Gibsonian Theory: An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development


Eleanor Jack Gibson (December 7, 1910 - December 30, 2002)

  • Born in Peoria, Illinois
  • Attended Smith College in 1931 with her B.A. and 1933 with her M.A.
  • Married the man she studied under, James J. Gibson
  • In 1935 she continued her studies at Yale University, studied with Clark Hull (although she wanted to study with Robert Yerkes, but he would not let women in his lab)
  • Received her Doctorate from Yale in 1938
  • Her husband became a professor at Cornell University in 1949, but no position was available to her because of anti-nepotism rules
  • In 1966 she would finally be able to accept a position at Cornell after 16 years of being an unpaid research associate
  • Best known for her "visual cliff" experiment with infants
  • Her ecological viewpoint of perceptual development challenged and changed the field of studying development and perception
  • Gibson died in 2002 at age 92. She was survived by her two children, Jean and James, Jr. and four grandchildren
  • For more biography information see Wikipedia and Psychology's Feminist Voices

Background and Assumptions of the Theory

Gibson changed the field of perception and development research by emphasizing the importance of environment and context in learning. Perception is important because it allows us to adapt to our environment (Miller, 2002). Thus Gibson asked the important question often missing in the development research until this point, "How do we learn to perceive our world?" Gibson's answer is that "children learn to detect information that specifies objects, events, and layouts in the world that they can use for their daily activities" (p. 340 Miller, 2002). Thus, humans learn out of necessity. Children are information "hunter-gatherers" (Miller, 2002), gathering information in order to survive and navigate in the world.

Key Concepts

  • Definition of perception- "our means of keeping in touch with the world, of obtaining information about the world and where we are in it" (p. 3, Gibson & Pick, 2000)
  • The reciprocity of the perceiver and the environment- the perceiver and environment function in a cycle that can begin by the environment providing information or an opportunity (i.e. an affordance, see below) for action or by the perceiver investigating for itself or instigating some action (Gibson & Pick, 2000). The environment can be both physical and social.
    • Ex. Baby is poked by a sharp object in his/her crib (information from physical environment) so the baby cries (perceiver action). Caregiver comes to comfort child (social environment).
    • Ex. Baby explores crib (no information from physical environment) to find soft surface on which to sleep (perceiver action)
  • Affordances- "what the environment offers or provides for an organism...opportunities for action" (p. 342, Miller, 2002)
    • Gibson believes affordances are perceived directly. She says that instead of perceiving stimuli, images, or sensations, we actually perceived things we can eat, sit on, talk to, walk on, etc. (Miller, 2002)
    • Includes both the physical and social. For example, humans perceive emotions and can learn to act based on non-verbal cues (i.e. comfort someone when they are crying)
    • "Experience creates new affordances" (Miller, 2002)- children discover new affordances by exploring and playing
    • As children develop new motor skills, they discover new affordances (Miller, 2002)
    • "There is a fit between what the environment provides and the child's actions, goals, and abilities" (Miller, 2002)
      • Ex. Gibson performed an experiment with babies that could crawl and babies that could walk. Infants were place on a walkway 4 feet from the floor. Their smiling mothers stood at the other end of the walkway. In the first condition the walkway had a rigid surface (plywood covered with fabric) that afforded the babies to walk or crawl. In the second condition the walkway was a patterned fabric on a waterbed, which afforded crawling, but not walking. The babies that could walk spent more time investigating the waterbed surface than the rigid surface before they decided to walk or crawl. Meanwhile, the crawling babies did not different between the two surfaces, crawling on both readily. (Gibson, Riccio, Schmuckler, Striffregen, Rosenberg, & Taormina, 1987 as cited in Miller, 2002)
      • Watch the video below and keep the walkway experiment in mind. Notice the surfaces and other things in the environment that act as affordances or opportunities for the babies. Also notice how the babies motor development matches how they "fit" or use their environment

