Bert H. Hodges and Reuben M. Baron

The Big Idea

As any reader of PDP’s research summaries knows, the journal selections for these reviews favors fairly recent research.  Also, the selections for the most part have an obvious relevance to sport in general and coaching/playing team sports in particular.

So why would we give time and space to an oldish paper (1992) that appears by its title to have nothing to do with the subjects our readers are interested in?  Because this paper has everything to do with sports and the coaching/playing of them, if that is, we value what we do and that we do it properly.  You see, this paper is grounded on the even earlier academic development of what is called ecological (or environmental) psychology.  The pioneers of this approach are driven to directly study human thought and actions—that is, studying humans in their situations, relations, and contexts, and not exclusively in laboratories.

These life situations include the worlds of play and sport, to be sure.  The big idea of this paper is both simple and complex.  Its simplicity lies in the matter-of-fact way we humans, in and of sport, become human by way of possibilities and consequences, in and of sport. Its complexity lies in the matter-of-fact ways we humans, in and of sport, become agents of our collective opportunities for virtue or vice, in and of sport, as well.


  • Ecological psychology is an approach to studying humans as they are directly immersed in real-life: situations, relations, and contexts as chaotic and muddled as they are.
  • As a psychology of values, these authors attempt to situate the relationships between laws, rules, and values.
  • Laws are causal processes: natural, universal, real, immutable, and inviolable.
  • Rules are goal-oriented procedures: socially situated, culturally specific, and subject to change.
  • Values emerge as the more primary context for learning, development, social perception, and action.
  • Affordances are possibilities, opportunities for action offered by the environment.
  • Values are the necessary constraints on affordances.
  • Values, as constraints, both precede and emerge from the existence of laws and rules.
  • The good news about values is that they are the objective way we judge the truthfulness of our pursuits and the ways we achieve a self and community.
  • Values are revealed only by way of acts of creativity and discovery, and even then, are often unarticulated, tacit.
  • Being a good teammate, for example, is an open-ended pursuit and is learned in the process of being a teammate.
  • Through our creativity and discovery, values emerge.
  • Values and their embodied affordances are systems: multiple and heterarchical.
  • If values are reduced to rules or law, the dynamical system of rules, law, and values falls apart.
  • In good organizations, we find realized, functioning and interrelated values of: clarity, coherence, comprehensiveness, and complexity.
  • Evil emerges when values are codified and bureaucratized, redefined as hierarchical, or inserted into a system insensitive to individual differences and unique situations.

The Research

  1. J. Gibson (1904-1979) was a remarkably thoughtful psychologist who was perpetually uncomfortable with the behaviorist (psychology of stimulus/response) direction of psychology in the middle years of the 20thCentury. In time, he ushered in a new approach to visual perception, which he called ecological psychology. His approach has become known as a psychology of values.  In Gibson’s own words:

I have described the environment as the surfaces that separate substances from the medium in which the animals live. But I have also described what the environment affords animals, mentioning the terrain, shelters, water, fire, objects, tools, other animals, and human displays. How do we go from surfaces to affordances? The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

The authors of this paper, Bert Hodges and Reuben Baron, sketch what a theory of values might look like within Gibson’s ecological approach to perception and action, especially in its social learning context.

Laws, rules, and values

In the tradition of psychology, and in the largest of senses, there are two lines of explanation for human behaviors: those that give “lawful,” causal-constraint explanations; and those that give “rule-following,” goal-constraint explanations.  Laws are explanations of (backward-looking) causal processes:  natural, real, universal, immutable, and inviolable.  Rules are explanations of (future-directed) goal-oriented procedures:  socially constituted, culturally specific, and subject to change or violation.  The example given of the difference between laws and rules is this: “an automobile being stopped by a brick wall is a lawful relation, while an automobile being stopped by a red light is rule-following one.”

Values, as it turns out, are both law-like and rule-like.  But values cannot be reduced to either law or rule; nor can law or rule either separately or together be a proper foundation for explaining human behavior.  It is value that will emerge as the veritable context of learning, development, social perception, and action.  This is the direction Gibson was taking the psychology of values:  as both subjective and objective, as publicly perceivable, and as perceptions that are achievements—life-long perceptions seeking to become, as he wrote, “wider and finer, and longer and richer and fuller as the observer explores the environment.”

