James J. Gibson

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James J. Gibson
Born January 27, 1904
McConnelsville, Ohio, U.S.
Died December 11, 1979
Ithaca, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Fields Experimental psychology, visual perception
Alma mater Northwestern University, Princeton University
Doctoral advisor Herbert Langfeld
Influences Edwin B. Holt, Kurt Koffka, Eleanor J. Gibson

James Jerome Gibson (/ˈɡɪbsən/; January 27, 1904 – December 11, 1979), was an American psychologist who received his Ph.D. from Princeton University's Department of Psychology, and is considered one of the most important 20th century psychologists in 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. [1]


James Jerome Gibson was born in McConnelsville, Ohio on January 27, 1904 unto Thomas and Gertrude Gibson.[2] Gibson was the oldest of three children and had two younger brothers, Thomas and William[3]. Gibson's father worked for Wisconsin Central Railroad and Gibson's mother worked as a school teacher.[4] Because his father worked on the railroad, Gibson and his family had to travel and relocate quite frequently until they finally settled down in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette.[3]

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.[4]

Gibson died in Ithaca, New York. He was married to fellow psychologist Eleanor J Gibson.

Major Contributions and Works[edit]

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. [5] 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. [6]

James Gibson had three major contributions through his career: The Perception of the Visual World (1950), The Sense Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966), and The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979).[7]

Much of Gibson's work on perception derives from his time spent in the U.S Army Air Force. Here, he delved into thoughts on how imperative perception is on daily functions. [5] 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 one of the displays to be in motion. [5] 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. [6] 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 the environment decides perception and meaning is in what the environment "affords" the observer. [7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[6]

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. [5]


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.[7] 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.[5]

Gibson's work on perception can be applied to aviation training,where 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.[10] This stance placed all of the perceptive meaning on the individual, which meant there was no way to find common ground on individual's shared experiences. Gibson contended that when stimulus information is being sought out, meaningful properties of that stimulus are also perceived relationally.[5] 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.[5]

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.[7]


  • Gibson, J.J. & Gibson, E. (1955). Perceptual learning: differentiation or enrichment? Psyc. Rev., 62, 32–41.
  • Gibson, J.J. (1950). The Perception of the Visual World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Gibson, J.J. (1960). The Concept of the Stimulus in Psychology. The American Psychologist 15/1960, 694–703.
  • Gibson, J.J. (1966). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-313-23961-4
  • Gibson, J.J. (1972). A Theory of Direct Visual Perception. In J. Royce, W. Rozenboom (eds.). The Psychology of Knowing. New York: Gordon & Breach.
  • Gibson, J.J. (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, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.ISBN 0898599598 (1986)
  • Gibson, J.J. (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. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. p. 641. ISBN 978-0-393-93530-1. 
  2. ^ Office of the Home Secretary, National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, Volume 63
  3. ^ a b Hochberg, Julian. "James Jerome Gibson: 1904-1979". National Academy of Sciences. 
  4. ^ a b Kazdin, Alan E., ed. in chief (2000). Encyclopedia of Psychology, Vol. 3. London: Oxford University Press. p. 493. ISBN 1-55798-652-5. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/James_Jerome_Gibson.aspx
  6. ^ a b c http://ai.ato.ms/MITECS/Entry/neisser.html.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ a b c d http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/J._J._Gibson
  8. ^ Alex Huk. (1999) "Seeing Motion: Lecture Notes." pp. 5
  9. ^ D. A. Norman (1999), Affordance, conventions, and design. Interactions (6, 3), 38–43
  10. ^ https://edisk.fandm.edu/tony.chemero/papers/heft.pdf

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