Ecological Psychology

Ecological Psychology is an approach to studying perception and perceptual development that originated in the works of James and Eleanor Gibson. The implications of Ecological Psychology simply for how we understand the perceptual process are fairly profound, but the approach is also interesting because of its implications for the rest of psychology - when you redefine perception, it has a ripple effect through the rest of psychological theory, changing how you think of cognition, social interaction, developmental disabilities, etc. Perhaps the most obvious 'ripple' is caused by the claim that perception can do much more than was previously suspected, which upsets centuries worth of speculation on how our purportedly meager perceptual abilities were compensated for by conceptual, i.e., cognitive, abilities (discussed further here).


A Brief Introduction to Ecological Psychology

My Present Work

Relevant Publications

A Brief Introduction to Ecological Psychology

The deep origins of Ecological Psychology lie in the philosophies of Pragmatism, Radical Empiricism, and New Realism. But that is a much longer story...

The first key paper of the modern science is probably a paper on perceptual learning (Gibson and Gibson, 1955), in which it was proposed that perceptual learning involved better discriminating stimuli. That is, this type of learning does not involve gaining more sophisticated mental processes, but rather more sophisticated sensitivity to the details of the world. Discussion generated by this paper, and further related works, were guided by a search for the 'discriminated thing' needed to fill in the perceptual-learning theory. The most obvious candidate would be something like the stimulation created by the retinal image... but the problem with the retinal image were already well known: The retinal image is not specific to the properties of the world, and therefore it cannot provide a firm basis for accurate perception. Gibson's prior work on optic flow was working towards a solution, but something more radical was needed.

This culminated in the second key paper (Gibson, 1961), in which it was pointed out that we could study the ecology of ambient energy, i.e., the structure of the light waves, sound waves, etc. that are bouncing all around you in whatever room you are reading this in. The visual side of this work would be called Ecological Optics, and from that we get the 'ecological' in 'Ecological Psychology'. The structured energy around us is specific to the properties of the world, and so if we can discriminate this ambient energy in the right ways, we come to know the properties of the world. Or, if we want to back off just a touch: At least some of the structure in the ambient energy is specific to at least some of the aspects of the world we would like to know about, and so, in those moments when we managed to correctly discriminate the correct pattern-structures, we are accurately and unambiguously discriminating something about the objects and events around us.  

A few years later (Gibson, 1966) this idea was put into the a book-length discussion of the evolution of perceptual systems, which include both the sensory organs and all the other parts of the organism involved in moving so as discriminate these patterns. The evolutionary context in which human abilities are thereby put, and the developmental context that started this whole line of thinking, led to some speculation in the final chapters about what aspects of the world we would expect organisms to perceive: Evolution and development both occur in the context of behavior, and so we might expect organisms to evolve and develop so that they discriminate those aspects of the world relevant to behavior. That is, we would expect animals (including people) to be best at discriminating the world in terms of what it affords them, e.g., in terms of what future actions the current situation makes possible, e.g., in terms what outcomes can be realized by the actions the animal is capable of performing. To make this concept more concrete, Gibson invented the term 'affordance.'

Still later (Gibson, 1979), the more radical consequences of this new understanding of perception were explored at length. Gibson had been a very well reputed perceptual researcher in the '40's and '50's, before any of this ecological thinking began, but by the time of his last book there were a growing number of people interested in pursuing the more aggressive research agendas he had laid out. The most obvious research tasks were: 1) Identify higher-order invariants that specify properties of the world, 2) Show that organisms (these days, typically 'people') are sensitive to those invariants, 3) Put those together into demonstrations that behavioral success is due to proper sensitivity to invariants. Oh, and 4) don't shy away from opportunities to do this in the context of tasks not traditionally thought of as 'perceptual.'  The most important early proponents of Gibson's thinking were Michael Turvey, Bob Shaw, and Bill Mace, who played pivotal roles in founding the International Society for Ecological Psychology, the journal Ecological Psychology, and the Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action (CESPA) at the University of Connecticut. David Lee made the first solid demonstration of an optical invariant used to guide a critical behavior - the rate of acceleration of optic expansion (symbolized 'tau'), which can be used to regulate timing of impact with a surface (e.g., birds retracting their wings when diving into water at break-neck speeds). Clair Michaels and Claudia Carello put out the first book that could be considered a textbook for the field "Direct Perception."

