James Gibson & the Ecological Theory of Perception

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
Perception, how people see their environment, can either be direct or indirect. This lesson looks at James Gibson's belief in the direct application of perception which led to his ecological theory of perception.

Seeing the World

How do you see the world? Do you see what it really is or do you actually see a shadow that your brain clarifies? Basically, do you have direct perception or indirect perception?

Perception is how humans, and other animals, see the world. It is the interpretation everyone makes of what they see, and in another sense, the world that surrounds them. If that perception is direct, then the true reality is experienced. However, if perception is indirect, then the actual world is indistinct and must be completed by a trick of the brain. So which is it, direct or indirect? Jacob Gibson, a psychologist, was interested in this facet of how people perceive the world.

The Traditional View of Perception

Prior to Gibson's work, psychologists had the idea that the real world was never actually seen. They thought that the eyes only provide a faulty input, that is a shadow of reality, rather than a direct input. This faulty glance of reality is then filtered through the brain, which interprets what it sees. The brain fills in the gaps of the faulty perception and provides to the eye and other senses a clearer picture of what is real. This idea came about because it was known that the human eye saw only a distorted image (upside down) and the brain created the true right-side up image.

This type of perception explains why six people can see the same accident yet have very different descriptions when questioned about it. Due to different experiences and different personalities, each individual's brain will fill in the details and provide a slightly different outcome, or output.

The Ecological Theory of Perception

However, James Gibson did not agree with this view of perception. He was convinced that the researchers who had come before him were looking at the question through the wrong lens. His idea was that people directly perceived what they were experiencing.

During World War II, Gibson worked with aviators. The instructors were having problems teaching the new fliers how to react during a dogfight. The problem was they did not react quickly enough to what they were seeing. Gibson looked at how bees and birds completed the same maneuvers without problem and realized that the young aviators were reacting to what they actually saw rather than what experience told them was coming up (since they had no previous experience). This helped him form the thought that they were directly perceiving the action and thus were not able to react to it quickly enough.

His ecological theory of perception came about because he believed that actual perception was much more complex than scientists had previously believed. People, and all animals, perceive things directly and this can be observed if researchers look at all of the evidence. In Gibson's view, perception was made up of two components:

  • Animal-environment systems: this is the world in which the perceiving animal lives. Gibson believed that the setting was just as important to understanding perception as the individual who was perceiving.
  • Guiding activity: it is also important to know what the individual does within the environment. Perception is aided by not only the world the subject sees but also how they are culturally taught to move within their environment.

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