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Eleanor J. Gibson

Experimental psychologist noted for her work in the field of perceptual development in children and infants.

Gibson was born Eleanor Jack in Peoria, Illinois, into a successful Presbyterian family on December 7,1910. Her parents were William A. and Isabel (Grier) Jack. She married fellow psychologist James J. Gibson on September 17, 1932. They had two children, James J. and Jean Grier.

Due to prevailing attitudes discouraging females— even gifted ones—from pursuing an education, young Eleanor was careful not to demonstrate her scholarly capabilities while at school. However, once ensconced in the nurturing atmosphere of Smith College, at Cornell University, where she completed her undergraduate degree in 1931, (and in 1933 her D.Sc.), she excelled in scientific subjects and chose to study psychology, no doubt encouraged by such eminent teachers as Kurt Koffka, Fritz Heider, and James Gibson, who would later become her husband.

Exceptionally brilliant, Jack was able to complete all her graduate training except the thesis in one year at Yale University. Her strength of character, confidence in her own research and remarkable insight regarding observation enabled her to overcome many difficulties and carve out a successful career. She was awarded her Ph.D. from Yale in 1938 and taught at Cornell University until her retirement in 1980.

Jack's early career was hampered by many factors. Firstly, she began in the period of the Great Depression.

It was particularly difficult for women to progress under these conditions. Gender discrimination was still the norm, and Robert Yerkes initially rejected her for postgraduate studies at Yale on this basis. She was also wrongfully accused of incompetence at one point, and the director of the laboratory later published her work as his own. On another occasion, her research animals were summarily removed from the laboratory. However, her personal strength and enthusiasm for her work enabled her to overcome these setbacks, and made no notable reverses to her distinguished career.

In 1932, after her marriage to James Gibson, Eleanor Gibson became his assistant. She and her husband had similar views regarding rigorous attention to detail when conducting research. In 1942, she went with her husband to Fort Worth, and then on to Santa Ana, California. During this time, her principal role was as wife and mother. However, before long, boredom would prompt her return to research.

In 1949, Gibson again accompanied her husband to Cornell as an unpaid research associate. It was here that she developed her theory of avoidance learning, based on studies of children. At this time, she and her husband were awarded a large Air Force grant, which enabled her to begin her work on perceptual learning. In 1955, Gibson's first theory of perceptual learning, which was formulated in collaboration with her husband, appeared. Two years later, they again published the results of joint research, on invariants under transformation. These papers later formed the basis for James Gibson's ecological theory.

Gibson's original goal was to become a comparative psychologist, and although at the time she did not have access to her own laboratory and was not able to pursue her chosen field of research with children, she is acknowledged to have single-handedly developed the field. She began work on the "Visual Cliff," her best-known work, with Richard Walk in the mid–1950's. They discovered that baby animals avoided a simulated cliff constructed by suspending a piece of glass above the floor.

In 1975 Gibson was able to establish her own infant study laboratory. This enabled her to devote her research to ecological psychology, perhaps even more so after her husband's death in 1979. She has pursued her work on perceptual development, more recently concentrating on the concept of affordance. Gibson is also an active member of the International Society for Ecological Psychology.

Gibson has been the recipient of many awards during her career, among them an award from the American Psychological Association for distinguished scientific contribution in 1968; in 1983 the national medal for science; in 1992 a lifetime achievement award.

Apart from her work at Cornell, Gibson also taught at many other universities, including the University of Pennsylvania in 1984; visiting professor of psychology, Emory University, 1988–90; distinguished visiting professor at the University of California, Davis, 1978; visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota (1980).

Gibson's major published work is possibly An Odyssey in Learning and Perception, (1991), which consolidates much of her lifetime's work. She also wrote Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development, in 1967, for which she received the Century Award.

Gibson retired in 1980 and is Professor Emeritus at Cornell University. Although now advanced in age, Professor Gibson continues to work at the Middlebury University in Vermont.

Patricia Skinner

Further Reading

Gibson, Eleanor J. An Odyssey in Learning and Perception Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1991

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists