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ECOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY, 15(1), 29–36

Copyright © 2003, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Affordances Are Enough:


Reply to Chemero et al. (2003)

Thomas A. Stoffregen
Human Factors Research Laboratory
School of Kinesiology
University of Minnesota

Chemero, Klein, and Cordeiro (this issue) present an argument about the utility of a
concept of events within the ecological approach to perception and action. They de-
fine ecological events as changes in the layout of affordances, and they distinguish this
concept from earlier definitions of event, which they refer to as physical events. They
argue that changes in the layout of affordances should be perceived, that is, that their
perception is motivated by the ecological approach to perception and action. They
also argue that changes in the layout of affordances are perceived, and they offer an
experiment that supports the hypothesis that humans are sensitive to changes in the
layout of affordances. What they do not do, I argue, is offer any compelling reason
why event should be applied to changes in the layout of affordances. I also argue that
changes in the layout of affordances do not have a special ontological status that
might merit a unique name or constitute a category of perceivables that is logically
distinct from affordances.

Chemero, Klein, and Cordeiro (this issue) present arguments and data in response
to my earlier discussion of relations between affordance and event as within the
ecological approach to perception and action (Chemero, 2000; Stoffregen, 2000a,
2000b). Accordingly, it seems appropriate briefly to restate the position that I ar-
gued in these earlier articles.

AFFORDANCES CONTRASTED WITH EVENTS

I set out to more fully understand the concept of affordance by comparing it with the
concept of event (Stoffregen, 2000a). I chose this comparison because there are

Requests for reprints should be sent to Thomas A. Stoffregen, Director, Human Factors Research
Laboratory, School of Kinesiology, University of Minnesota, 1901 Fourth Street SE, Minneapolis,
MN 55414. E-mail: tas@umn.edu
30 STOFFREGEN

well-established literatures on each of these concepts within the ecological approach


and because it seemed to me that these literatures had evolved and were continuing
to evolve more or less independently. That is, it seemed to me that the concept of
affordance does not inform research on event perception and that the concept of
event does not inform research on the perception of affordances. This gave me the
impression that within the ecological community affordances and events are seen as
distinct, independent categories of perceivables. Based on the published literature, I
attempted to derive definitions of event and affordance and then to compare these
definitions to determine whether in fact the terms refer to distinct concepts.
A reading of the literature on event perception suggested that events are under-
stood as changes in the physical world. Classical definitions (there is not yet a sin-
gle, rigorous definition that is widely accepted; Stoffregen, 2000b) are perceiver
neutral, that is, events are defined without reference to the perceiver or its capabil-
ities. Examples include a rolling ball (Shaw, Flascher, & Mace, 1996), a swinging
pendulum (Pittenger, 1990), and the movement of water (Bingham, Schmidt, &
Rosenblum, 1995). The movement of animals often is considered to be an event.
Animate events are defined in terms of animals, but they are not defined with re-
spect to the animal that perceives the events. For example, studies of locomotor ki-
nematics define the event of animate locomotion with respect to the animal that is
walking but not with respect to another animal that perceives the walking (e.g.,
Bingham, 1993).1
I suggested that events differ qualitatively from affordances for two reasons:
first, because affordances are necessarily defined with respect to an animal (i.e.,
affordances are properties of the animal–environment system), whereas events
may or may not be defined with respect to an animal (Stoffregen, 2000a). Second,
events are things (e.g., see Bingham, 2000), whereas affordances are properties of
things. I argued that the animal–environment system is a thing and that af-
fordances are among the properties of that thing (Stoffregen, 2000a). Many events
occur within animal–environment systems. Events that occur within animal–envi-
ronment systems may have affordances (i.e., affordances may be properties of these
events). However, many events are not parts of animal–environment systems and
for this reason cannot have affordances.
Having concluded that events and affordances differ, I asked whether the eco-
logical approach to perception and action can motivate the perception of both or
of only one (Stoffregen, 2000a). I argued that, with its emphasis on accurate per-
ception and adaptive action, the ecological approach clearly motivates the percep-
tion of affordances, which have consequences for behavior (Stoffregen, 2000a).
Because events (as they are treated in the literature) often do not refer to animals,

