ATTENTION: This is the OLD, defunct page for our theory. We left it so that you could check any comments that you made during peer reviews. As suggested by several reviewers, we split our page into three sections to make it easier to read. Please review those sections for the final wiki assignment.

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)
    • "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.

Mechanisms of Development

What drives development?
Gibson believed that development was driven by a complex interaction between environmental affordances and the motivated humans who perceive them. For example, to an infant, different surfaces "afford" opportunities for walking, crawling, grasping, etc. As children gain motor skills, they discover new opportunities for movement and thus new affordances (Miller, 2002). The more chances they are given to perceive and interact with their environment, the more affordances they discover, and the more "accurate" their perceptions become.


Developmental processes across the lifespan

  • Gibson's theory does not specify stages at which people develop specific perceptual skills
  • Gibson's research primarily focuses on perceptual milestones in infants and young children and does not make predictions about milestones in later childhood development or adult development
  • Overall, as children develop, perception becomes more "specific and economical," and attention also becomes more selective. Thus children learn to recognize the most distinctive features of objects and their most relevant affordances. (Miller, 2002)
  • Perception becomes more efficient through three developments:
    • Distinctive features: children learn to discriminate between objects and stimuli by focusing attention on their most critical properties
    • Invariants: children learn to extract aspects of objects that remain permanent despite change (e.g., as an object moves)
    • Structure: the world has an inherent structure that people gradually become more aware of as they develop. Although previous researchers thought that humans "enriched" ambiguous and uninformative perceptual information using cognitive processes, Gibson viewed the environment as rich with information, with the primary developmental task being the differentiation of this information into affordances.
  • Key milestones found in Gibsonian empirical research:
    • Two-day-old infants can recognize their native language (Moon, Cooper, & Fifer, 1993, in Miller, 2002)
    • At 4 1/2 months, infants are able to perceive the separateness of objects (Miller, 2002)
    • However, at 4 months, infants still perceive separate objects as united if they move together (Miller, 2002)
    • At 4 months, infants can also distinguish between male and female; when hearing a female voice, they look toward a female face, and vice versa (Walker et al., 1991, in Miller, 2002)
    • At 5 months, infants can discriminate between a live video of their legs and a video of another infant's legs or a pre-recorded video (Bahrick & Watson, 1985, in Miller, 2002)
    • At 7 to 9 months, infants can match the sound of an instrument to a musician playing that instrument (Pick et al., 1994, in MIller, 2002)
    • As infants gain crawling expertise, they learn to distinguish between dangerous slopes and slopes that are within their capabilities (Adolph, 1997, in Miller, 2002)
    • But experience with an earlier-developing skill does not transfer automatically to a later-developing one.
    • Experienced "sitters" at 9 months avoided a risky gap, but when crawling (a new skill), they fell into the risky gap (Adolph, 2000, in Miller, 2002)
    • From ages 4-8, children are increasingly able to perceive distinctive features of objects
      • Younger children have trouble distinguishing between different letters of the alphabet (e.g., M and W), but older children are able to make this distinction more easily (Gibson et al., 1962)
  • Late in her career, Gibson (1988) described general "phases" of neonate development. She stressed that these were nothing like Piagetian stages and that they overlapped significantly. This late attempt to describe phases was never fully incorporated into Gibson's theory, and the phases were not used in subsequent literature or research.
    • Phase 1 (Birth-4 Months): Infant focuses on immediate visual surroundings, but pays little attention to objects. Sounds are attended to more consistently.
    • Phase 2 (5-8 Months): Attention to objects. Grasping, increased visual acuity, depth information allow infants to discover affordances and distinctive features of objects.
    • Phase 3 (8-9 Months-1 year): As infant becomes ambulatory, attention is directed toward larger environment. Affordances for movement (hiding, playing, etc.) are discovered.
    • After first year: Gibson states that research after the first year is "scanty" and neglects to define any phases or further developments in human perception.

In what phase of neonate development is this baby? What affordances might she perceive for this object?

The video below is a recent study on perceptual learning in children.** Notice how changing the babies affordances (giving them velcro gloves) changes the information they attend to in their environment.

Connections between early and later development

According to Gibson, perceptual learning was persistent through the lifespan and plays an important role in cognition. Indeed, she even went so far as to say perception is the "primary process" that makes cognition possible (p. 178, Gibson & Pick, 2000). She believed cognitive processes such as imagining and reasoning developed in proportion to the amount of information we gathered from the environment.

What does change as we grow is not how we learn (through perception), but what learn. For example babies come into the world programmed to pay attention and be responsive to human voices and faces. Later they learn about objects and even later locomotion. Beyond infancy, learning becomes more specialized (i.e. acquiring language, how to use a spoon, etc). These specialized tasks have their roots in more basic ones. (Gibson & Pick, 2000)

The table below provides examples of perceptual tasks and compares development in infancy to what happens as a child continues to grow. The information in the table is a summary of information from Gibson and Pick (2000).

