish among the variables of things before we can learn their meanings is questionable. Affordances are properties taken with reference to the observer. They are neither physical nor phenomenal.

The hypothesis of information in ambient light to specify affordances is the culmination of ecological optics. The notion of invariants that are related at one extreme to the motives and needs of an observer and at the other extreme to the substances and surfaces of a world provides a new approach to psychology.


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The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception


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