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Eleanor Emmons Maccoby

American psychologist and educator.

Most widely known for her work in the psychology of sex differences, Eleanor Maccoby has achieved a distinguished career as an educator as well. She spent eight years in the 1950s as a lecturer and research associate in social relations at Harvard University. Later, she joined the faculty at Stanford University and eventually became chairman of the psychology department.

Eleanor Emmons was born May 15, 1916, in Tacoma, Washington, to Harry Eugene and Viva May Emmons. She married Nathan Maccoby in 1938, received her bachelor's degree from the University of Washington in 1939, and then traveled to Washington, D.C., where she spent the years during World War II working for a government agency. Returning to her studies at the University of Michigan, Maccoby earned her master's degree in 1949 and her Ph.D. in 1950. She spent the next eight years at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before moving to Stanford University in California, where she served as a professor and chairman of the psychology department from 1973-76.

Although Eleanor Maccoby's interests lay primarily in studying the social factors that influence human development, she also considered the interweaving contributions of other factors, such as biological and cognitive processes. In fact, for her doctoral dissertation, which she completed under the guidance of B.F. Skinner, she conducted experiments in learning and reinforcement.

After finishing her doctoral work, Maccoby joined Robert Sears, then a professor of social relations at Harvard, in a large-scale study investigating whether certain parental practices were related to children's personality characteristics. This study resulted in an influential book, Patterns of Child Rearing. Maccoby's work led her to believe that identification was an important moderating variable in the development of personality. This notion was supported in her work in parent-child socialization and also in studies of children's identification with film characters.

Maccoby's interest in children and research never flagged. Even while deeply involved in this socialization project, she conducted studies on the effects of television on children, identifying the kinds of activities that were displaced when families acquired televisions, and other studies of the influence of neighborhood cohesion on delinquency rates in low-income areas. She found that neighborhoods in low-income, "at risk" areas had lower rates of juvenile delinquency when they were relatively tightly knit and, simply put, people looked out for one another and one another's children.

After moving to Stanford, Maccoby added studies of developmental changes in attention to her areas of study. She and her colleagues demonstrated that as they grew, children improved first in the ability to attend to a single message in the presence of distractions, and then in the ability to divide attention between simultaneously competing stimuli.

It was also at Stanford that Maccoby began a long association with Carol Nagy Jacklin that would result in the work for which she is most well known. Jacklin and Maccoby studied differences and similarities in boys and girls, using a thorough review of available literature as well as original research. Their 1974 book, The Psychology of Sex Differences, represented an unparalleled synthesis of research in the area of sex differences in development, and, given the political climate of the 1970s, stimulated much discussion. Maccoby and Jacklin were simultaneously criticized for being too biological, not biological enough, giving too much credence to socialization pressures, and not giving enough credence to social forces.

Interestingly, however, Maccoby and Jacklin offered a third possibility for forces that shape differences between the sexes that reflected Maccoby's earlier interests in cognition and identification. They argued that, in addition to being influenced by their biology and the social environment around them, children engaged in "self-socialization." The authors suggested that in this proactive process, children themselves draw inferences from the roles and behaviors in which they see men and women, boys and girls engaging. Depending on their developmental level, children then use these inferences to guide their own behavior.

Maccoby's published works reflect her abiding interest in the socialdevelopment of children and differences between the sexes. Maccoby has received many honors and awards during her career. They include the Gores Award for excellence in teaching from Stanford (1981); a research award from the American Educational Research Association (1984); an award recognizing her research from the Society for Research in Child Development (1987); and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association (1988). She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1993.

Doreen Arcus Ph.D.

Further Reading

Maccoby, E. "Eleanor E. Maccoby." In A History of Psychology in Autobiography. G. Lindzey, ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

——. Social Development: Psychological Growth and the Parent-Child Relationship. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1980.

Maccoby, E., and C.N. Jacklin. Psychology of Sex Differences. Stanford: Stanford Univesity Press, 1974.

Maccoby, E., and R.H. Mnookin. Dividing the Child: Social and Legal Dilemmas of Custody. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists