James Jerome Gibson

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(b. McConnelsville, Ohio, 27 January 1904; d. Ithaca, New York, 11 December 1979),

psychology, perception, vision, ecological psychology, perception-action, epistemology

Gibson was an innovative twentieth-century experimental psychologist whose work focused primarily on visual perception of the everyday world. His research and theoretical contributions over five decades culminated in a highly original perspective, the ecological approach to perceiving. This approach is unique in providing theoretical grounds and empirical support for the epistemological position of direct realism, which is the view that individuals perceive the environment directly. As such, it offers an alternative to the long-dominant claim that perception of the environment is mediated by subjective, mental processes (indirect realism).

Gibson’s first book, The Perception of the Visual World(1950), was highly acclaimed and influential because of the compelling case it made for the presence of higher-order structures in patterns of visual stimulation. Recognition of these structural patterns offered some novel solutions to several long-standing perceptual problems. This book anticipated the later ecological approach in several ways, but because of its psychophysical framework, it remained tied to standard formulations of perceiving. With the publication of his later two books, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966) and The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979), Gibson fully broke from traditional approaches and offered his radical and original reformulation of perception from an ecological perspective.

Among the notable concepts that Gibson developed in formulating the ecological approach were perceptual systems and affordances. The concept of perceptual systems portrays perceiving as a process of exploration and detection of structure from a rich array of stimulus information. Such a view is a departure from standard accounts, which take perception as beginning with the imposition of stimulation on the receptor surfaces of a passive perceiver. In the case of vision, for example, visual perception is conventionally taken to be initiated by stimulation falling on the retinal receptors; whereas vision from the viewpoint of perceptual systems recognizes the essential role of the individual’s self-directed movements in revealing environmental structure. The concept of affordance refers to the perceived functional meaning of an environmental feature for an individual. Affordances of an environment are specified by stimulus information taken relative to an individual; as a consequence, this concept locates the meaning of environmental features in the individual-environment relationship rather than as a subjective quality imposed on the environment by an individual mind.

Education and Early Career . Gibson received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1925, where he majored in philosophy. He took his first course in experimental psychology during his senior year from H. S. Langfeld, formerly of the William James–inspired Harvard Psychology Department, who had previously studied with the experimental phenomenologist Carl Stumpf. After graduation Gibson returned to Princeton as one of Langfeld’s graduate assistants and completed his doctoral dissertation under him. The dominant intellectual influence on Gibson during his graduate studies was the philosophical behaviorist E. B. Holt, who had been a student of William James and later became a central figure among the New Realist philosophers. Holt’s writings fused the nondualistic metaphysics of James’s philosophy of radical empiricism with a behavioristic focus on action. Holt’s distinctive brand of behaviorism was molar in level of analysis (which considers the organism as a functioning whole rather than reducing it to a set of microaction, or S-R, units), purposive in motivational character (which assumes an intentional, goal-directed organism rather than one that must be prodded into action by an extrinsic stimulus), and distal in identification of the effective stimulus for action (which seeks the effective stimulus for perception and action in the environment rather than at the receptors). All of these qualities would characterize Gibson’s later perceptual theory.

Gibson’s first academic appointment was at Smith College beginning in the fall of 1928. Over the ensuing fifteen years, Gibson taught courses in experimental psychology and social psychology, and published numerous research papers with his students. A significant influence on Gibson at Smith was his faculty colleague, the émigré Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka. Although Gibson’s behaviorist leanings initially set him somewhat at odds with Koffka theoretically, the European experimental phenomenology that Gibson had picked up from Langfeld gave them some common ground. A phenomenological strain runs through much of Gibson’s subsequent work to good effect. Moreover, Koffka’s focus on organization in perceptual experience heightened Gibson’s sensitivity to higher-order relations in patterns of sensory stimulation. Two other influential colleagues at Smith were Fritz Heider, whose writings on the role of the medium in perceiving had a profound impact on Gibson at a later point in his career, and his wife, Eleanor Jack Gibson, who became an equally distinguished psychologist with her primary interests in perceptual learning and development. Although the Gibsons rarely collaborated in a formal manner in their writing or research, they were lifelong intellectual partners, and their research programs were mutually supportive and mutually influential.