How We Perceive

  • Gibson believes that affordances are perceived directly and thus, complex information is inherent in stimulation (Miller, 2002)
    • i.e. We don't just perceive images and sensations, we perceive events, objects, and places in space and time. We see things to eat, sit on, write with, etc. (Instead of an apple, a chair, a pencil.) (Miller, 2002)
  • At the most basic level of perceptual learning can be explained as a child learning to discriminate one object from another based on distinctive features, or attributes (Miller, 2002)
    • i.e. Learning the difference between a dog and a cat, or a bit harder, learning the difference between two similar looking cats
  • At a more complex level, Gibson sees perceptual learning as a "process of learning to perceive what has always been there" (p. 345, Miller, 2002) or the "seek and ye shall find theory"(Gibson, 1977 as cited in Miller, 2002)
    • Ex. When you first listen to a piece of music you may not perceive the nuances or complexities of the piece, but after a few listens and by directing your attention you may be able to different melodies, key changes, and different instruments. The music is the same, but the information we have extracted from it has changed. (Miller, 2002)


The chart below outlines some of Gibson's key assumptions and how they influenced her theory. These ideas are drawn from Miller (2002).


  • 1. Children are "hunter gatherers"
    or explorers

  • 2. Humans have evolved adaptive ways of perceiving the world

  • 3. Affordances (opportunities) are perceived directly. In other words, complex information is inherent in stimulation. This is a controversial assumption. In addition, stimulus are not static. .

  • 4. The way babies learn (through exploration of affordances) is the way we learn throughout our lives.

  • 5. The process of perceptual is learning to perceive what is already there.

Implication for the Theory

  • 1. Gibson's experiments pay a lot of attention to affordances, or opportunities the environment provides. Learning is self-directed.

  • 2. The information extracted from the world (perceived), is species specific

  • 3. Gibson thus does little to explain cognition and instead studies children interacting with their environment. Gibson states that perception makes cognition possible. We learn about the world through perception of affordances and then cognition becomes grounded in this knowledge.

  • 4. Although Gibson's theory only shows micro development (in children), she believed it could be applied throughout the life span. Perceptual learning never stops. What changes is what we learn.

  • 5. Gibson stated she does not want a "construction theory", in other words, she did not spend time trying to break the process of perception down and instead saw it as a whole.

Gibson Asks Four Main Questions

(Gibson & Pick, 2000)
  • What is there to perceive?
    • Affordances
  • What is the information for perceiving?
    • Not static, perceived in time and space
  • How is information obtained?
    • Through interaction with the environment
  • What is perceived?
    • Layout and objects in the environment. Affordances (i.e. something to eat instead of a bananna)

View of Human Nature

  • Gibson endorses an "organismic view" (Miller, 2002)
  • Humans are inherently motivated and thus are active in their learning because they want to make sense of their world (Miller, 2002)

Qualitative or Quantitative in Nature

  • Qualitative- Perceptual development develops gradually and is not stagelike, although there may be specific qualitative improvements in perception that can be observed and measured (Miller, 2002)

Nature versus Nurture

  • Nature and nurture are inseparable, but they just don't interact, they fit together (Miller, 2002)
  • To "fit together" means that humans and other animals were created for and have adapted to the environments we live in. For example, bats have adapted to caves and night flying by using sonar instead of sight. They "fit" with the cave and the dark.
  • What information children gather from the environment depends on many things including: their genetics, maturation level, immediate goals, and their unique set of past learning experiences (Miller, 2002)

What Develops?

Gibson identifies four important parts of human behavior that develop (Gibson & Pick, 2000):
  • Agency- self-control, intentionality in behavior
    • Agency is learning to control both one's own activity and external events
    • Babies learn at an early age that their actions have an affect on the environment
    • For example: Babies were observed kicking their legs at a mobile hanging above them. They had discovered their kicking made the mobile move.
  • Prospectivity- intentional, anticipatory, planful, future-oriented behaviors
    • For example: A baby will reach out to try and catch a object moving toward them because the baby can anticipate that the object will continue to move close enough to catch.
    • In other words, the baby perceives that reaching out his/her hand will afford him/her to catch the object.
  • Search for Order- tendency to see order, regularity, and pattern to make sense of the world
    • For example: Before 9 months, infants begin to recognize the strong-weak stress patterns in their native language
  • Flexibility- perception can adjust to new situations and bodily conditions (such as growth, improved motor skills, or a sprained ankle)
    • For examples: Three-month-old infants laying under a mobile had a string attached to their right leg and then to the mobile so that when they moved their leg the mobile would move. When the string was switched to the left legs, the infants would easily shift to moving that leg to activate the mobile.
    • Perception is an on-going, active process.