About affordances in ‘Ecological Psychology’ 2003

July 17, 2007

ECOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY, 15(2) is a special number of affordances.
Here are some of the paper-notes from this issue.

An Outline of a Theory of Affordances
Anthony Chemero

The paper makes difference between inferential theory of perception (when the meaningful perception is created in brain) and direct perception (when environment contains meanings and animal gathers meanings from the environment). Gibson’s theory of affordances is in line with the direct perception theory.

Chemero (2003) attempts to offer the description of affordances that would be ontologically respectable, but still in line with Gibson’s theory.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill (Gibson, 1979).

An affordance is neither an objective property nor a subjective property; or it is both if you like. An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective–objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer. (Gibson, 1979, p. 129)

According to Gibson, affordances are properties of the environment but taken relative to an animal (Chemero, 2003).

Chemero (2003) assumes that previous post-gibsonian attempts have claimed that affordances are animal-relative properties of the environment (eg. Heft, 2001; Reed, 1996; Turvey, 1992), which have some significance to the animal’s behaviour.

Reed (1996) related affordances of the environment and the natural selection – according to him affordances create the selection pressure to the development of the perceptual system.

Turvey (1992) suggested that affordances are dispositional properties of the environment. Dispositional properties are tendencies to manifest some other property in certain circumstances. Chemero (2003) elaborates it: Environment is such that in some circumstances, certain properties will become to manifest. Dispositional affordances depend of the presence of animals to actualize them, and the animals need to have properties that would be complementary to the affordances (effectivities) (Shaw, Turvey, Mace, 1982). Thus, effectivities are also diapositions and they must be complemented to the affordances of the environment to become actualized.

Chemero (2003) assumes that everyone of these authors agrees that affordances are relations between the abilities of animals and features of the environment.

Chemero disagrees that affordances are the properties of the environment. He claims that they are rather the relations between particular aspects of the animal and the situations

As relations, affordances are both real and perceivable but are not properties of either the environment or the animal. He distinguishes between features and properties and suggests that perceiving affordances is actually placing features – it is perceiving something about oneself and not in the environment, it is seeing that the environment allows certain acitivity.

eg. I must move myself accordingly to fit withe the certain affordance of the environment.

Chemero (2003) suggests that affordances are features of whole situations (meaning the actors are part of this situation).

If affordances are not the properties of the environment there is no need for complementing properties in actors. He disagrees with Turvey (1992) who defines effectivities as diapositions, Chemero claims that in Turvey’s interpretation if effectivities match with affordances both will always be manifested. Diapsoitions never fail, while abilities can be manifested or not in the appropriate circumstances.
Instead of diapositional effectivities Chemero (2003) suggests to use abilities as functional properties of the animals.

Animals perceive only the affordance relations.Humans can also perceive their abilities and the features of the environment (Chemero, 2003).

Events are conceived as changes in the physical layout (Stoffregen, 2000). Chmero (2000) suggests that events are changes in the layout of affordances in the animal-environment system.

This is very interesting aspect, which enables to relate events into the affordance ontology which we have tried to create! Affordances are dynamically changing and events will be related with the perception of these changes.

In the end of the paper Chemero (2003) assumes that ecological psychology is the form of realism about meaning, in which meaning (affordances) is real aspect of the world and not just in our heads, as indirect theories of perception maintain.

Turvey, M. (1992). Affordances and prospective control: An outline of the ontology. Ecological Psychology, 4, 173–187.

Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stoffregen, T. (2000). Affordances and events. Ecological Psychology, 12, 1–28.

Heft, H. (2001). Ecological psychology in context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the legacy of William James’s radical empiricism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Chemero, A. (2000). What events are. Ecological Psychology, 12, 37–42.

Chemero, A. (2001). What we perceive when we perceive affordances. Ecological Psychology, 13, 111–116.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Shaw,R., Turvey,M., & Mace,W. (1982).Ecological psychology: The consequence of a commitment to realism. In W. Weimer & D. Palermo (Eds.), Cognition and the symbolic processes (pp. 159–226).Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Affordances: Four Points of Debate
Claire F. Michaels

In this paper the assumption is that affordances do not arise as consequences of mental operations, but are action-referential properties of the environment that may or may not perceived.

I wonder, if humas can also anticipate affordances and abilities as Chemero (2003) claims, then they can create affordances as mental operations.

Michaels (2003) argues that there is a risk that affordances and meanings become synonyms. For example Chemero (2003) makes this strong relation.

Michaels claims that perceiving affordances is more than perceiving relations, it brings attention to the action-guiding information and sets up action systems to act.

She brings up an interesting point, if the tool in hand the effectivities of people will change.

In the end of the paper she brings some definitions of affordances, which give on my opinion some rules about them.

Affordances are actions permitted an animal by environment (objects, events, places, people etc.). Actions are goal-directed and entail intention, detection of information, and relation between information and control movement.

Rule* Actor with intentions is needed to activate environmental affordances as actor’s activities. This suggests awareness concept where intentions select of what we become aware of.

Affordances are multidimensional compounds of properties from other measurments, descriptive or conceptual systems.

Rule* Actor needs to perceive itself as a separate entity in respect to the environment. This suggests awareness concept in which this separation is made.

Rule* Multidimensionality aspect enables the actication of very different activities and coupling with very different effectivities. It also refers that if there are several affordances, which have multidimensional compounds these compunds can interact differently within or between affordances.

Affordances exist independent of being perceived.
Affordances entail effectivities for its actualization, but not for existance.

Perceiving affordances is seeing that some actions can be engaged in by the perceiver himself, it is not perceiveing what actions others can engage in.

Rule* One can perceive only affordances for ones own action.
I believe that new neural mirroring studies reject this assumption. Instead they demonstrate that one can also perceive the actions, intentions and emotions of others as one’s own actions or emotions if the intentions overlap and we become aware of the others. Thus it seems possible that we may be partially aware of the affordances what the other person perceives and engages in its activities.

Affordances, dynamic experience, and the challenge of reification.
Heft, H.

The most interesting part of this paper is about canonical affordances which are socio-culturally determined and maybe even cause the prospectivity of human perception.

Perceiving the affordances of our environment is the first order experience that is manifested in the flow of our ongoing perceiving and acting. By first order experience I mean experience that is direct and unmediated . We are simply immersed into situated doing and being. we have firts-order non-analytical awareness.
We can also shift our attentional focus and isolating particular portions of immediate experience holding it in the awareness for analysis. When we are engaged in this second-order knowing we experience objects and events of the world largerly in relation to each other rather than experiencing them in relation to us as perceivers-actors, that is as affordances (Heft, 2003).

Can the affordances be mediated? Mediated by some tools eg. the developer’s canonical affordances become mediated to the user? The mediation of action potentials has been the startingpoint of developing any tools.

Can the affordances be cognitively mediated as well? For example if we observe some people and dynamically simulate with mirror neurons what they do and emotionally feel as if these were our own actions and emotions, don’t we then mediate the affordances what other persons perceive?

Cannot we perceive relations as affordances for our actions?
I do not understand the difference of first- and secons order awareness, and why in first case we perceive affordances in the environment in relation to us, and in the second case we differentiate relations of ourselves and don’t see them as affordances. I think that if we differentiate relations we can also perceive these inter-relations as the affordances the environment evokes in response to our intended actions.

Reciprocal influences can be divided for analytical purposes:
– person-related factors: physical bodily attributes, perceptual learning, motors-skills, intentionality;
– immediate environmental context: socio-cultural processes

Affective and motivational qualities are intrinsic to affordances. Awareness of affordances typically is an interwining of knowing, feeling and acting.

This is an important claim if we want to consider mediated affordances as part of the picture. One thought relates again with mirror-neurons which are supposedly enabling us to be aware of and simulate both actions and emotions.

Knowing is something that relates with canonical, socio-culturally defined affordances. Ecological knowledge for Heft (2001) is socio-culturally defined meanings (affordances).

Heft names some interesting aspects in relation of the affordance perception.

Recognizing the prospectivity of perceiving.
Meaning can be found in perceptual experience.
The perceptual meanings that he affordances point to are fluid – features of the environment can possess alternative affordances at different times and contexts.
Affordance meaning is typically established by a feature’s relation to a broader environmental context.
Object’s canonical affordance must be based on a history of experiencing the culturally normative use(s) of an object in particular contexts.
Once an object’s canonical affordance is established, that meaning may seem to exist independently of any context.
Affordances can be seen as embedded in ongoing collective social activities.
The affordances that are available to be perceived by the individual over time reflect an interweaving of reciprocal, continuing, historical process.


The two other papers of this issue were of about more canonical affordance definitions and Chemero refers to these ideas in his paper.



  1. I never heard about the special issue of the journal, ty for commenting the papers, very useful!

    The paper about Affordances, dynamic experience, and the challenge of reification by Heft, H. is the one that probably offered the psychological approach to affordances I feel more confortable with. Still, it may be very interesting to push forward the concept that «Once an object’s canonical affordance is established, that meaning may seem to exist independently of any context». Especially, it would be very interesting to verify if potential affordances undergo selective social processes leading to standard affordances established on a cultural basis, that is, if social pressure apply as a ‘normalizing’ selective agent, so that «The affordances that are available to be perceived by the individual over time reflect an interweaving of reciprocal, continuing, historical process».

  2. Still, I totally agree with Chemero that affordances consist in relations between particular aspects of the animal and the situations, instead of being properties of the environment. And I am very intrigued by the definition of events as changes in the layout of affordances of the animal-environment system instead of changes in the physical surrounds of an animal (Chemero, What Events Are, Ecological Psychology 2000). I will definitely implement this definition of an event in my assessment of what a narrative-event actually could be.

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