One of James Gibson’s most important publications during the Smith years was a report on his research of perceptual adaptation to curved lines. Gibson discovered that prolonged visual inspection of a curved line resulted in experiencing the line as straight, and that subsequent examination of straight lines revealed an aftereffect of apparent curvature in the opposite direction. These findings are significant for indicating that a seemingly basic stimulus attribute such as linearity/curvilinearity is not merely an elementary sensation imposed on sensory receptors, but instead is a product of ongoing perceiver-environment relations. This early expression of the dynamic relationship between perceiver and environment became more fully developed over subsequent decades.

Perceiving from a Moving Point of Observation . During the years of World War II, Gibson worked in the psychological research unit of the U.S. Army Air Forces. This period was an especially rich one in the development of his thinking. Gibson’s primary responsibility was formulating selection procedures for prospective pilots; in the course of doing so, he was struck by how inadequate standard measures of perceptual abilities were for this purpose. He realized that their inadequacy stemmed in large measure from a reliance on static visual displays; whereas when pilots operate aircraft, they perceive themselves and the plane moving relative to ground surfaces, especially during takeoff and approach. This realization led, first, to Gibson’s innovative use of dynamic displays (motion pictures)

for presenting test materials; and second, it transformed his ideas about the nature of perceiving more broadly.

In particular, Gibson’s use of dynamic displays, as well as his attention to everyday experience, revealed that moving through the environment generates an optical streaming as surfaces appear to flow around the perceiver. This optical flow, produced as it is by self-generated movement, specifies the self moving through the environment. Further, the point of outflow from which these streaming patterns appear to originate specifies the direction of heading when locomoting. In later work, Gibson proposed that animals guide their locomotion by maintaining this point of outflow on the intended target and control their speed with reference to the rate of flow. In this way, directed movement toward some object is a dynamic relationship between environmental features and self-produced patterns in the optic flow. Such a relational account runs counter to the long-held view that perception of one’s own movement is based solely on motor feedback (motor kinesthesis) from the limbs and joints.

Further, in the process of utilizing dynamic displays to develop observers’ skills for identifying aircraft, Gibson became sensitized to the critical, and often overlooked, distinction between form perception, which involves static two-dimensional displays, and object perception, which involves solid objects perceived when the object, the perceiver, or both, are in motion. This work created the foundation for Gibson’s later insight that the perceptual

information specifying object shape is invariant structure under transformation. It also led to Gibson’s separation and parallel studies of, on the one hand, environmental perception and, on the other hand, picture perception— topics that are often conflated in standard accounts of perceiving.

Texture Gradients, Ecological Optics, and Perceptual Systems . Returning to Smith College after the war, Gibson began writing The Perception of the Visual World, which explored the preceding decade’s research and its implications. Its central claim that visual stimulation carries higher-order structures corresponding to the perceived environment offered some original solutions to several perennial problems in perceptual theory, perhaps most notably the problem of object size constancy.

Because an object’s projected size on the two-dimensional retinal surface varies inversely with its distance from the perceiver, it has been a long-standing puzzle why object size appears to be relatively constant independent of its distance. Such perceived size constancy has been explained traditionally by proposing that perceivers supplement impressions of apparent size with distance cues to compensate for variations in projections on the retina. According to this account, then, perception of object size is mediated by inference-like processes. From that supposition it follows that experience of the object, and by extension of much of the environment, is indirect. Gibson pointed out, however, that this way of framing the problem fails to appreciate that in a terrestrial environment objects typically rest on textured ground surfaces, that surface textures tend to be stochastically regular, and as a result, texture density increases as the surface extends away from the perceiver. When these conditions obtain, which they normally do, objects of equal size located at different distances from a perceiver occlude equal portions

of the gradient of surface texture. Likewise, the ratio of object size to background texture remains relatively constant as an object is positioned at successively greater or closer distances from a perceiver. The presence of this higher order structure—an object-ground surface invariant—in the visual field raises the possibility that relative object size can be directly perceived in patterns of visual stimulation.

Over the decades of the 1950s and 1960s Gibson investigated the perception of surface and object properties, and this experimental work deepened his theoretical analysis of visual perception. To mention but three critical advances during this period: First, in collaboration with Eleanor J. Gibson, he offered an original account of perceptual learning. The Gibsons proposed that perceptual learning is a process of differentiating structure present in the stimulus array. In the course of detecting as yet unrecognized structure in available sensory information, perceivers discern in an ongoing process more about the environment in an unmediated fashion. Second, separate investigations by the Gibsons began to reveal that meaningful properties of the environment are available to be perceived in the available stimulus information. The earliest evidence for this possibility was shown in E. J. Gibson and R. D. Walk’s classic “visual cliff” experiments, in which it was found that newly crawling infants are sensitive to depth at an edge. The visual information specifying

depth at an edge is the shearing of the texture of a lower surface at the edge of the upper surface, with this shearing effect being produced by movements of the infant situated on the upper surface. Such dynamically generated information is perceived as affording the possibility of falling. Similarly, William Schiff, James Caviness, and James Gibson demonstrated that immature animals perceive an expanding form in the visual field as a looming surface that affords impending collision. Both of these studies demonstrate that features of the environment with functionally significant meaning are available to be perceived in the stimulus array, and also that self-motion and motion of objects are critical facets of the process of detecting visual information and the functionally meaningful properties that such information specifies. Third, Gibson, George Kaplan, Horace Reynolds, and Kirk Wheeler showed that when the texture of one surface is continuously deleted at the moving edge of another surface, the first is perceived as being covered up by the second, and significantly, it is perceived as existing although temporarily out of sight. This discovery of the effect of occluding edges affirmed that when perception is considered as a process that occurs over time, the environment is perceived in an extended fashion beyond what can be seen in a discrete slice in time.

These research findings converged to mark an important shift in Gibson’s thinking. His earlier work on the psychophysical correspondence between higher-order patterns of stimulation and retinal projections carried with it an implicit assumption that stimulation is imposed on receptor surfaces. Gibson came to reject the stimulus-response mode of thinking that characterized these writings, and he began to reformulate a new approach to perceiving. This reconceptualization required two critical and innovative steps. First, drawing on Heider’s distinction between object and medium, Gibson began to develop the program of ecological optics, which considers

how stimulus information that specifies object properties could be conveyed in reflected light, and accordingly, is available to be perceived directly. Second, Gibson rejected the idea that perceiving is based on the passive imposition of stimulation on the sensory receptors, and instead proposed that perceiving is an activity of an embodied agent whose exploratory actions play an essential role in revealing structure in the stimulus array. Jointly, ecological optics and perceptual systems become the platform for the ecological approach to perceiving, each serving as complementary facets of a dynamic system of animal-environment reciprocity. These innovations were initially presented in Gibson’s groundbreaking book, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems.

An Ecological Approach to Perceiving . Gibson’s analysis of stimulus information was more fully elaborated and his treatment of perceiving was further refined in his last major work, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. A distinctive feature of this book as compared to standard treatments of perception is that the perceiver is not considered until midway through the work. Fully the first half of the book is a detailed discussion of properties of the environment considered from the standpoint of a terrestrial animal, followed by an extensive consideration of ecological optics and stimulus information. This is as it should be for an ecological approach to perceiving: examination of the “econiche” in relation to which perceiving has evolved and continues to operate is the essential first step in developing an understanding of perceiving considered as a functional activity. When Gibson turns to consider the perceiver, emphasis is on perceiving as a functional activity of an embodied agent, and here the previously developed concept of perceptual systems plays an essential role.

An especially significant feature of this book is Gibson’s explication of his influential concept of affordances. Gibson proposed that what is perceived in the process of detecting stimulus information are the affordances of the environment, which are its functionally meaningful properties taken with reference to an individual. For example, an object affords “sitting-on” for an individual if it is perceived at an appropriate height relative to leg length, and if its structure and composition appear to support that person’s weight. As such, affordances are mutually constituted by characteristics of the environment and the perceiver; and this concept locates functionally significant meanings in the dynamic perceiver-environment relationship.

The concept of affordance has generated much interest in psychology and philosophy because it offers a fresh way of approaching the challenging issue of perceived meaning. Standard approaches would have it that meaning results from the individual interpreting equivocal sensory input. What is troubling about this explanation is that it places all meanings within individual minds, and in doing so, it puts out of reach a psychologically meaningful ground for an individual’s actions as well as a common ground for individuals’ shared social existence. In contrast, affordances are relational properties of perceiver and environment, and hence directly perceivable. And because all individuals engage the environment as embodied agents, properties of the environment perceived relationally can have similar functional meanings across individuals. In short, the picture that emerges is of an environment rich with potential meaning for perceivers. Affordances, understood within the relational framework of ecological optics and perceptual systems, provide psychology and the philosophy of mind with something previously unattainable given their historical roots in mind-world dualism, namely, grounds for a realist account of knowing.

Style of Thinking . A reviewer of The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception posthumously referred to Gibson as “the Seer of Ithaca.” That description is very astute, and not only because of Gibson’s groundbreaking theoretical work and his highly original concepts. What may be most remarkable about Gibson was an ability throughout his career to identify problems in the domain of visual perception that others failed to see. His prescience was due, in large measure, to his stance toward the phenomena of vision. Gibson identified himself as a behaviorist and functionalist in the James-Holt tradition, which led him to adopt a Darwinian perspective in a more thorough-going manner than most perceptual researchers tend to do. This stance is evident in his attention to the environment and to the active nature of perceiving. Furthermore, he was spurred by his contact with psychologists of a phenomenological inclination to observe the way things look. Gibson’s primary concern throughout most of his career, and prompted by his early contact with Koffka, was “how do we see the world as we do?” This question led him to place at the center of his investigations of visual perception a consideration of how the environment is experienced by an individual. This functional and phenomenological attitude kept bringing Gibson back to perceptual phenomena that needed to be explained. Attention to the way things look reveals that visual experience is dynamic, not static; that the environment is experienced continuously over time, not in discrete moments; that perceivers are actively engaged in detecting information, not passively receiving sensory stimulation; and that the environment is made up of perceptually meaningful features, not merely congeries of forms, angles, and edges. Recognition of these fundamental features of visual experience transforms how perceiving is conceptualized and how it needs to be studied.

Gibson was a model scientist. He thought deeply about central problems in the field of perception, carefully developed and then refined the concepts that lay at the heart of his work, and designed rigorous, elegant experiments. There is an economy in Gibson’s research and in his writing that reflects an exceptional degree of deliberation and thoughtfulness in the formulation of his ideas. Gibson relished a vigorous debate that challenged him to better articulate his position, and he would press his case doggedly. But he demonstrated over the course of his career that he was prepared to give up a position when it proved inadequate to problems at hand and in the face of better formulations. Gibson exhibited a remarkable combination of steadfast commitment to a theoretical framework and a willingness to start fresh when that was called for. In this regard, he implored his students and readers to reject “the dead hand of habit” when thinking about perception, and about psychological issues more generally. The consummate scientist, he urged his students and readers to look for themselves.



“Adaptation, After-Effect and Contrast in the Perception of Curved Lines.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 16 (1933): 1–31.

Motion Picture Testing and Research. Aviation Psychology Research Reports, no. 7. Washington, DC, 1948.

The Perception of the Visual World. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1950.

With Paul Olum and Frank Rosenblatt. “Parallax and Perspective during Airplane Landing.” American Journal of Psychology 68 (1955): 372–385.

With Eleanor J. Gibson. “Perceptual Learning: Differentiation or Enrichment?” Psychological Review 62 (1955): 32–41.

“Visually Controlled Locomotion and Visual Orientation in Animals and Men.” British Journal of Psychology 49 (1958): 182–194.

“The Concept of the Stimulus in Psychology.” American Psychologist 16 (1960): 694–703.

With William Schiff and James Caviness. “Persistent Fear Responses in Rhesus Monkeys to the Optical Stimulus of ‘Looming.’” Science 136 (1962): 982–983.

The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1966.

“James J. Gibson.” In A History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 5, edited by E. G. Boring and G. Lindzey. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967.

“New Reasons for Realism.” Synthese 17 (1967): 162–172.

With George Kaplan, Horace Reynolds, and Kirk Wheeler. “The Change from Visible to Invisible: A Study of Optical Transitions.” Perception & Psychophysics 5 (1969): 113–116.

“The Information Available in Pictures.” Leonardo 4 (1971): 27–35.

The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.

Reasons for Realism: Selected Essays of James J. Gibson. Edited by E. S. Reed and R. Jones. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1982. A full listing of Gibson’s works.


Gibson, Eleanor J. Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969.

——. Perceiving the Affordances: A Portrait of Two Psychologists.

Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.

——, and Richard Walk. “The ‘Visual Cliff.’” Scientific American 202 (1960): 64–71.

Heft, Harry. Ecological Psychology in Context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James’s Radical Empiricism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.

Reed, Edward S. James J. Gibson and the Psychology of Perception. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

Harry Heft

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James Jerome Gibson

American psychologist known for his work on visual perception.

James Jerome Gibson proposed a theory of vision that was a first of its kind; he suggested that visual perception was the direct detection of environmental invariances, and that visual perception did not require inference or information processing.

Gibson was born in 1904 in McConnelsville, Ohio. He started his undergraduate career at Northwestern University. He transferred to Princeton University, where he earned his B.A. in 1925 and his Ph.D. in 1928. His dissertation research focused on memory and learning. During his career he taught psychology at Smith College between 1928 and 1949 and then went on to teach at Cornell between 1949 and 1972. At Smith, Gibson met Kurt Koffka , a proponent of Gestalt psychology . Koffka's influence shaped Gibson's future research and practice.

Gibson served in World War II and during his time in the service he directed the U.S. Air Force Research Unit in Aviation Psychology. In the Army, Gibson developed tests used to screen potential pilots. In doing so, he made the observation that more information could be drawn from moving pictures, such as film, than static ones. This observation sparked his interest in visual perception.

After the war, Gibson returned to Smith for a brief period before moving to Cornell. Gibson married Eleanor Jack Gibson , who became a major psychologist in her own right. Together they had two sons. In 1950 Gibson published The Perception of the Visual World which outlined his ground breaking theory of visual perception. In this publication, Gibson asserted that texture gradients on the ground are linked to similar gradients found on the retina in the eye. These complementary gradients allow humans to have depth perception . He further suggested that a new branch of science, called ecological optics, was needed to study perceptions in more detail. His next book, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, outlined this new discipline in detail.

Gibson's theory was that of direct perception, which means that humans directly perceive their environment through stimulation of the retina. Traditionally, and especially by Gestalt psychologists, perception was believed to be indirect. According to this theory, humans do not directly perceive their environment. It is only through sensory stimulation over time that we learn what is in our environments, and that we perceive much more than mere sensory input.

Although Gibson's theory was met with much criticism, it did help advance the study of perception. Through his theory of ecological optics, the study of perception shifted from laboratory-created situations to real environmental tests. His ideas also pushed further research into the areas of vision and perception. Gibson died in 1979.

Catherine Dybiec Holm

Further Reading

Sheehy et al, eds. Biographical dictionary of psychology New York: Routledge, 1997.