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James J. Gibson

james j. gibson, james j gibson perception
James Jerome Gibson /ˈɡɪbsən/; January 27, 1904 – December 11, 1979, was an American psychologist and one of the most important contributors to the field of visual perception Gibson challenged the idea that the nervous system actively constructs conscious visual perception, and instead promoted ecological psychology, in which the mind directly perceives environmental stimuli without additional cognitive construction or processing A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked him as the 88th most cited psychologist of the 20th century, tied with John Garcia, David Rumelhart, Louis Leon Thurstone, Margaret Floy Washburn, and Robert S Woodworth


  • 1 Biography
    • 11 Early life
    • 12 Education and career
    • 13 Honors and awards
  • 2 Major contributions and works
    • 21 Gibson's approach to visual perception
    • 22 Major works
    • 23 Ecology and perception
    • 24 Affordances
    • 25 Social affordances
  • 3 Legacy
  • 4 Publications
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links


Early life

James Jerome Gibson was born in McConnelsville, Ohio, on January 27, 1904, to Thomas and Gertrude Gibson He was the oldest of three children and had two younger brothers, Thomas and William Gibson's father worked for Wisconsin Central Railroad, and his mother was a schoolteacher Because his father worked on the railroad, Gibson and his family had to travel and relocate quite frequently, moving throughout the Dakotas and Wisconsin until they finally settled down in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette

When Gibson was a boy, his father would take him out on train rides Gibson recalled being absolutely fascinated by the way the visual world would appear when in motion In the direction of the train, the visual world would appear to flow in the same direction and expand When Gibson looked behind the train, the visual world would seem to contract These experiences sparked Gibson's interest in optic flow and the visual information generated from different modes of transportation Later in life, Gibson would apply this fascination to the study of visual perception of landing and flying planes

Education and career

Gibson began his undergraduate career at Northwestern University, but transferred after his freshman year to Princeton University, where he majored in philosophy While enrolled at Princeton, Gibson had many influential professors including Edwin B Holt who advocated new realism, and Herbert S Langfeld who had taught Gibson's experimental psychology course After taking Langfeld's course, Gibson decided to stay at Princeton as a graduate student and pursued his PhD in psychology with Langfeld serving as his doctoral adviser His doctoral dissertation focused on memory of visual forms, and he received his PhD in 1928

E B Holt, who was taught by William James, inspired Gibson to be a radical empiricist Holt was a mentor to Gibson While Gibson may not have directly read William James’ work, E B Holt was the connecting factor between the two Holt’s theory of molar behaviorism brought James philosophy of radical empiricism into psychology Heft argues that Gibson’s work was an application of William James’ philosophy radical empiricism Gibson believed that perception is direct and meaningful He discussed the meaning of perception through his theory of affordances Gibson also was influenced by James neutral monism, nothing is solely mental or physical

Gibson started his career at Smith College where he taught psychology While at Smith, Gibson encountered two influential figures in his life, one of which was the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka Although Gibson did not agree with Gestalt psychology, he nevertheless agreed with Koffka's belief that the primary investigations of psychology should be problems related to perception The other important figure Gibson met during his time at Smith College was his wife, Eleanor Jack, who became a prominent psychologist in her own right through investigations such as the "visual cliff" The two were married on September 17, 1932, and later had two children, James Jerome Jr in 1940 and Jean Grier in 1943

In 1941, Gibson entered the US Army, where he became the director of a unit for the Army Air Forces' Aviation Psychology Program during World War II Of particular interest to him was the effect flying an aircraft had on visual perception He used his findings to help develop visual aptitude tests for screening out pilot applicants He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1946 After the war ended, he returned to Smith College for a short period during which he began writing his first book, The Perception of the Visual World, in which he discussed visual phenomena such as retinal texture gradient and retinal motion gradient Before the book was published in 1950, Gibson moved to Cornell University where he continued to teach and conduct research for the rest of his life

Honors and awards

After publication of his book in 1950, Gibson won the Warren Medal as a member of the Society of Experimental Psychologists in 1952 He also became a division president for the American Psychological Association APA and for the Eastern Psychological Association Among many of Gibson's other honors were receiving the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1961, becoming a Fulbright fellow at Oxford University, a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University Gibson was elected into the National Academy of Sciences in 1967 Gibson received honorary doctorates by Edinburgh and Uppsala Universities