1This differs from the ambient information that enables the perception of events; such information

must be defined with respect to the observing animal at least in the sense of referring to the point of ob-
servation. However, although the information is defined with respect to the observer, the event itself
typically is not (Stoffregen, 2000a, 2000b).
AFFORDANCES ARE ENOUGH 31

they often do not have consequences for behavior. For this reason I suggested that
there is not a clear motivation within the ecological approach for the perception of
events (Stoffregen, 2000a).
Chemero et al. (this issue) “take it to be a fact” (p. 27) that events are perceived.
At the same time, they accept Stoffregen’s (2000a, 2000b) argument that the eco-
logical approach cannot motivate the perception of events as classically defined.
This led Chemero (2000) to propose a new definition of events, not as animal-neu-
tral spatiotemporal things but as changes in the layout of affordances. In the article
in this issue, Chemero et al. offer (a) an experiment on the perception of changes in
the layout of affordances, and (b) additional arguments in favor of Chemero’s
novel definition of event as a change in the layout of affordances.

AN EMPIRICAL DEMONSTRATION

Chemero et al. (this issue) report an experiment in which observers watched as a


ground surface moved away from them, creating an expanding gap in the surface of
support. At the beginning of each trial, the gap was small enough that the partici-
pant could step across it, but as the surface moved away the gap widened to the
point where the participant could no longer step across it. Participants were asked
to indicate the moment at which the gap became too wide to cross. The data
revealed a strong correlation between judgments of when the gap became un-
crossable and judgments (in a separate condition) of the crossability of static gaps.
Chemero et al. interpret this finding as evidence that participants could perceive
the disappearance of the affordance for gap crossing.
I accept the empirical study presented by Chemero et al. (this issue), and I agree
that it suggests that people can perceive changes in the layout of affordances. How-
ever, with respect to the definition of event or to the perception of changes in the
layout of affordances, it does not contribute anything beyond what Mark (1987;
Mark, Balliet, Craver, Douglas, & Fox,1990) established. The study of Chemero et
al. simply confirms that people can perceive changes in the layout of affordances.

INCOMPATIBLE DEFINITIONS OF EVENT

It seems to me that the essential issues are not empirical, but conceptual. As I did
earlier (Stoffregen, 2000b), I agree with Chemero (2000) that perceivers should
detect changes in the layout of affordances. What I continue to disagree about is
whether there is anything to be gained by using the term event to refer to changes in
the layout of affordances. The argument of Chemero et al. (this issue) is contained
in the following quotation:

We offer the following as an argument for applying the word event to changes in the
layout of affordances. Suppose Stoffregen’s (2000a) arguments do effectively prob-
32 STOFFREGEN

lematize event perception research that takes events to be changes in physical magni-
tudes in the environment. Given that, applying the word event to changes in the lay-
out of affordances saves ecological psychology from a worrisome fate. We submit that
any theory that hopes to explain human behavior must have a theory of event percep-
tion. If one understands events as changes in physical magnitudes, ecological psy-
chology has no way to account for the fact (and we take it to be a fact) that humans
perceive events. Conceiving of events as changes in the layout of affordances gives
ecological psychologists the ability to do empirical work on event perception with a
good conscience. (pp. 26–27)

Chemero et al. (this issue) concentrate on their attempt to find a meaning for
event that is compatible with the idea that perceivers are sensitive primarily (per-
haps exclusively) to affordances. One problem with this effort is that it does not
spell out the implications of their analysis for the existing literature on event per-
ception. Chemero et al. suggest that changes in the layout of affordances constitute
“ecological events,” and that these differ from “action-neutral” changes that they re-
fer to as “physical events” (p. 20). Chemero et al. imply that the mainstream litera-
ture on event perception fits within the latter term; that is, most studies of event
perception deal with the perception of physical events. In this sense, Chemero et
al. appear to agree with my argument (Stoffregen, 2000a, 2000b) that there is not a
clear motivation within the ecological approach for the perception of events as
classically conceived. Given this, it is difficult to understand in what sense their ap-
proach saves the ecological approach from a worrisome fate.

WHAT TYPES OF THINGS ARE PERCEIVED?

