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The Ecological approach to Perception and Action

The ecological approach to perception and action, in the tradition of the late James J. Gibson, sees psychology as continuous with the natural sciences. Just as the behaviors of natural, nonliving systems at the very large and very small scales are approachable in terms of very general principles so, too, are the behaviors of living systems at the intermediate ecological scale, the scale at which animals and their environments are defined. Where the more orthodox strategy in cognitive science is to appeal to special mental processes to impose order and regularity on perception and action, the ecological approach seeks to expose the laws that underlie these capabilities. Proponents do not aim to reduce the phenomena of perception and action to known physical phenomena but to share with the natural sciences the law-based strategy of explanation. The task of identifying general principles at the ecological scale poses new and exciting challenges to be met by the development of novel tactics within an inter-disciplinary framework. The program in Ecological Psychology at the University of Connecticut exploits such a framework. Some special features of our program are described in what follows. Applicants who would like to tour the facilities and talk to students and faculty are encouraged to arrange a visit.

The Connecticut Tradition

For over 30 years, students of ecological psychology at the University of Connecticut have received training from leading proponents of the approach. These have included Robert Shaw (now Emeritus), Michael Turvey (Emeritus in name but not in deed), Claudia Carello, and Claire Michaels. Graduates of the program are now themselves at the vanguard of ecological science at major universities such as Arizona State, Brown, California-Riverside, Cincinnati, Clemson, Indiana, Ohio State, and Northeastern as well as at independent research facilities such as Haskins Laboratories and the National Defense Institute. One third of the Consulting Editors for the journal Ecological Psychology are graduates of the program at the University of Connecticut as are a number of the Consulting Editors of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. The semiannual International Conference on Perception and Action started here in 1981 and has since been hosted at several other sites within the U.S. as well as in Sweden, Italy, Holland, France, Scotland, Canada, Australia. and Japan. Meanwhile, the Ecological Program at the University of Connecticut has continued to grow. In 1987, the Board of Trustees established the Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action (the focal laboratories are described in the Research Labs section). CESPA provides an organizational structure that allows unparalleled integration of research across specialties, with extensive collaboration among faculty and students. With 10 Faculty and many associated Fellows (including specialists in optics, acoustics, haptics, movement, physical therapy, nonlinear dynamics, development, social psychology, ethology, and language), the program provides a breadth of training in ecological psychology that is unmatched anywhere. Students in Ecological Psychology at the University of Connecticut will confront conceptual and methodological topics that are at the cutting edge of cognitive science in a program that has long led the way in the development of many of those same topics.