The Trinity Reporter Fall 2003
Perceiving perception
Professor William Mace and the world of ecological psychology

by Jim H. Smith


Suppose it was your job to evaluate candidates applying to become fighter pilots. What do you imagine it takes to make a good fighter pilot? Nerves of steel? Lightning reflexes? Exceptional bravery? Just exactly what attributes would you look for? Answering that question was a matter of real significance to the Air Force during World War II. Lots of brave volunteers were willing to become military pilots. But which ones had what Tom Wolfe calls “the right stuff”? To answer that question, military officials turned to psychologists to help them explore a number of human dynamics. One of the psychologists engaged in this research—a young Cornell University professor named James J. Gibson—was something of a revolutionary. It was not the candidates’ emotional make-up that piqued his interest. It was their visual acuity. In the 1930s, he had published a study of automobile driving. And he began his aviation research in a similar fashion, studying how pilots took off and how they landed.

When it came to flying a fighter plane, Gibson knew, the ability to maneuver the plane decisively, to make split-second decisions, could mean the difference between life and death. As a tool for picking candidates most likely to succeed, standard vision tests were useless. Oh, they could tell whether potential pilots had healthy eyes. But what was really important, Gibson realized, was not so much 20-20 vision as the capacity to quickly process information about spatial relationships and what actually goes into that skill. Gibson filmed take-offs and landings. He talked with pilots about what they saw as they flew. He was particularly interested in the all-too-frequent phenomenon of claustrophobia and disorientation that overtook pilots when they flew into cloudbanks. The ground and the horizon, he soon understood, were critically important. Indeed, they were the essential construct against which pilots maneuvered their aircraft.

By the time Gibson’s findings were published, in 1946, his work had led him to think about spatial relationships in a much broader sense. It was, he began to realize, the essence of how nearly all people interact with, and learn from, the world around them. That realization was the nucleus of a new way of thinking called ecological psychology, and few have done more to advance that field than Trinity Professor William Mace.

Living between the ground and the sky

The ecological psychology view of the world is at once simple and profoundly complex. At its simplest, it pivots on the adage Mace employed when he wrote about Gibson’s landmark driving and flying studies in 1977: Ask not what’s inside your head, but what your head’s inside of.

“Typically, we’ve misframed the problem of space perception,” says Mace, who joined the Trinity faculty in 1971. “For thousands of years, the study of vision and space has been thought of as abstract, but Gibson understood that you need to step back from that notion and think about the structure of light before it gets to the eye.”

Mace articulates this perspective with a special authority. In the world of ecological psychology, he is a direct descendent of Gibson. The two met in 1974 when Mace taught a summer introduction to child psychology at Cornell. It was then, too, that he met Gibson’s wife, the renowned psychologist Eleanor Gibson, who developed the concept of the “visual cliff,” a tool used to study depth perception in infants. In her study, babies who were old enough to crawl were placed at the edge of a small drop-off covered by a sheet of glass. Most of the babies declined to crawl forward, which led Gibson and her collaborator, Richard Walk, to conclude that depth perception is not learned.

Perceptual learning, the Gibsons argued, was the essence of how humans come to understand the world around them. And it was done through a process called differentiation. It would be an understatement to suggest that the Gibsons directly influenced Mace’s view of psychology. When, in 1977, Mace wrote about James Gibson’s work, he started by focusing on the classic driving and flying studies. “The priority that these studies reflect,” he said, “and which seems to have been developing with increasing explicitness as Gibson’s ideas have developed, is to treat perception as a biologically adaptive activity first and as a study of ‘interesting phenomena’ much later—if at all.”

In the years after he met the Gibsons, Mace’s work turned increasingly toward the evolving field of ecological psychology. By 1981, he had published more than 10 papers on various aspects of perception. That was the year he co-founded the International Society for Ecological Psychology (ISEP).

The duality

How new is the field of ecological psychology? The event that propelled the ISEP into existence was the First International Conference on Event Perception, which was held at the University of Connecticut in the summer of 1981. No other conference like it had ever been held, nor was it organized with the idea of creating a series of conferences. But the event was so successful that Vanderbilt University Professor Joe Lapin offered to host a second conference, in 1983, at his school.

Meanwhile, other conference participants had been talking for several years about creating a scholarly journal. When a meeting to discuss such a publication was held at Trinity, in September 1981, Mace was one of the first to pay dues, and he became the vice president and secretary of the new organization. It would be several years yet before the new quarterly, Ecological Psychology, actually emerged. But since its debut, in February 1989, it has been published every three months, and Mace has served as its first and only editor.

Thus was born the ISEP and, in many respects, the field of ecological psychology. The 11 conferences since that seminal one at UConn, 22 years ago, have confirmed the organization’s international status, occurring in such far-flung locations as Sweden, Italy, Holland, British Columbia, France, and Scotland. The most recent, this summer, was at Griffith University in Australia.

The field of ecological psychology is still nascent, but given the range of fields to which it can be practically applied, it is almost certain to grow. It is instructive, for instance, to consider the ISEP’s most recent board of directors. In addition to Mace, they include David N. Lee, who is affiliated with Perception in Action Laboratories, part of the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh; Benoit Bardy, who is affiliated with the Division of Sport Sciences at the University of Paris; Bill Warren, of the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences at Brown University; and Carol Fowler of Haskins Laboratories, an independent research institute in New Haven that focuses on the biological bases of speech and language. It is arguable that few areas of intellectual inquiry more effectively represent the cross-disciplinary spirit of the liberal arts. Indeed, the society’s membership includes—in addition to psychologists—kinesiologists, artists, roboticists, human factors engineers, and philosophers.

“What is interesting about this field is that it places an emphasis on understanding how organisms function in the context of their environment,” says Jay Smart ’92, assistant professor of psychology at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and a former student of Mace. “This focus drives one to ask different questions than other perspectives would. The questions this approach yields often deal with goals and with how people can achieve those goals. The approach is novel in that it asks questions at the level of behavior rather than at the levels of cells, neurons, or organ systems. This allows for a natural applicability to real-world problems and issues. I see ecological psychology growing from a theory about perception to a theory about how we function in general. I think its appeal will be widespread, as many of the mechanisms and principles espoused in this approach can be applied across many academic fields, but in industrial and business settings, as well.”

Bruce Kay ’79, who now serves as assistant professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, puts it another way. “We never gain an understanding of how we perceive the world without taking the world into account,” he says. “It is hard for me to conceive of how we would ever design anything for people to use without considering that duality.” And considering the duality is precisely what William Mace has been doing for the last quarter of a century, as a professor, researcher, and editor. He’s been watching the sky, keeping an eye on the horizon, studying the intricate process by which we perceive, and thus shape, the world around us.

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