Perceptual Learning Task

Development in Infancy

Development Beyond Infancy


Infants quickly become attune to their nativelanguage. Even fetuses are attuned to their native tongue. Within the first year, infants will lose sensitivity to sound patterns not in their language and begin to differentiate
patterns in their own.
In later development infants will learn to differentiate symbols representing speech and thus learn to read.It could be hypothesized then that infants who have trouble differentiating speech will struggle with talking and reading later in life.

Manual Skills and Tool Use

Beginning around 4 months infants can
reach for objects, pick them up, catch them,
and eventual handle them. As infants gain
more control of their motor skills they
develop more advanced manual skills (i.e.
using a spoon for eating). Tool use is
also often learned through observation
(social environment/affordance).
Motor development and tool use becomes more and
more specialized throughout a human's lifespan.
Motor development may later depend on the activities we pursue or our career. For example, an athlete will perceive different affordances based on the environment of their sport and develop their motor skills according (i.e. a baseball player will learn how hard to hit a ball depending on if he/she wants to put it in the outfield or bunt it).

Locomotor Skills

Gibson notes a study by McGraw (1935) in
which twin boys, Johnny and Jimmy were
studies. Johnny received training and went
through exercises daily involving different
motor skills (i.e. lifting head, rolling over,
sitting, etc). Despite Johnny's training,
Jimmy and Johnny's development of
these skills (i.e. sitting and walking)
emerged at the same time. Johnny did
seem a little more smooth and confident.
This experiment showed how children
will teach themselves, even when specific
training is not given.
The example Gibson provides can be applied to later
development as well. Using the example of athletes
again, we know that athletes often gain skills more
deliberately than babies. They also may use models
to learn certain skills, but perceptual learning
remains an essential part of the process.

Conceptual Development

While some researcher's believe concepts
only develop with symbolic representation
(i.e. language), Gibson argues that infants
form concepts before they can even speak.
She claims that concepts develop in infants
by experiencing the same affordance
several times. Then the infant learns to
generalize the experience. For example,
3 to 4 month old infants seem to be able
to discriminate between cats and horses
(Bomba &Siqueland, 1983).
Gibson argues that perception continues to be an
important part of cognition at all ages. She would
say that our abstract symbols and ideas come from
our perceptions and experiences of the world, and
develop before we even have words to name these


Gibson used experimental procedures while also attempting to retain ecological validity by simulating important features of the child's natural environment. In keeping with the idea of affordances, Gibson tried to provide multimodal stimulation for infants in these experiments (e.g., multiple kinds of objects, faces, or surfaces) and ways of obtaining feedback through movement and exploration (Miller, 2002).

One of Gibson's most famous perceptual experiments involved the construction of a "visual cliff," which simulated the appearance of a real cliff. Gibson and Wall (1960) placed infants near the cliff and placed mothers on the other side of the cliff. They found that infants perceived depth and were unwilling to crawl over the cliff at approximately 6-7 months. Later experiments showed that 12-month-old infants had learned to use their mothers' facial expressions as signals of potential affordances. If mothers smiled, infants were more likely to crawl over the "dangerous" cliff, but if mothers made a frightened face, infants avoided the cliff (Sorce et al., 1985).

Current State of Gibsonian Theory

Aside from her own writings, Gibson's work is rarely described as a theory of development. Indeed, even when Gibson's primary area of research, affordances, is referenced, the citations typically refer only to James Gibson (e.g., Michaels, 2003). Although Gibson has not achieved the name recognition of Piaget or Erikson, her ideas have inspired a new generation of researchers to investigate the construct of affordances. Indeed, affordances are now a popular topic in perceptual research; a PsycINFO search will produce over 1000 articles on the topic. Unlike Gibson, later researchers have studied affordances in all age groups, including adults. Affordances have been applied to a range of innovative topics, from automobile driving (Schwebel & Yocom, 2007) to text messaging (Reid & Reid, 2010). However, the concept of affordances is usually used in isolation rather than being integrated into Gibson's ecological framework. Some researchers are even attempting to create their own theories of affordances (e.g., Chemero, 2003) instead of revising Gibson's theory to accommodate new findings.

What affordances do you perceive in this image?


Although Gibson's theory stressed the importance of the environment in development, she failed to explain potential differences in how children react to the environment. Indeed, her own words suggest that she did not attach much importance to differences in perception as a result of diversity characteristics, but instead thought that infants simply learned to perceive the one "true" reality. According to Gibson, "I think that cognition is based on perception, which is not representation of the world but is real" (Szokolszky, 2003, p. 275).

Fortunately, later researchers have expanded upon Gibson's ideas and have studied the ways in which culture, power, and other characteristics can affect the perception of affordances. For example, Kitayama et al. (2006) found that culture determines the emotional affordances that North American and Japanese adults perceive. In other words, although all emotions are theoretically "available" to experience, one's culture determines which emotions are perceived as salient. Guinote's (2007) research suggested that individuals with power tended to be more purposeful and attentive in perceiving affordances, and were thus more likely to behave in ways that were consistent with the demands of the environment than powerless individuals. Affordances are no longer viewed as simply physical properties of objects; instead, they now include interpersonal, intrapersonal, social, and cultural components.

Implications for the Conceptualization of Human Development

  • Implications of this theory point back to the table at the top of this page, but as a summary:
    • Gibson's theory focuses us on the interaction between humans (specifically children) and the environment
    • Focused on perception and how we perceive. We learn through perception of affordances
    • She did not pay much attention to internal processes like cognition, because according to her cognition comes from perceiving
    • Development looks similar throughout the lifespan. How we perceive doesn't change, just what we perceive. Our knowledge and skills get more specific and specialized.
    • Perception is species specific and she believed all humans perceive in the same way, thus little attention was paid to culture, gender differences, and other diversity areas

Critiques of Gibsonian Theory

Original Form

  • Focus on the ecological context of perception (Miller, 2002)
  • "Putting the body back into development" (p. 262, Miller, 2002), Gibson focused not only on what children know, but what they do
  • Focus on what children do in the "real world" (tried to make lab setting as real as possible (Szokolszky, 2003)

  • "Unclear account of cognition" (p. 363, Miller, 2002), Gibson's theory is one of direct perception and does not seem to take into account that behaviors may involve indirect, interpretive cognition
  • Expensive and complicated experiment set up
  • Did not study past early childhood, so it is hard to generalize this theory through the entire lifespan

Contemporary Form

  • Expanded upon original theory to include perception at all ages
  • Social, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (e.g., emotions, personal growth) affordances now studied
  • Social constructionism of affordances are now acknowledged and studied instead of focusing on how infants learn to perceive the single "true" reality

  • No credit given to Gibson for her seminal work on affordances; credit given to James Gibson because he coined the term
  • Affordances studied as an isolated construct; not integrated into any theory, let alone Gibson's theory
  • Little agreement and much philosophical debate on the definition of affordances, leading to confusion over the operationalization of the construct (Chemero, 2003; Michaels, 2003)

Articles for Further Reading

Chemero, A. (2003). An outline of a theory of affordances. Ecological Psychology, 15, 181-195.

Gibson, E.J., Gibson, J. J., Pick, A. D., & Osser, H. (1962). A developmental study of the discrimination of letter-like forms. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 55, 897-906.

Gibson, E. J. (1988). Exploratory behavior in the development of perceiving, acting, and the acquiring of knowledge. Annual Review of Psychology, 39, 1-41.

Kitayama, S., Mesquita, B., & Karasawa, M. (2006). Cultural affordances and emotional experience: Socially engaging and disengaging emotions in Japan and the United States. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 890-903.


Chemero, A. (2003). An outline of a theory of affordances. Ecological Psychology, 15, 181-195.

Gibson, E. J. (1988). Exploratory behavior in the development of perceiving, acting, and the acquiring of knowledge. Annual Review of Psychology, 39, 1-41.

Gibson, E. J. & Pick, A. D. (2000). An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guinote, A. (2008). Power and affordances: When the situation has more power over powerful than powerless individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 237-252.

Kitayama, S., Mesquita, B., & Karasawa, M. (2006). Cultural affordances and emotional experience: Socially engaging and disengaging emotions in Japan and the United States. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 890-903.

Michaels, C. F. (2003). Affordances: Four points of debate. Ecological Psychology, 15, 135-148.

Miller, P. (2002). Theories of Developmental Psychology (4th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Reid, F. J. M., & Reid, D. J. (2010). The expressive and conversational affordances of mobile messaging. Behaviour and Information Technology, 29, 3-22.

Schwebel, D. C., & Yocom, J. S. (2007). How personality and reward relate to automobile drivers' judgments of affordances using their own vehicles. Ecological Psychology, 19, 49-68.

Sorce, J. F., Emde, R. N., Campos, J., & Klinnert, M. D. (1985). Maternal emotional signaling: Its effect on the visual cliff behavior of 1-year-olds. Developmental Psychology, 21, 195-200.

Szokolszky, A. (2003). An interview with Eleanor Gibson. Ecological Psychology, 15, 271-281.