A second problem with the definition proposed by Chemero et al. (this issue) con-
cerns the types of things that are perceived. Chemero et al. discuss changes in the
layout of affordances as if these entities constitute a category of perceivables that is
logically distinct from the category of affordances (e.g., their statement that “any
theory that hopes to explain human behavior must have a theory of event percep-
tion”; p. 27). Implicitly, Chemero et al. appear to set up affordances as one category
of perceivables and changes in the layout of affordances as another distinct cate-
gory of perceivables. This raises the question of whether changes in the layout of
affordances really are distinct from affordances per se. Chemero et al. appear to
take for granted that such a difference exists. However, I believe that such a differ-
ence cannot be taken for granted. More than this, I believe that the difference ac-
tually does not exist.

Static and Dynamic Affordances


Chemero et al. (this issue) appear to conceive of affordances only as properties of
static states (e.g., the current length of a leg or the current width of a gap), but
AFFORDANCES ARE ENOUGH 33

affordances are also (and separately) properties of events in the animal–environ-


ment system (a point I made earlier; Stoffregen, 2000b). States of the world have
affordances; for example, a fruit that is ripe affords eating, whereas a fruit that has
rotted does not. However, events in the animal–environment system can also have
affordances.
Consider a volcanic eruption. The end points of the eruption each have
affordances as static states. For example, before the eruption there may be till-
able soil that affords agriculture, whereas after the eruption the soil may be cov-
ered with hardened lava such that agriculture is no longer afforded. Similarly,
houses that afforded domicile before the eruption may be destroyed by lava
flows, and therefore, they no longer afford domicile after the eruption. These dif-
ferences in the affordances of the end points were caused by the eruption, and
therefore, we can say that the eruption changed the layout of affordances. Al-
though this certainly is true, it is also true that the eruption per se has
affordances and that many of these affordances differ from the affordances of the
end points. For example, the eruption affords being burned by flowing lava, being
covered by falling ash, and being engulfed in a cloud of smoke and steam, but
none of these is afforded before or after the eruption. The eruption changes the
layout of affordances, but the eruption also has its own affordances. Animals
should be sensitive to the “before and after” affordances, but also to the “during”
affordances.
As a very different example, consider walking. Walking moves us from place to
place. The affordances of one place often differ from the affordances of another
place. Thus, by moving a person from one place to another, walking changes the
layout of affordances for the walker. However, the act of walking has affordances of
its own, affordances that do not exist in either of the end points. Walking affords
getting lost, walking affords exploration of novel terrain, and it affords many other
things that are not afforded to a person standing at either the beginning or end of
the walk. The affordances of walking often differ from the affordances of being at
the beginning or end points of a walk, but the affordances of walking are neverthe-
less affordances.
It seems to me that changes in the layout of affordances are neither more nor
less than events in the animal–environment system (what Chemero et al., this is-
sue, would describe as ecological events). States of the animal–environment sys-
tem have affordances (e.g., Mark, 1987; Stoffregen, Gorday, Sheng, & Flynn,
1999; Warren, 1984), but events in the animal–environment system also have
affordances (e.g., Mark et al., 1997; Oudejans, Michaels, Bakker, & Dolne, 1996;
Stoffregen, 2000b). The animal may, at its discretion, attend to the affordances of
states or the affordances of events (or both simultaneously). There is no reason to
suppose that the affordances of events in the animal–environment system consti-
tute a category of perceivables that differs from the affordances of states of the ani-
mal–environment system. Thus, there does not appear to be any reason to apply
event (or any other term) to events in the animal–environment system.
34 STOFFREGEN

