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Gibson's Theory of Direct Perception

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Gibson's Theory of Direct Perception

The constructivist theory of perception posits that we make guesses about what we see not only based on the sensations we receive but also on our expectations and past knowledge. Learning and past experience are crucial for shaping the way we perceive the world.

Gibson proposed an alternate theory, according to which perception is innate rather than learnt. Humans evolved to make accurate judgements based solely on the sensory information we receive. Gibson observed that as we move, we receive rich information about depth and distance directly and with no inference about the visual cues required.

Gibson's Theory of Direct Perception, an eye in front of a head, StudySmarterPerception. flaticon.com

What are the theories of perception in psychology?

There are two major approaches to understanding perception in psychology.

One theory, the direct theory of perception proposed by Gibson (1966), posits that what we perceive is a direct representation of the world around us. Moreover, the information environment provides is sufficient to lead to perception directly.

Gregory's constructivist theory of perception argues that sensation provides ambiguous and incomplete information about the environment. Therefore, interpretation is necessary to create a mental image of the world around us. In the constructivist view, we don't perceive the world directly. What we perceive is our interpretation that our past experiences, beliefs, expectations, and emotions can influence.


Sensation refers to the detection of sensory data by our senses. For example, our auditory system detects acoustic waves and converts them into nerve impulses. Perception is the conscious experience of sensation (e.g. experience of hearing), which involves interpretation and inference according to constructivists.

Gibson's theory of direct perception

Let's start with an overview of the main points in Gibson's theory of perception.

  • Perception is a direct, bottom-up process. Perception doesn't require the use of past knowledge or the interpretation of sensory data.
  • Sensory data is rich and complex; it is sufficient to make accurate judgments about the environment.
  • Perception is an innate process that is a result of evolution.

Gibson's theory (1966) challenged the constructivist view; he proposed there is no need for interpretation or inference as sensory data is sufficient in itself.

Gibson argued that perception is a direct process. Direct, meaning sensations themselves are enough to create a complete representation of the world around us. Sensory data, like visual information, is complex and can provide us with information like depth, motion or distance.

Inference means making conclusions or guesses about what we perceive based on the sensory data we have. The constructivist approach proposes that perception is based on inference.

The influence of nature on perception

Direct perception was proposed to be innate rather than learnt. It likely evolved as a product of evolution. Direct perception allows animals to quickly and reliably respond to the threats in the environment and therefore benefits their survival. The animals that developed the ability to quickly process the information from the environment were, therefore, more likely to survive.

Bottom-up theory of perception

Gibson's theory proposes that perception is a bottom-up process. Bottom-up processing is data-driven and fully based on sensory information.

Sensory information (light) in the environment meets the retina; it is transformed into electrical impulses and processed in the visual cortex as a conscious experience of seeing.

This process is direct, the information travels only in one direction, and past experiences or interpretations are not required to make accurate judgments about the environment.

Gibson's Theory of Direct Perception, bottom-up processing, StudySmarterBottom-up processing, StudySmarter Originals, Alicja Blaszkiewicz

In contrast, the top-down theory of perception (constructivist approach) argues that our past experiences and expectations heavily influence perception. Previous knowledge is used to make guesses and interpret sensations that we experience.

Gibson's Theory of Direct Perception, top-down processing, StudySmarterTop-down processing, StudySmarter Originals, Alicja Blaszkiewicz

Example of Gibson's theory of direct perception

Now we will examine real-life examples of Gibson's theory.

Affordance

Gibson is considered to be a founder of ecological psychology. Ecological psychology proposes that perception should be studied in a natural environment instead of a lab and that perception and action are inherently connected. Our environment directly guides our behaviour by offering us opportunities to act. Gibson referred to these opportunities as affordances.

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

The idea of affordances is that we receive information about how we can act about it by looking at objects. According to Gibson, we can directly perceive affordances; we don't need any prior knowledge to decide how to act.

If we see a chair, we also perceive the affordances of a chair. For example, we can sit on a chair, stand on it or move it.

Motion parallax

Motion parallax is a visual, monocular depth cue. Think about how the objects in your visual field move when you are in motion. When we are moving, objects near appear to move faster in relation to us, while objects far away appear to move slower.

Motion parallax is a way for us to directly gain information about the distance of objects around us based on the sensory information we receive.

Gibson's Theory of Direct Perception, train, StudySmarterMotion parallax can be experienced during train travel, flaticon.com

You can experience motion parallax when looking outside of the window of a moving car or a train. You can notice buildings or trees in the distance move significantly slower than the trees and objects that are right next to the road.

If you look at objects very far away (like the moon), you might feel like they are not moving.

The fact that perception guides our actions can be used to make people slow down when driving. By gradually putting lines painted on roads closer and closer together, drivers can be made to think that they are speeding, which can cause them to slow down.

These changes to road markings promote safe driving, which is an example of a practical application of Gibson's theory.

Evaluation of direct theory of perception

Gibson's (1966) theory addresses some of the limitations of the constructivist approach, which undermined the direct role of sensory data. However, critics point out there are a few problems with this approach as well.

Strengths of the direct theory of perception

  • The theory rightfully points out that a large portion of perception is innate and doesn't require past experience. For example, infants intuitively show fear of rights when approaching a cliff, even if they haven't experienced falling off of a cliff before.
  • Sensory data can provide accurate motion and depth information, as exemplified by motion parallax.
  • Perception also occurs relatively fast; we can respond to the environment almost instantaneously, which the direct theory of perception better explains. The constructivist view of perception requires additional interpretation of information, which should take longer than direct perception.

Limitations of the direct theory of perception

  • One limitation of Gibson's theory is that it doesn't explain visual illusions, which demonstrates that sometimes sensory information is not sufficient for creating an accurate representation of what we perceive.

Some stimuli themselves (e.g. distorted images or sounds) don't make any sense to us. Still, after being primed with another stimulus we can suddenly make sense of them (e.g. hidden dalmatian dog optical illusion).

You may remember the famous blue vs white dress illusion that became viral in 2015. Some people perceived the same image of a dress as blue and black while others as white and gold, while the picture remained the same. Gibson's theory cannot explain this.

Gibson argued that illusions are artificial and often taken out of context, and that is why our perception of them is inaccurate. Our perception evolved to make sense of rich sensory stimuli embedded in even richer contexts. Natural illusions limit this argument. Natural illusions occur in the natural world, and despite the rich context they are embedded in.

An example of a natural illusion is the waterfall illusion. After observing water going down a waterfall for some time, if we shift our gaze to the rocks near the waterfall, we can perceive them moving upwards, in the opposite direction to the movement of water we were observing.

  • It is also unclear how affordances work. Some have argued that most affordances result from learning rather than innate knowledge.

  • It is hard to ignore instances in which we don't perceive everything in our environment directly. Especially in busy environments, we can focus on more important stimuli while ignoring others selectively.

Inattentional blindness is a phenomenon that occurs when we fail to notice something unexpected in our visual field because our attention was focused elsewhere. In one experiment, participants were told to watch a video of people passing a basketball between them and focus on counting how many times the ball was passed between people in white shirts but not black shirts.

During this task, half of the participants failed to notice a person dressed in a gorilla suit that showed up and thumped his chest in the middle of the screen (Simons & Chabris, 1999).

The cocktail party effect refers to our ability to filter particular information from background noise. When we are in a noisy environment like a party, we can still focus on a conversation we might be having and tune out the noise we are surrounded by. Similarly, we can detect words of personal importance from loud background noise, which occurs when we overhear our name being said in a conversation we weren't paying attention to.


Gibson's Theory of Direct Perception - Key takeaways

  • According to Gibson, perception is a direct process that doesn't require past knowledge or inference. Sensory data itself is rich and sufficient to allow us to make accurate judgements about our environment.
  • The direct theory of perception argues that perception is innate rather than learnt. Perception likely evolved to allow animals to respond to the environment quickly.
  • Gibson's theory proposes that perception is a bottom-up process. Bottom-up processing is data-driven and fully based on sensory information. Information only travels in one direction.
  • Affordances are the opportunities to act that the environment offers. They can be perceived directly.
  • Motion parallax is a monocular depth cue experienced during movement. Motion parallax tells us about the distance of objects in relation to us.
  • Gibson's theory rightfully points out that we can gain a lot of information and make accurate judgements based on sensory data, especially in natural environments. Moreover, perception is often instantaneous, supporting the direct theory of perception.
  • Gibson's theory doesn't explain visual illusions or selective perception. It is also unclear how affordances work precisely and whether or not they require previous knowledge.