What are values?

First off, for Gibson, perception and action are characterized as affordances.  And affordances are both possibilities (opportunities) for action and the consequences of such action.  The position Hodges and Baron take is that values are the necessary constraints on affordances.

Secondly, our perception and action are intentional.  In other words, there are organizing principles allowing for exploring or moving towards an ideal of completeness.  This higher-order activity—namely values—goes well beyond law-like and rule-like behavior responses.  There is a kind of propriety operating.  Propriety means what is proper, fitting, right, or true.  This suggests that the idea of integrity becomes the primary quality of our intentions.

Third, since values are neither laws nor rules, they are a set of constraints that “both precedes and emerges from the existence of laws and rules.”  These constraints can both enable or restrain, and can encourage as well as discourage.  Values are more forgiving than laws and less forgiving than rules.  As such, values thereby can “provide the elasticity sufficient for maintaining the creative tension between and among rules and laws that is necessary to social existence.”  Values, in other words, are realized and essentially open-ended.

Virtue and vice

Affordances are not only possibilities for perception and action.  They provide a balance between necessity and freedom.  Affordances also reveal consequences of action, for “good or ill.”  So, the question now becomes this: If human cognition and behavior are value-realizing, then how do we explain negative consequences, like error or evil?

It has been common in conventional social psychology to think of development values connected to personal goals or social rules.  But so thinking creates three difficulties: 1) the problem of multiple goals and the collisions between them; 2) the temporal ordering of goals; and 3) the legendary fuzziness of goals.

Instead, and if values are the ground roots of psychology, values can guide cognition and behavior exactly because they are:  1) multiple; 2) relatively ambiguous; and 3) progressively revealed over time.

After all, real learning depends on figuring out what goals are worth pursuing.  The good news about values is that they are the objective way we judge the truthfulness of our pursuits and the way we achieve a self and a sense of community.  Values are revealed only by way of acts of creativity and discovery, and even then, they are often unarticulated.

Being a good parent or teammate, for example, is an open-ended pursuit and learned in the process of being a parent or teammate.  Being good at parenting or teaming is often tacit, not explicit.  And yet, this tacit understanding of such a value can provoke an explicit awareness of having realized the value.

“Values and the affordances in which they are embodied are necessarily multiple and heterarchical,” write Hodges and Baron.  We no longer have centralized and hierarchical organization with executive and subordinate roles.  Instead, it is the system at hand that in is control.  The 1992 example they give is Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.  If the team is genuinely cohesive, and if Byrd is having an off-night scoring, other players will step up to the shooter role while Byrd concentrates on assists.  Good businesses will do the same where each employee embodies the values of the dynamic and decentralized organization in realizing their responsibilities—not simply doing what they have been dictated to do by a supervisor.  Such functional tensions in good organizations are the realized, functioning, interrelated values of clarity, coherence, comprehensiveness, and complexity.

But if values are treated as goals, for example, or if we try to hierarchically arranged values, then the dynamic ecological system falls apart.  This because certain values will be pursued at the expense of others, thus undermining the original preferred values.  The example these authors give is if oppressed people were to accept freedom and justice as if they were goals, it would be considerably easier to deemphasize, let’s say, the values of truth or mercy in the pursuit of freedom and justice.  Thus, it would be also easier for leaders to become tyrannical in chasing freedom and justice, thus compromising the original desire.  As Elie Wiesel reminds us: “Fanaticism, even in a good cause, is evil.”

When values only serve for what is convenient, obvious, or marketable, we have reduced the bejesus out of them because we have severed them from comprehensiveness and compassion.  “An ecological perspective suggests,” these authors write, “that becoming moral is a matter of vision as well as virtue, more a matter of perceptual learning than categorical thinking.”

Evil emerges when values are treated as if they were rules: codified and bureaucratized, redefined as hierarchical, inserted into a system insensitive to individual differences and unique situations.  This becomes the sanctioning of self-interested behavior at the expense of the common good.  As other scholars have pointed out, the smooth functioning of economic and social systems is a result of “good faith,” not contracts.  In the end, evil visits us when we trivialize values by reducing them to goals, rules, hierarchies, or even natural laws.

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