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Provenance of the 

Chef-Dog Reversible Figure

John F. Kihlstrom


Rock_ChefDog.jpg (8890 bytes)The "chef-dog" is one of a class of reversible, ambiguous, or bistable figures commonly discussed by perception psychologists.  


While many of these figures are associated with the name of their discoverer (e.g., the Rubin vase, Necker cube, Schroeder staircase, or Mach book), and the discoverers of others are known (e.g., Jastrow's duck-rabbit or Boring's wife-mother-in-law), the origins of the chef-dog has been somewhat more obscure.  In the course of tracing the history of Jastrow's duck-rabbit reversible figure, I became intrigued by the provenance of the chef-dog.

The first hint was that the chef-dog was frequently used by Irvin Rock to illustrate not just the phenomenon of reversibility but also the effect of orientation on perceptual organization -- as, for example, in his monograph, Orientation and Form (1973).  This has led many people to infer that Rock himself invented the figure.  However, in his most prominent writings, such as his books (Orientation and Form, 1973, p. 14; An Introduction to Perception, 1975, p. 264; The Logic of Perception, 1983, pp. 66-67; Perception, 1984, p. 121; and Indirect Perception, 1997, pp. 139-140), Rock does not take credit for the chef-dog: he simply refers to it as "the chef dog", without giving any sort of reference citation -- even though in the same writings he refers to the "Rubin vase" or "Necker cube" (see, for example, Rock, 1984, p. 121).  

Likewise, many of Rock's individual research papers referred to the chef-dog -- but again without citation.  This includes his famous 1974 Scientific American article on "The Perception of Disoriented Figures".

Other studies that use the chef-dog, likewise, lack citations to Rock or anyone else e.g., Chambers & Reisberg, 1985; Mast & Kosslyn, 2002) -- including one of my own (Peterson, Kihlstrom, Rose,& Glisky, 1992).

Inquiries to colleagues who had worked with Rock, or knew him well, yielded nothing.  Most believed that Rock had invented the figure, but none could provide a reference.

Until recently, the closest I had been able to come to a source is in The Logic of Perception (1983, p. 6) where he refers to the chef-dog as an example "I have used" of ambiguity of interpretation as opposed to ambiguity of figure-ground, depth, or orientation.  But "using" the figure is not the same as inventing it.

Then, I came across a paper by Wallach and Austin (1954), which presented the chef-dog in silhouette, described as "an ambiguous figure which was first used by Irvin Rock in as yet unpublished research on spatial orientation" (p. 338).  That paper was accepted for publication in 1953, which dates the chef-dog to that year at the latest.

But still no original paper by Rock himself.

Gibson_ClownSeal.jpg (12380 bytes)Then, Gibson_SealClown.jpg (12500 bytes) in the process of sorting through some reprints, I stumbled on a paper by Gibson and Robinson (1935, p. 39), concerning the effect of orientation on visual perception, which contained an eerily similar figure -- of a clown, or perhaps court jester, or Pierrot, which, when inverted, looks -- at least to me -- a little like a seal (Gibson and Robinson don't actually say what the inversion is supposed to look like).

            (8711 bytes)The Rock_ChefUpsideDown.jpg (8681 bytes) chef-dog is drawn differently from the clown-seal, but it occurred to me that, perhaps, Rock modified Gibson's drawing for his own purposes.


Finally,  a paper by Struber & Stadler (1999) led me to the actual source: Rock (1956).  

            (8681 bytes)In Rock_Chef.jpg
            (8711 bytes)this paper, Rock introduces the chef-dog for the first time (Figure 1B, p. 516) , and states clearly (p. 515) that the figure was modified from Gibson and Robinson (1935).  In this paper, Rock describes the figure as "a Thurber-like outline of a dog when turned to the left and as a profile of a chef when turned to the right" (p. 515).  The figure is usually presented tilted about 45o (clockwise from the upright the dog, counterclockwise from the upright chef) so as to create approximate equi-ambivalence.  

Truth be told, if I had consulted Rock's Orientation and Form (1973) earlier, I would have been led to the 1956 paper.  But even that book doesn't contain any information about Rock's role in creating the chef-dog figure.  The only information on that score is to be found in the 1956 paper. 

So, mystery solved: Rock first drew the chef-dog figure in 1953, or earlier, and he first published the figure in 1956, acknowledging the inspiration of Gibson and Robinson (1935), and explicitly taking credit for its invention.



Chambers, D., & Reisberg, D.  (1985).  Can mental images be ambiguous?  Journal of Expermental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 11, 317-328.

Gibson, J.J., & Robinson, D.  (1935).  Orientation in visual perception; The recognition of familiar plane forms in differing orientations.  Psychological Monographs, 46, 39-47.

Mast, F.W., & Kosslyn, S.M.  (2002).  Visual mental images can be ambiguous: Insights from individual differences in spatial transformation abilities.  Cognition, 86, 57-70.

Peterson, M.A., Kihlstrom, J.F., Rose, P.M., & Glisky, M.L.  (1992).  Mental images can be ambiguous: Reconstrual and reference frame reversals.  Memory & Cognition, 20, 107-123.

Rock, I.  (1956).  The orientation of forms on the retina and in the environment. American Journal of Psychology, 69, 513-528.

Rock, I.  (1974).  The perception of disoriented figures.  Scientific American, 230(1), 78-85.

Struber, D., & Stadler, M.  (1999).  Differences in top-down influences on the reversal rate of different categories of reversible figures.  Perception, 28, 1185-1196.

Wallach, H., & Austin, P.  (1954).  Recognition and the localization of visual traces.  American Journal of Psychology, 67, 338-340.



Other Pages on Reversible Figures:


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"AWK!  A new reversible figure!


"A New Reversible Figure and an Old One"

"Joseph Jastrow and HIs Duck -- Or Is It a Rabbit?"


This page last revised 04/08/10.