Gibson died in Ithaca, New York on December 11, 1979 He was 75 years old

Major contributions and works

Gibson's approach to visual perception

The question driving Gibson's research on perception was "how do we see the world as we do" This instigated his empirical research, the environment, and how the individual experiences said environment There were two primary ways in which James J Gibson reformed the way psychology views perception The first is that the templates of our stimulation are affected by a moving organism This was shown through his research on optic arrays Secondly, he formulated the idea of three-dimensional space being conceptual To Gibson, perception is a compilation of the person's environment and how the person interacts with it

James Gibson's major contributions throughout his career were published in three of his major works:: The Perception of the Visual World 1950, The Sense Considered as Perceptual Systems 1966, and The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception 1979

Much of Gibson's work on perception derives from his time spent in the US Army Air Force Here, he delved into thoughts on how imperative perception is on daily functions His work may be the first to show a distinct difference between types of perception Form perception, on one hand, is a display of two static displays, whereas object perception, involves one of the displays to be in motion Gibson laid down the base for empirical perception research throughout his lifetime He did work on adaptation and inspection of curved lines, which became a precursor for perceptual research later His basic work rejected the perspective that perception in and of itself is meaningless, he instead argued meaning is independent of the perceiver He claimed that the environment decides perception, and that meaning is in what the environment "affords" the observer

Major works

In his classic work The Perception of the Visual World 1950 he rejected the then fashionable theory of behaviorism for a view based on his own experimental work, which pioneered the idea that animals 'sampled' information from the 'ambient' outside world He studied the concept of optical flow later published as part of his theory of affordance According to Gibson, one determines the optical flow which can be described as the apparent flow of the movement of objects in the visual field relative to the observer using the pattern of light on the retina The term 'affordance' refers to the opportunities for action provided by a particular object or environment This concept has been extremely influential in the field of design and ergonomics: see for example the work of Donald Norman who worked with Gibson, and has adapted many of his ideas for his own theories

In his later work such as, for example, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception 1979, Gibson became more philosophical and criticised cognitivism in the same way he had attacked behaviorism before Gibson argued strongly in favour of direct perception and direct realism as pioneered by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, as opposed to cognitivist indirect realism He termed his new approach ecological psychology He also rejected the information processing view of cognition Gibson is increasingly influential on many contemporary movements in psychology, particularly those considered to be post-cognitivist

Gibson did work on perception with his wife, Eleanor J Gibson Together they proposed perceptual learning as a process of seeing the differences in the perceptual field around an individual An early example of this is the classic research study done by Eleanor Gibson and R D Walk, the visual cliff experiment In this experiment an infant that was new to crawling was found to be sensitive to depth of an edge

Ecology and perception

Gibson believed that the environment and animals are not separable items He stated that without the environment animals cannot survive and without animals there is no environment The environment is what we perceive at any given moment All animals are able to perceive Humans perceive the environment directly This is why we are unable to perceive things in the environment that are too small to see, such as an atom


Gibson coined the noun affordance For Gibson the noun affordance pertains to the environment providing the opportunity for action Affordances require a relationship in which the environment and the animal can work together An example is that mankind has changed the environment to better suit our needs When coming across Earth's natural steep slopes, man designed stairs in order to afford walking In addition, objects in the environment can also afford many different behaviors, such as lifting or grasping Gibson argued that when we perceive an object we observe the object's affordances and not its particular qualities He believed that perceiving affordances of an object is easier than perceiving the many different qualities an object may have Affordances can be related to different areas of the habitat as well Some areas of the world allow for concealing while some allow for foraging

Social affordances

He expanded on the affordance theory to include social affordances He believed affordances were important to understanding social behaviors Our behavior depends on what we perceive the other person intentions to be It is not about the behavior itself but how we perceived their behavior This is how misconceptions occur, we misinterpret another individual's behavior Gibson stated that behavior affords behavior Therefore, if someone is being nice to you then this affords a nice reaction This can be applied to why humans get married or form friendships


James J Gibson's goal was to leave a lasting impact on knowledge His work rejected the behaviorist assumption that all learning comes from the stimulus-response model, and provided a new lens with which to view perception Gibson's concern regarding visual perception was prompted by his contact with Gestalt psychology spokesman Kurt Koffka Gibson challenged the idea that the environment was made up only of shapes and edges; arguing instead that the world is made up of meaningful features that are experienced continuously

