Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Can we Really Afford it? (Part 2 of 2)

In this second post - as was promised last week - I will present some concerns for the ecological approach (EA) to social perception that was advanced in the previous instalment in this series. 

Herein, I will suggest that, though the concept of affordances does find application in the area of social perception (including facial perception), it should be applied judiciously, and if a truly comprehensive ecological account of social perception is to be developed it will have to be expanded to include some of the conceptualisations outlined below. 

The most obvious problem with the EA, is that unlike with the perception of a chair, or a table, the aim of an interaction when there is more than one agent is not simply to co-ordinate ones intentions with the environment - in the same manner one coordinates the intention to sit down with the chair - rather, intentions must be somehow negotiated between agents and within a shared environment.

As McGann (2014) notes “Whether another agent is an obstacle or resource, impediment, or aid to a given agent’s intentions is often malleable, due to the adaptive responsiveness of both agents to each other”. In other words, the perception of another individual does not simply afford a particular course of action; for an animal, or a person, has the potential to engage a great variety of activites, many of which will display similar or overlapping properties in the structure of ambient light reflecting of their surfaces. Thus, it is suggested that the necessities of interpersonal engagement cannot be accounted for solely with the kind of direct ecological perception advocated in the previous post i.e. by relying solely on the perception of affordances. The critique might be stated quite simply that, although affordances are necessary for a comprehensive conceptual model of social perception, they are not sufficient.

In an effort to rectify this discrepancy, and move towards an account that is sufficient, a couple of notions are promoted; the first is what is sometimes referred to as ‘deep enculturation’ (Donald, 2001); the second is the idea of the ‘field of promoted action’ (Reed, 1993).

Deep enculturation is the idea that along the development of the organism a complicated web of standardised actions is continually being shaped, which ultimately allows for evermore intricate co-ordinations within the particular culture that does the shaping. In other words, we form particular habits of evaluation and interaction that, as we grow, facilitate more and more complex interactions with our surrounds. 

The field of promoted action, entails the recognition that certain societies evoke certain behaviours more often, and in doing so shape habitual responses and capabilities of the individuals within that society. Thus, stable patterns of action emerge, and the possibilities open to an individual in any particular instance have been restrained to within a reliable range. Often such fields of promoted action depend upon the careful design and organisation of the physical environment (Reed, 1996). These carefully configured environments are what we Barker called ‘behaviour settings’ (1968). Such behaviour settings can be anything from a sand pit to a stadium, and everything in between (Heft, 2007). 

A behaviour setting might simply be stated as physical environment that gives rise to a particular set of patterns of behaviour. We spend great deals of our lives in such settings, and such settings are often designed to support the co-ordination of people in a particular joint activity, whatever it may be.

Why this becomes relevant to the notion of social perception is that one will undoubtably be perceived not only according to particular facial attributes, but according to those attributes within a particular behavioural setting. For instance, someone could look me in the eye with an aggressive glare and jester for me to approach them, however, if it were in the martial arts gym in the middle of a sparing session, what my perception of the particular facial attributes affords would be quite a different experience than if it were in at a nightclub.

Thus, it does not suffice to say that any particular configuration of interdependent facial attributes affords a particular response (what most of the evidence aims to demonstrate in the previous post), for any such responses will also be contingent on a history of deep enculturation, the present behaviour setting that biases a particular field of promoted action within the interaction, and an individuals own particular attunements. 

One more concern for an ecological account of social perception is in taking on board the enactive concept of participatory sense-making (PSM). PSM conceptualises the fact that certain social interactions take on something of a life of their own, wherein the social interaction is more than the sum of its parts. The interaction itself become autonomous whereby the social dynamic is an emergent one that works to both facilitate and constrain the activities of the individuals interacting. Often in such circumstance the interacting individuals may find themselves interacting with each other despite their own intentions, thus the interaction itself can be seen as a whole, determining certain outcomes for its constituent parts i.e. the participants. 

Within interactions properly described as instances of PSM the concept of social perception, although still vitally important, is obviously not so simple as the perception of affordances according to particular abilities; rather any behaviours or activities within these interactions are further constrained by the dynamics inherent in the interaction itself. You might say that in such interactions the opportunities afforded to me are not always stemming from the direct perception of particular attirbutes of the other individual for I have become, at least in part, a constituent of a larger system with its ‘own aims’. 

There are, however, instances in which I think the notion of affordances is properly applied. I think the overgeneralisation effect, as described in the first post, is a good example of affordance in social perception, and given its often adaptive value it seems a fitting feature of an ecological account of face perception. Moreover, I think much of the evidence used to support the EA is indeed properly described using the language of affordances, despite some obvious concerns I have regarding the experimental designs of most to these studies.

One somewhat ambiguous example of the concept of affordance in social perception is the study by Wheeler (which I spoke about in the last post also) demonstrating the attunement of those rating high on the psychopathy scale to the perception of vulnerability. Although tempting to argue this as support for the social account of affordances I would contend that though a good example of affordance in the perception of another, this is not properly a social perception; the second individual is not seen as an autonomous agent to be negotiated with, but rather as something closer to an object, ready to be objectified and manipulated simply to meet ones (the psychopaths) own ends, thus whatever might have been social about the interaction has been stripped away.

Much in the same way advocates of the EA critique the cognitivists, it is the questions not questioned that renders the EA to social perception somewhat lacking. If we are to strive for a necessary and sufficient ecological account of social perception - or even of face perception more particularly - it should indeed aim to fulfil the assumptions articulated in the previous post, but it should also take into consideration some of the broader theoretical issues and the practical implications outlined here. Heft (2007) contends that a fully accomplished ecological psychology will be social in its very being. I have to agree, and in conclusion I will simply state that an ecological psychology that seeks to address the nature of perception, in humans particularly, but does not give primacy to the role of social perception, is an ecological psychology that is severely limited, and one for which my enthusiasm would surely be curbed. 

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