Nested Affordances
Chemero et al. (this issue) argue that although animals need to perceive afford-
ances, they also need to perceive changes in the layout of affordances. This cer-
tainly is true, but it does not imply that affordances and changes in the layout of
affordances are different entities. In part this is because whether one considers
something to be an affordance or a change in the layout of affordances depends
on the level of analysis. For a given animal in a given situation there are an un-
limited number of affordances. These affordances exist in a nested structure
(Reed, 1996; Vicente & Rasmussen, 1990). The nesting involves levels of both
time and space (and levels of space–time). Changes in the layout of affordances
(i.e., events in the animal–environment system) are part of the nesting of
affordances within levels. What constitutes a change in the layout of affordances
at one level often constitutes a distinct affordance at another level. Thus,
whether something is an affordance or a change in the layout of affordances of-
ten depends on the level of analysis.
Baseball offers a good example of the multiplicity and multilayered nature of
affordances. Consider pitching. The pitch has end points (i.e., before the pitch
and after the pitch), and these end points have distinctive affordances. For ex-
ample, before the pitch, when the pitcher still holds the ball, a pickoff attempt
may be afforded (if there is a base runner). After the pitch, when the catcher
holds the ball (i.e., if the batter has not hit it, and the pitch is not wild),
affordances include handing the ball to the umpire in exchange for a new one,
throwing to a base to cut down a steal attempt, and so on. The pitch itself as an
event in the game has its own affordances, such as being called a ball or strike,
that do not exist when the ball is held by either the pitcher or the catcher.
Above and beyond these affordances there are additional affordances that exist
because individual pitches are embedded in larger contexts within the game.
Each pitch occurs within the sequence of pitches that is thrown to a given batter,
and the sequence has affordances that do not inhere in individual pitches (e.g., a
pitcher may elect to alternate pitches on the inside and outside parts of the plate
rather than repeatedly throwing to only one side). In addition, individual pitches
are part of the larger sequence of pitches that constitutes an inning (e.g., the
pitches that are thrown to a given batter often are influenced by the skill of the
person who will bat next) and part of the larger sequence of pitches over the se-
quence of innings (e.g., pitchers often adjust their pitches as they become fa-
tigued in the late innings). Thus, each pitch has affordances that exist at four
levels (at least): the level of the individual pitch, the level of the sequence of
pitches for this batter, the level of the sequence of pitches for this inning, and the
level of the sequence of pitches for this game. Each pitch changes the layout of
affordances, but the layout of affordances is also changed by the group of pitches
thrown to each batter, by the groups of pitches thrown in each inning, and by the
aggregate sequence of pitches thrown over the course of the game. Events in the
AFFORDANCES ARE ENOUGH 35

animal–environment system are nested, and because affordances are properties


of events in the animal–environment system, the affordances that inhere in the
animal–environment system are also nested. The affordances can be perceived,
exploited, and controlled at any level of this nested structure (or at multiple lev-
els simultaneously). No individual level in this nesting has any special or unique
status.
Changes in the layout of affordances also have affordances of their own. Thus,
changes in the layout of affordances have no special meaning or status in ecological
ontology and accordingly no need for a unique name such as event. Indeed, adop-
tion of a unique name might obscure the central feature of nesting by nominating
one level of affordances as being somehow special.
In general, multiple levels of affordances exist at any given point in space–time
and have equal reality. The perceiver can choose to seek out information about any
affordance at any level and whether it is static or dynamic (or slow or fast, which is
a better distinction). There does not appear to be any reason to single out some
particular level in the ontology and claim that it constitutes a separate category of
perceivables.

CONCLUSIONS

Chemero et al. (this issue) and I appear to agree that there is no motivation within
the ecological approach for the perception of events when events are conceived as
being animal-neutral. That is, we appear to agree that the ecological approach does
not motivate the perception of what Chemero et al. refer to as physical events. We
agree that affordances are perceived and that the perception of affordances is moti-
vated by the ecological approach. Finally, we agree that perceivers should and do
perceive changes in the layout of affordances. We disagree about whether the term
event should be used to refer to changes in the layout of affordances.
Ultimately, Chermero et al. (this issue) provide no new argument for why the
term event should be applied to changes in the layout of affordances. By noting the
nested structure of affordances (nested in space and time), I have argued that
changes in the layout of affordances have no special status in the ontology of the
ecological approach to perception and action and therefore do not constitute a dis-
tinct category of perceivables. For this reason, changes in the layout of affordances
do not need a special name (such as event).
Chemero et al. (this issue) “take it to be a fact” (p. 27) that events are perceived,
but it is difficult to give credence to this view while there is such wide disagreement
about what events are (e.g., Bingham, 2000; Chemero et al., this issue; Hecht,
2000; Stoffregen, 2000b, pp. 101–102). A subtext of the Chemero et al. argument
seems to be that there is something special about event, something that is not em-
bodied in the concept of affordances, something that needs to be recognized and
named within the ecological approach. If this is their argument, then it should be
36 STOFFREGEN

made explicitly. In particular, Chemero et al. should indicate what is missing from
the concept of affordances (in terms of perceivables, aspects of the animal–envi-
ronment interaction, and so on) that would motivate the creation or retention of a
category of perceivables that is distinct from affordances. My argument is that
there is no additional category of perceivables; that is, I argue that the category of
affordances includes everything that is perceived.

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