Gibson's work on perception can be applied to aviation training, as the training should be as realistic and unconstrained as possible This is because Gibson characterized learning as an active process rather than as passive observation Additionally, Gibson's theory of affordances provided a solution to the mind-world dualism issue Previous theories of sensory meaning have argued that perceptions are separate and private from one another This stance placed all of the perceptive meaning on the individual, which meant there was no way to find common ground on individuals' shared experiences Gibson contended that when stimulus information is being sought out, meaningful properties of that stimulus are also perceived relationally For instance, a softball affords "throwing" if the observer notices that the ball fits well in a person's hand, and that the weight allows it to be thrown

Gibson's work indicates the interactivity of observers and the natural environment, and has been dubbed ecological psychology as a result Gibson also argued that perceptual experimenters were misguided in their control over physical variables of stimuli, and the display of stimulus information should be manipulated instead This stance breaks from traditional thought in that Gibson posited that fundamentally sound experiments could be conducted in the external world without having to construct artificial laboratory settings


  • Gibson, JJ & Gibson, E 1955 Perceptual learning: differentiation or enrichment Psyc Rev, 62, 32–41
  • Gibson, JJ 1950 The Perception of the Visual World Boston: Houghton Mifflin
  • Gibson, JJ 1960 The Concept of the Stimulus in Psychology The American Psychologist 15/1960, 694–703
  • Gibson, JJ 1966 The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems Boston: Houghton Mifflin ISBN 0-313-23961-4
  • Gibson, JJ 1972 A Theory of Direct Visual Perception In J Royce, W Rozenboom eds The Psychology of Knowing New York: Gordon & Breach
  • Gibson, JJ 1977 The Theory of Affordances pp 67–82 In R Shaw & J Bransford eds Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing: Toward an Ecological Psychology Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Gibson, JJ 1979 The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception Boston: Houghton MifflinISBN 0898599598 1986
  • Gibson, JJ 1982 Reasons for Realism: Selected essays of James J Gibson, E Reed & R Jones eds Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum ISBN 978-0-89859-207-8


  1. ^ Rutherford, Raymond E Fancher, Alexandra 2012 Pioneers of psychology : a history 4th ed New York: WW Norton p 641 ISBN 978-0-393-93530-1 
  2. ^ Haggbloom, Steven J; Warnick, Jason E; Jones, Vinessa K; Yarbrough, Gary L; Russell, Tenea M; Borecky, Chris M; McGahhey, Reagan; et al 2002 "The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century" Review of General Psychology 6 2: 139–152 doi:101037/1089-268062139 CS1 maint: Explicit use of et al link
  3. ^ Office of the Home Secretary, National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, Volume 63
  4. ^ a b c d e f Hochberg, Julian "James Jerome Gibson: 1904-1979" PDF National Academy of Sciences 
  5. ^ a b c d e Kazdin, Alan E, ed in chief 2000 Encyclopedia of Psychology, Vol 3 London: Oxford University Press p 493 ISBN 1-55798-652-5 
  6. ^ a b c Chemero, Anthony February 2003 "Radical empiricism through the ages" PsycCRITIQUES 48 1: 18–21 doi:101037/000698 
  7. ^ a b c d e Neisser, Ulric 1981 "Obituary: James J Gibson 194-1979" American Psychologist 36: 214–215 doi:101037/h0078037 
  8. ^ Fancher, Rutherford, Raymond E, Alexandra 2012 Pioneers of Psychology New York, NY: WW Norton p 178 ISBN 978-0-393-93530-1 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g http://wwwencyclopediacom/topic/James_Jerome_Gibsonaspx
  10. ^ a b c "Ecological Psychology" MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science Archived from the original on 2015-11-08 
  11. ^ Doorey, Marie "James J Gibson" Encyclopedia Britannica Encyclopedia Britannica Inc Retrieved 7 February 2017 
  12. ^ a b Gibson, James The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception Google Scholar Cornell University Retrieved 1 December 2014 
  13. ^ Alex Huk 1999 "Seeing Motion: Lecture Notes" pp 5
  14. ^ D A Norman 1999, Affordance, conventions, and design Interactions 6, 3, 38–43
  15. ^ a b Heft, Harry June 2013 "An ecological approach to psychology" PDF Review of General Psychology 17: 162–167 doi:101037/a0032928 
  16. ^ a b Gibson, James The theory of Affordances Google Scholar Google Scholar Retrieved 1 December 2014 

External links

  • Key JJG resources at: International Society for Ecological Psychology ISEP
  • Major centre for direct perception research: Centre for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action CESPA
  • The Gombrich/Gibson Dispute
  • Donald Norman: Affordance, Conventions and Design

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