In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ecological Psychology

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Books
  • General Overviews
  • History of Ecological Psychology
  • Mutuality of Animal and Environment
  • Perception and Action
  • Ecological Optics
  • Direct Perception
  • Perceptual Learning and Development
  • Haptic Perception and Dynamic Touch
  • Auditory Perception
  • Adaptation and Perception-Action Calibration
  • Social Perception and Behavior
  • Motor Control and the Dynamics of Perceiving and Acting
  • Tool Use and Motor Skill
  • The Perception of Pictures

Psychology Ecological Psychology
Harry Heft, Michael Richardson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0072


Ecological psychology refers to the theoretical approach and research program in perceptual psychology developed by James J. Gibson beginning in the late 1950s and most fully articulated by the 1970s. The empirical discoveries and conceptual insights that led to the ecological approach to perception were proposed to address recurring shortcomings in the conventional formulation of perception that held sway in philosophy and then psychology for centuries. Any explanation of perceiving must offer an account of why individuals experience the world as it appears. The traditional view adopts a mechanistic “causal theory” of perception, which claims that physical energies (e.g., light) are imposed on the sensory receptors of a passive perceiver, giving rise to elementary, discrete sensations. From this starting point, nonperceptual processes (e.g., memory, inference) intervene to organize the neural products of sensation into the forms and patterns that constitute the perceived environment. For this reason, experience of the environment is assumed to be indirect. What one experiences immediately is not the environment itself but rather a mental construction of it built upon limited sensory stimulation—a position called indirect realism. In contrast, the ecological approach to perception attempts to provide grounds for direct realism. Research and theory within this tradition provide both empirical support and theoretical grounds for the long dismissed claim that the environment is directly perceived without mediation from nonperceptual processes. The approach begins with a dual focus on (a) the nature of the environment to be perceived (the econiche to which organisms have adapted) and (b) the perception-action processes that have developed through phylogenesis and ontogenesis to facilitate the detection of the environment’s functionally significant properties (affordances). In the case of vision, ecological psychology offers a rich account of the available higher-order, informational structures at an ecological level of analysis that are available to be perceived by individuals. Perception-action processes operate in the context of an information-rich environment; and while individuals may differ with regard to which information they detect, perceiving can be lawfully tied to specifiable information from an interpersonally shared world. Complementing this program is Eleanor Gibson’s ecological approach to perceptual learning and development. Following on the heels of the work of the Gibsons, psychological scientists have been explicating this approach over the ensuing decades, designing research to test its claims and developing the program in new ways. Recent decades has seen extensions of Gibson’s ecological psychology writings in several directions. Some have broadened ecological psychology’s foundations by examining it more fully in the light of biological, evolutionary thinking and sociocultural processes. Rich connections have also been drawn between ecological psychology and dynamical systems models of explanation, especially in the domain of developmental processes. Notably, Neo-Gibsonians at the Connecticut school of ecological psychology have been working fruitfully to formalize several theoretical aspects of ecological psychology, in part, by drawing on considerations of motor dynamics and the thermodynamics of physical systems.

Foundational Books

James Gibson’s ecological approach to perceiving gradually developed over several decades. The evolution of his thinking can be seen across his three books and his many publications. Each book represented a significant break with conventional ways of thinking about perceiving, with the ecological approach coming into fruition only in his later publications. In Gibson 1950, Gibson takes a significant step in advancing understanding of vision with his treatment of higher-order stimulus structures in the visual field, most notably texture gradients. And yet in this book he had not fully rejected many of the tenets of the traditional indirect view of perception—in particular, this book retains the outlines of a “causal account” of visual perception (see the Introduction). Gibson 1966, however, is a revolutionary book, fully breaking with the “causal theory” tradition and with its attendant commitment to indirect realism. The book offers a radical reconceptualization of perceiving, from the idea that perception involves the transmission of sensory stimulation to a passive observer to the idea of perception-action systems exploring an information-rich environment. Starting with this view of the perceiver as embodied agent, and perceiving as the functioning of perceptual systems, Gibson 1979 explores the questions of what is the nature of the environment that is perceived and how are its functionally significant properties detected? This book is the clearest expression of Gibson’s mature system. The edited volume Reed and Jones 1982 offers many of the most significant journal articles and some unpublished writings representative of all phases of Gibson’s thinking. Gibson 1969, a landmark book by Eleanor Gibson on perceptual learning and development, examines an essential facet of the ecological approach to perceiving (cited under Perceptual Learning and Development).

  • Gibson, James J. 1950. The perception of the visual world. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Some traditional problems in visual perception theory are reconceptualized on the basis of an innovative “ground theory” of visual perception. Objects are typically perceived as resting on ground surfaces, and the texture gradients that characterize ground surfaces shed new light on long-standing issues such as distance perception and relative size constancy.

  • Gibson, James J. 1966. The senses considered as perceptual systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Abandoning the view that perceiving the environment is based on the passive imposition of stimuli on receptor surfaces, Gibson shows that perceiving involves activities of the individual that play an essential role in revealing perceptual information specific to environmental features. The groundwork for ecological psychology’s embrace of direct realism is elucidated in this book.

  • Gibson, James J. 1979. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Ecological optics, initially considered in Gibson 1966, is examined in detail here. Thirty years of research is reviewed, and its implications for perceptual theory and knowing are discussed. Gibson’s most detailed statement about his novel concept, affordances, is presented as well as his seminal idea of occlusion at an edge.

  • Reed Edward. S., and R. Rebecca Jones, eds. 1982. Reasons for realism: Selected essays of James J. Gibson. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    An invaluable collection of Gibson’s most significant publications throughout his career, as well as some unpublished notes, is presented along with highly informative commentary by the book’s editors. This is an essential resource for Gibson scholars.

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