Today, Ecological Psychology has a small, but thriving research community using this approach to study the full range of psychological phenomenon.

My Present Work

My most exciting eco-psych related project is an attempt to create a textbook for the field. Following my announcement of the project at ICPA in Ouro Preto, Brazil, over twenty people have volunteered to be part of this project. The goal is to create massively-multiauthored textbook that could be used both for a specialized class on Ecological Psychology and in a general class on Perception and Action. This is likely a 4-5 year project, and we are still looking for more people to create draft content and to edit content in the later stages. If you are interested in working on this, please contact me. 

I am collaborating with Lee Rudolph and others on a project attempting to model emotional movement in displays resembling the classic Heider-Simmel task. Two geometric objects move around, and if they move correctly, then people experience them as emotional entities (e.g. 'that triangle is angry' and 'that circle is scared'). Our preliminary results are very encouraging and have been presented in poster form at a few meetings, but we have had remarkable trouble getting funded. It is a familiar sob story, we always get at least one reviewer who says we have the greatest things since sliced bread, and at least one who thinks we are incoherent. We'll keep trying for funding, and keep doing the research, but the project is in slow-motion unless we can figure the grant-scene out better.

There is also an ongoing discussion in Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Sciences about the potential for Ecological Psychology to make a deep contribution to social psychology. This grew out of an article I wrote that listed many potential ways in which E. B. Holt's New Realism could be relevant to modern eco-psych.

Finally, I am finishing up a series of papers from my post-doctoral work on looking as an active, functional behavior. This was developmental research, with human infants, and I had several interesting idea for further work along these lines. At some point I hope to get back to this work lab-space gods or generous collaborators willing. 

Relevant Publications

Charles, E. P. (Submitted). Verifying the social function of young infant looking in parent infant interaction. British Journal of Developmental Psychology

Charles, E. P. (In press – September Issue 2011). Seeing Minds in Behavior: Descriptive Mentalism. Review of General Psychology.

Charles, E. P. (2011). Ecological psychology and social psychology: Continuing Discussion. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Sciences, ‘Online First’ publication available

Charles, E. P., & Sommer, B.  Ecological Psychology. (In press). In, V. S. Ramachandran (Ed), Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, 2nd edition. Maryland Heights MO: Elsevier

Charles, E. P. (2011). Introduction. In E. P. Charles (Ed.) A New Look at New Realism: The Psychology and Philosophy of E. B. Holt (pp. xxxi-lviii). Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Charles, E. P., & Smart, L. J. (2011). Studies in Perception and Action XI. New York: Psychology Press (a subsidy of Taylor & Francis).

Charles, E. P., Singer, M. E., & Rudolph, L. (2011) Higher-order invariants underlying the perception of emotion in Heider-Simmel tasks: A preliminary report. In E. P. Charles, & L. J. Smart (Eds.), Studies in Perception and Action XI (pp. 2-7). New York: Psychology Press

Charles, E. P. (2011). Ecological psychology and social psychology: It is Holt or nothing! Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Sciences, 45, 132-153.

Charles, E. P., & Rivera, S. M. (2009). Object permanence and method of disappearance: Exploring the contradiction between looking and searching measures of object permanence. Developmental Science, 12, 991-1006.

Charles, E. P. (2009). The (Old) New Realism: What Holt has to offer for Ecological Psychology. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 43, 53-66.

Charles, E. P. (2008). Ecological psychology’s struggle to study perception at the appropriate level of analysis: Examining the past, guessing the future. In J. Clegg (Ed.), The Observation of Human Systems: Lessons from the History of Anti-Reductionistic Empirical Psychology. Piscataway, NJ: Transactions Publishers.

Charles, E. P. (2004). Dualities hidden influences in models of the mind. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 400-401.

Coss, R. G., & Charles, E. P. (2004). The role of evolutionary hypotheses in psychological research: Instincts, affordances, and relic sex differences. Ecological Psychology, 16, 199-236.