The Tension Between the Psychological and Ecological Sciences: Making Psychology More Ecological

  • Harry HeftEmail author
Part of the History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences book series (HPTL, volume 4)


In spite of the fact that psychology has been committed to an evolutionary framework for over a century, ecological approaches to psychology, first proposed several decades ago, continue to be marginalized within the discipline. Considering the shared lineage of evolutionary and ecological thinking, this situation seems paradoxical, and, indeed, it reflects an underlying tension between the psychological and ecological sciences. The basis for this tension can be traced historically to psychology’s early embrace of Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary view of environment-mind correspondence, which is incompatible with the dynamic, relational character of ecosystems thinking. In this respect, William James criticized Spencer for failing to recognize the active and selective character of thought and action, which for James, is the hallmark of psychological processes. From this starting point, James’s psychology and philosophy of radical empiricism offers a relational and dynamic approach that is more in keeping with ecological thinking, particularly as these ideas were extended by James’s student, E. B. Holt, in his treatment of purposive, situated behavior. James Gibson’s ecological approach to perceiving builds, in part, on these bodies of work, and his concept of affordances locates meaning in perceiver-environment relations, that is, in situated action. Further, the ecological approach of Roger Barker, with its concept of behavior setting, offers an opportunity to bring sociocultural processes to bear on situated action. It is seen that socially normative actions are situated in behavior settings and have the character of being both regulated and flexible, dual properties that are examined through a consideration of Hayek’s analysis of purposive action. Collectively, these contributions advance an approach to psychology that is coordinative with the perspective of the ecological sciences.


Situate Action Behavior Setting Ecological Approach Action Tendency Sociocultural Context 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am very grateful to Jonathan Barker and to the editors of this volume for their helpful comments on drafts of this chapter. I also thank Rob Wozniak for helpful conversations on nineteenth-century psychology.


  1. Barker, Roger G. 1968. Ecological psychology: Concepts and methods for studying the environment of human behavior. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Barker, Roger G. 1978. Habitats, environments, and human behavior. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  3. Barker, Roger G., and Herbert F. Wright. 1955. Midwest and its children: The psychological ecology of an American town. Hamden: Archon Books.Google Scholar
  4. Barker, Roger G., and Paul V. Gump. 1964. Big school, small school: High school size and student behavior. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Barker, Roger G., and Phil Schoggen. 1973. Qualities of community life: Methods of measuring environment and behavior applied to an American and an English town. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  6. Beck, Naomi. 2009. In search of the proper scientific approach: Hayek’s views on biology, methodology, and the nature of economics. Science in Context 22: 567–585.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brewer, William F. 1999. Schemata. In The MIT encyclopedia of the cognitive sciences, ed. Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil, 729–730. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bronfenbrenner, Urie. 1979. The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Brunswik, Egon. 1955. Representative design and probabilistic theory in functional psychology. Psychological Review 62: 193–217. (Reprinted in The essential Brunswik, eds. Kenneth R. Hammond and Thomas R. Stewart, 135–156. New York: Oxford University Press.)Google Scholar
  10. Butterworth, G., E. Verweij, and B. Hopkins. 1997. The development of prehension in infants: Halverson revisited. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 15: 223–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Clark, Andy. 1998. Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  12. Crosby, Donald A., and Wayne Viney. 1993. Toward a psychology that is radically empirical: Recapturing the vision of William James. In Reinterpreting the legacy of William James, ed. Margaret E. Donnelly, 101–111. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Damasio, Antonio. 1999. The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. Orlando: Harcourt Press.Google Scholar
  14. Dewey, John. 1896. The reflex arc concept in psychology. Psychological Review 3: 357–370. (Reprinted in The philosophy of John Dewey, ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)Google Scholar
  15. Dewey, John. 1920. Reconstruction in philosophy. New York: Henry Holt.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Donald, Merlin. 2001. A mind so rare: The evolution of human consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  17. Gibson, James J. 1960. The concept of the stimulus in psychology. American Psychologist 16: 694–703.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gibson, James J. 1966. The senses considered as perceptual systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  19. Gibson, James J. 1979. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  20. Gibson, Eleanor J., and Anne D. Pick. 2000. An ecological approach to perceptual learning and development. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Grene, Marjorie. 1974. The knower and the known. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  22. Hayek, Friedrich August. 1952. The sensory order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  23. Hayek, Friedrich August. 1967. Rules, perception, and intelligibility. In Studies in philosophy, politics, and economics, ed. Friedrich August Hayek, 43–65. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  24. Hayek, Friedrich August. 1969. The primacy of the abstract. In Beyond reductionism: New perspectives in the life sciences, ed. Arthur Koestler and John Raymond Smythies, 309–323. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  25. Heft, Harry. 1989. Affordances and the body: An intentional analysis of Gibson’s ecological approach to visual perception. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 19: 1–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Heft, Harry. 1990. Perceiving affordances in context: A reply to Chow. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 20: 277–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Heft, Harry. 2001. Ecological psychology in context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the legacy of William James’s radical empiricism. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  28. Heft, Harry. 2007. The social constitution of perceiver-environment reciprocity. Ecological Psychology 19: 85–105.Google Scholar
  29. Heft, Harry and Michael Richardson. In press. Ecological psychology. In Oxford bibliographies in psychology, ed. Dana S. Dunn. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Heidbreder, Edna. 1933. Seven psychologies. New York: Appleton-Century.Google Scholar
  31. Hergenhan, Baldwin Ross. 1988. An introduction to the history of psychology, 6th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth.Google Scholar
  32. Herrman, Heinz. 1998. From biology to sociopolitics: Conceptual continuity in complex systems. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Holt, Edwin Bissell. 1915. The Freudian wish and its place in ethics. New York: Henry Holt.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Holt, Edwin Bissell. 1931. Animal drive and the learning process: An essay toward radical empiricism, vol. 1. New York: Henry Holt.Google Scholar
  35. James, William. 1878. Remarks on Spencer’s definition of mind as correspondence. Journal of Speculative Philosophy 12: 1–18.Google Scholar
  36. James, William. [1890] 1981. The principles of psychology, 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  37. James, William. 1904. Does consciousness exist? Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 1: 477–491.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. James, William. 1905. The place of affectional facts in a world of pure experience. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 2: 281–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. James, William. [1912] 1976. Essays in radical empiricism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Johnson, Mark. 2007. The meaning of the body: Aesthetics of human understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kelso, J.A. Scott. 1995. Dynamic patterns: The self-organization of brain and behavior. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  42. Leahey, Thomas Hardy. 2000. A history of psychology: Main currents in psychological thought, 5th ed. New York: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  43. Leudar, Ivan, and Alan Costall. 1996. Situating action IV: Planning as situated action. Ecological Psychology 8: 153–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Lewin, Kurt. 1943. Psychological ecology. (Reprinted in Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers, ed. Dorwin Cartwright. New York: Harper.)Google Scholar
  45. Mandler, George. 2007. A history of modern experimental psychology: From James and Wundt to cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  46. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1963. The phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  47. Pearce, Trevor. 2010. From ‘circumstances’ to ‘environment’: Herbert Spencer and the origins of the idea of organism-environment interaction. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43: 241–252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Perry, Ralph Barton. 1935. The thought and character of William James. 2 vols. Boston: Little Brown.Google Scholar
  49. Putnam, Hilary. 1999. The threefold cord: Mind, body, and world. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Reed, Edward S. 1995. Encountering the world: Toward an ecological psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Richards, Robert J. 1980. Wundt’s early theories of unconscious inference and cognitive evolution in their relation to Darwinian biopsychology. In Wundt studies, ed. Wolfgang G. Bringmann and Ryan D. Tweney, 42–70. Toronto: Hogrefe.Google Scholar
  52. Richards, Robert J. 1987. Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  53. Richards, Robert J. 2008. The tragic sense of life: Ernst Haeckel and the struggle over evolutionary thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Rochat, Philippe, and Stefan J. Senders. 1991. Active touch in infancy: Action systems in development. In Newborn attention, ed. Michael J. Weiss and Philip R. Zelazo, 412–442. Norwood: Ablex.Google Scholar
  55. Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Schank, Roger C. 1999. Dynamic memory revisited. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Schank, Roger C., and Robert P. Abelson. 1977. Scripts, plans, goals, and understanding. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  58. Schoggen, Phil. 1989. Behavior settings: A revision and extension of Roger G. Barker’s ecological psychology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Spencer, Herbert. 1855. The principles of psychology. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Suchman, Lucy A. 1987. Plans and situated action: The problem of human-machine communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  61. Viney, Wayne. 1989. The cyclops and the twelve-eyed toad: William James and the unity-disunity problem in psychology. American Psychologist 44: 1261–1265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. von Hofsten, Claes. 1991. Structuring of early reaching movements: A longitudinal study. Journal of Motor Behavior 23: 280–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Warren, William H. 1984. Perceiving affordances: Visual guidance of stair climbing. Journal of Experimental Psychology (Human Perception and Performance) 10: 683–703.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Watson, John B. 1913. Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review 20: 158–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Weimer, Walter B. 1982. Hayek’s approach to the problems of complex phenomena: An introduction to the theoretical psychology of the sensory order. In Cognition and the symbolic processes, vol. 2, ed. Walter B. Weimer and David Stuart Palermo, 241–286. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  66. Wicker, Allan W. 1987. Behavior settings reconsidered: Temporal stages, resources, internal dynamics, context. In Handbook of environmental psychology, vol. 1, ed. Daniel Stokols and Irwin Altman, 613–654. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  67. Young, Robert M. 1970. Mind, brain, and adaptation in the nineteenth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyDenison UniversityGranvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations