Physical Embeddedness

All mental processes invariably take place within a biological body that moves and acts in a physical environment. The acknowledgment of this fact lies at the heart of recent approaches to understanding cognition that emphasize its embodied and situated nature. Rather than thinking of the environment as merely the background in which an individual thinks and acts, we instead seek to understand how the individual and the environment constitute an inseparable, unitary system. James Gibson’s ecological concept of an environment’s affordances, which are defined as the relational, behavioral opportunities that an environment offers a particular perceiver, captures this idea. For example, a chair may afford sitting to an average-sized human, but it also affords climbing, reclining, or hiding-under for a cat. Perceivers must be attuned to this action-oriented information because it is through an awareness of the environment’s possibilities that organisms are actually able to survive within them.

sociopetal and sociofugal layoutThese principles can be applied not just to how we think about particular objects, but also to entire physical settings. As an illustration, the office layouts shown here offer quite different behavioral opportunities to the people within them. One is designed to afford social interaction, whereas the other is designed to afford individual seclusion. My research seeks to understand how people’s experience and awareness of these affordances depends on their relative fit within that environment. Occupants may differ in terms of their social motivations (e.g., being recently rejected), or in terms of their personality (e.g., being high in extraversion or agreeableness), or in terms of their relationship with the other occupants (e.g., being friends or enemies). These factors have the potential to strongly influence people’s impressions of these environments, in terms of preference, judgments of space and distance, and the capacity to detect behavioral opportunities. For example, my lab is currently investigating how judgments of religious worship spaces are guided by particular attributes of congregants (e.g., motivations for worship, attachment to God) that make them better or worse suited for environments that differ in terms of visual coherence, complexity, and mystery. Despite their seemingly ethereal nature, spiritual experiences and rituals are events necessarily embedded within actual environments that can either inhibit or facilitate the actions and emotions associated with worship.

Beyond simply being the target of perception, the physical world also plays an active role in guiding and constraining the behaviors that we can engage in. Moreover, how well we perform a particular behavior is also influenced by the specific physical environment that we are in. The phenomenon of home advantage, the tendency for residents to disproportionately prevail during competition over visitors, is perhaps the best demonstration of this fact, having been observed across a wide variety of both tasks and species. However, the cause of this effect remains an open question. My lab has begun testing the proposal that these performance differences are the result of more efficient perceptual activity on the part of residents, who benefit from being in an ambient array of information that is both highly familiar and highly self-associative. These factors aid in the detection of a broader range of behavioral opportunities.

social affordancesThis theory can also be applied to the group level. Cultural norms often emerge regarding which objects in the physical world are the de facto territory of particular social groups. For example, the two objects on the right are very similar in terms of their structural (e.g., size, shape) and functional (e.g., graspable, lift-able) properties, but they have quite different social associations in terms of who can and who should utilize their affordances. We are now assessing the behavioral implications of these associations by testing how social attitudes (e.g., sexism) influence a perceiver’s impressions of these types of objects, as well as whether individuals show a reduced ability to detect the behavioral opportunities afforded by objects associated with out-groups.