Frequently Asked Questions about Gibson's Theory of Direct Perception

Gibson argued that perception is a direct, bottom-up process. Sensory data is rich and sufficient to create a complete representation of the environment without inference. 

The two main theories of perception are Gregory's constructivist theory of perception and Gibson's direct theory of perception.

An example of direct perception is the ability to perceive the relative distance of an object based on motion parallax.

Bottom-up theories propose that perception is based only on sensory information received from the environment. This process is one-directional; information flows from the environment to specific areas of our brain. Top-down processing is bidirectional. Perception doesn't only rely on sensory information but can also be influenced by prior knowledge or expectations.

Bottom-up processing is data-driven and fully based on sensory information. Sensory information is received from the environment, converted to electrical impulses and processed by specific brain areas. Information only travels in one direction.

Final Gibson's Theory of Direct Perception Quiz

Question

What is Gibson's theory of direct perception?

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Answer

According to Gibson, perception is a direct process that doesn't require past knowledge or inference. Sensory data itself is rich and sufficient to allow us to make accurate judgements about our environment. 

Show question

Question

What are the 2 theories of perception?

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Answer

The two main theories of perception are Gregory's constructivist theory of perception and Gibson's direct theory of perception.

Show question

Question

How does Gibson describe sensory data in his theory of perception?

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Answer

According to Gibson sensory data is by nature ambiguous and incomplete.

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Question

What is the difference between sensation and perception?

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Answer

Sensation refers to the detection of sensory data by our senses while perception is the conscious experience of sensation.

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Question

Which statement is true?

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Answer

Gibson argued that perception is a learnt process that relies on our previous knowledge and experience.

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Question

What is the role of inference in Gibson's theory of direct perception?

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Answer

Gibson's theory proposed that inference is not needed in the process of perception, as the sensory data is sufficient in itself to allow accurate perception.

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Question

Is direct perception the product of nature or nurture?

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Answer

Direct perception is thought to be a product of nature, it is innate and evolutionary adaptive.

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Question

What is bottom-up processing?

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Answer

Bottom-up processing is data-driven and fully based on sensory information. Sensory information is received from the environment, converted to electrical impulses and processed by specific brain areas. The information travels only in one direction and past knowledge is not required for making accurate judgements about the environment. 

Show question

Question

What is Gibson's Affordance theory?


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Answer

Gibson proposed that we can perceive affordances (opportunities to act) directly from sensory information. For example, when we see a chair we also perceive potential actions we can take in relation to it like sitting, standing on the chair or moving the chair.

Show question

Question

What is top-down processing?

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Answer

Top-down processing is bidirectional, perception doesn't only rely on sensory information but can also be influenced by prior knowledge or expectations. 

Show question

Question

What are affordances?

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Answer

Affordances are the possibilities for action offered by the environment.

Show question

Question

What is motion parallax?

Show answer

Answer

Motion parallax is a monocular depth cue. When we are moving objects that are near appear to move faster in relation to us, while objects that are further away appear to move slower.   

Show question

Question

How is the fact that perception guides action applied to make people drive slower?

Show answer

Answer

By gradually putting lines painted on roads closer and closer together drivers can be made to think that they are speeding, which can cause them to slow down. These changes to road markings promote safe driving.  

Show question

Question

What are the strengths of Gibson's theory of direct perception?

Show answer

Answer

  • A large portion of perception is innate and doesn't require past experience. 
  • Sensory data itself can be sufficient for providing accurate motion and depth information.
  • Perception occurs instantaneously. This is better explained by the direct theory of perception. 

Show question

Question

What are the limitations of Gibson's theory of perception?

Show answer

Answer

  • It doesn't explain visual illusions
  • It is unclear how affordances work
  • Sometimes we don't perceive everything in our environment directly e.g. inattentional blindness

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