Affordance Theory Explained


Proposed by James J. Gibson, affordance theory is an examination of how each person visually perceives their environment. Gibson suggests that what people see will lead to a decision that they make. An affordance is a clue within the environment that becomes a trigger for an action to be taken.

These actions may be direct and immediate without sensory processing. They can also be indirect, performed unconsciously, or only pursued after giving what has been visually perceived a full examination through sensory processing.

Examples of visual items that promote action through the use of affordance theory would include an elevator call button, a door knob, the steering wheel of a car, or the mouse for a computer.

The Definition of “Affordance”

The original term Gibson used for this theory is based on techniques that are developed within human-computer interactions, or HCI. In HCI, to “afford” means to “invite” or to “suggest.” That is why it is used as the definition for visual clues in a person’s environment in this theory.

It can create confusion, however, because being able to “afford” something tends to take on monetary terminology. It is sometimes used as a reference to make something available or to provide something, which would not be accurate in this theory either.

Why Do Visual Cues Promote Action Prompts?

Gibson suggests that people modify their environments so it can best meet their needs. The goal is make the environment comfortable, have movement, and create the conditions necessary to achieve personal or household goals. That might range from being able to successfully raise children to the desire to have enough illumination at night within a home so that a person could read a book.

In the affordance theory, Gibson states that only humans change their environment in a natural way. Treating the social world as separate of the material world is therefore a mistake because humans use the same tools to promote social comfort as they do to create physical comforts.

These affordances are then an essential component of human socialization. It could be an explanation as to why certain people tend to be extroverts and others tend to be introverts.

Introverts may use visual cues for comfort that are primarily personal items. They look at a favorite book, a comfortable chair, or even an area of physical space, like a man cave, and have a preference for enjoying those items. Because those visual cues are personal, others are hesitant to act upon using them because they are not theirs, which creates a level of social isolation that may be desired.

The opposite can also be true. Visual cues can be community-based, which encourages multiple people to take actions around the same time. That creates a group of people performing actions at roughly the same time and that like-mindedness can be an attractant to certain individuals.

What Are the Different Categories of Affordances?

William Gaver expanded upon Gibson’s affordance theory by categorizing the different affordances in three different categories.

  • False Affordances. This type of affordance doesn’t have an apparent function when it is observed. That causes the individual to perceive possibilities of action that do not exist in reality. A placebo is an example of a false affordance.
  • Hidden Affordances. These affordances offer the potential for actions to be taken, but are not necessarily perceived by individuals within their environment. One might look at a book and think, “I could use that for reading.” It could also be used to smash a spider that looks like trouble.
  • Perceptible Affordances. These clues offer information to individuals that allows them to understand what actions can be taken and encourages them to take that action.

If an affordance is perceptible, then it directly links the action to be taken with the perception of the individual. That reduces the chances of a mistake happening or a misperception occurring.

When an affordance is hidden or false, then there is a greater chance of a mistake or misperception occurring.

By understanding what we see in our environments, we can learn more about the actions we decide to take and the reasons behind those actions. Some actions are common to most people, like seeing a refrigerator door and deciding to open it because of hunger. Other actions are unique to an individual, such as seeing a black cat and wanting to run away from it… or adopt it.

Affordance theory may have started by defining what is physically possible, based on visual cues, but it now applies in various fields to incorporate all action possibilities – including those of which an individual may not be aware.