Affordances also relate with subjects and representations (artifacts)

February 21, 2007

I was reading the book Comprehension. A Paradigm for Cognition by W. Kintsch. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Kintsch is referring Gibson, Neisser and Greeno in relation to the affordances (pp. 21-24).

If i understand it correctly, it is possible to see three pairs situations where affordances can emerge:
person-real environment (based on persons’ actions in environment)
person-person (based on persons actions on the basis of other persons’ actions)
person-representation of something from the environment (where our previous experiences suggest some meanings)

If to follow Neisser’s ideas, it seems possible to interpret affordances as something what emerges in the activities people carry out, affordances can emerge when person perceives the objects, their representations and the subjects.

On the figure below we have related the affordances with the tools. We should enlarge the concept of affordances also to the artifacts and the subjects in the activity system.

activity constraints

Gibson’s pioneering work on direct perception (Gibson, 1977) has recently been extended by Neisser to include both direct and representation-based perception. Neisser (1994, p. 228) has elaborated his position to include three preceptual modules. Two modules are direct systems and one is representational, as follows:
1. Direct perception/action, which enables us to perceive and act effectively on the local environment.
2. Interpresonal perception/reactivity, which underlies our immediate social interactions with other human beings.
3. Representation/recognition, by which we identify and respond appropriately to familiar objects and situations.
Module 1 is the field first defined by J.J. Gibson (1977); module 2 has been the domain of social and developmental psychologists; and module 3 is what information-processing psychology and cognitive science have focused on.
Direct perception (module 1) links the organism to the surrounding optic array. The full optic array includes movement-produced information and is highly redundant, forming a single, mathematically tightly constrained complex. Any part of the complex allows the reconstruction of the whole. The perceiver’s location and movement are central component of that complex. The organism perceives not only what is, but but what might be done: Every purposive action begins with perceiving an affordance (Neisser, 1994, p. 235). The knowledge obtained by direct perception is immediate, bottom-up, and cognitively impenetrable: it does not have to be constructed.
Interpersonal perception (module 2) is similar in these respects, but its object is not the relationship between self and the environment but the relationship between self and another person. It is highly interactive. Neisser cites an experiment by Murray and Trevarthen (1985) in which babies were observed to interact succesfully with their mothers over closed-circuit television, as long as the mother directly responded to the baby. In a nonitearctive condition, where baby was shown the rewound tape of its mother, the babies quickly became distressed. What they had enjoied apparently was the coordinated interaction between themselves and their mother, not the mother herself.
Interpresonal perception always engages emotion. Mother and baby, or for that matter any human partners, form a dynamic, finely attuned affective system. The continuous flow of emotions in interpersonal interactions, but undoubtfully also in less directed interactions, such as occur in reading a story, functions as a modulator and motivator of cognition.
The representation/recognition system is the third module of perception described by Neisser. It ranges from classical conditioning to pattern recognition, language understanding, expertise, and problem solving. Neisser points out that recognition is always dependent on past experience, whereas direct perception and interpersonal perception are based on the currently excisting situations. Recognition depends on individual details and can be dissociated from direct perception.

Situativity: Direct action and symbolic representations.
Another extension of the Gibsonian system has been suggested by Greeno (1994), who combines the Gibsonian ideas on direct action with situated cognition research coming from anthropology (Lave, 1988; Suchman, 1987).
Properties of both the environment and the organism are relevant for the analysis of the interaction between an organism and its environment. Mental representations are needed to keep track of and compute the implications of the constraints between environmental situations that an organism has experienced.
Properties of the environment that determine the organism-environment interaction are called affordances, after Gibson. Properties of the organism that allow to be attuned to the environmental affordances are called abilities. The interaction between an organism and its environment can be described in terms of affordances and abilities that reflect the constraints existing in the environment. Affordances and abilities are therefore inherently related terms, one being defined in terms of the other. Affordances and abilities yeld smooth, efficient performance in well-attuned interactive system.
Greeno emphasises the social origin of mental representations. People do not think and act alone but as part of social and cultural community. Concepts evolve out of the discource of communities of practioners in some particular domain.
For instance, the concept of turning radius of a car was constructed in response to certain constraints experienced by drivers and automotive engineers. It may be used quite differently by different groups of people. It may be an implicit concept – affordance plus ability of an experienced driver. Or it may be an explicit symbolic concept – for example, for the driving instructor who must explain it to students, or for the engineer who describes it with the mathematical formula. And if the engineer also drives a car, it may be an implicit and an explicit concept at the same time.

Gibson, J.J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In R. Shaw & J. Bransford (Eds.), Perceiving, acting, and knowing: Toward and ecological psychology (pp. 67-82). Hillsdale, NJ. Erlbaum.

Greeno, J. G. (1994). Gibson’s affordances. Psychological Review. 101, 336-42.

Neisser, U. (1994). Multiple systems: A new approach to cognitive theory. The European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 6, 225-42.



  1. Neisser (1988) distinguishes between:
    ecological self (taken from Gibson)
    interpersonal self
    conceptual self
    temporarily extended self

    Action in the environment is the root of ecological self. We are what we do, therefore we understand the self, we need to understand how actions can be geared to the environment.

  2. Gibsonian concept paper (1967) of ecological optic arrey

    Ecological optics makes the postulate of connected sets of station points in the dense intersecting network of sight-lines that fills an illuminated medium. These sets are paths of potential locomotion.


    Continuous change of position (observer movement) generates characteristic patterns of image motion, that should directly indicate observer motion and thus an be used for control of locomotion: flowfields.

    Many believe, with Gibson, that the major element in motion perception (and, perhaps, in visual perception generally) is the so-called optic flow. Gibson believed that we picked up on the optic array and optic flow in order to understand the world. Unfortunately, he proposed no explanation as to how the picking up might be achieved.

    Immersion in the space does not necessarily provide good understanding of it.

    Extracts from: Gibson, J. J. (1966). Chapter XIV: The Causes of Deficient Perception (pp. 287-318). In The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    In the theory of information pickup, clearly, the pickup may fail when [p. 288] the available information is inadequate, or it may fail when the information is adequate but is not picked up. The former is no fault of the observer; the latter is.

    When perception is conceived as the detection of information, the weakness of physical stimulation may cause it to be piecemeal, partial, and dependent on personal motivation.

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