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Janet Taylor Spence

Measures anxiety and motivation, Marries Kenneth Spence, Undertakes gender research

American clinical, experimental, and social psychologist, known for her studies on motivation and on gender identity.

Janet Taylor Spence has made important contributions to several branches of psychology. Her early work, the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale (MAS), became a standard method for relating anxiety to performance. She discovered the importance of intrinsic motivation in performance, at a time when most psychologists believed in reward models of learning and performance. Later, Spence turned her attention to gender studies and developed a general theory of gender identity. The only individual who has served as president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society, Spence has been the recipient of numerous awards. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary degrees from Oberlin College and Ohio State University.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1923, young Janet was the elder of two daughters of John C. and Helen Hodge Taylor. Both her mother and grandmother were graduates of Vassar College. Helen Taylor also held a master's degree in economics from Columbia. She worked for the League of Women Voters, managed Republican election campaigns, and eventually became director of a social service agency. John Taylor was the business manager of a labor union and an active Socialist. After two years at a girls' high school in Northfield, Massachusetts, Spence enrolled at Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Ohio. Following graduation in 1945, she entered the graduate clinical psychology program at Yale University.

Measures anxiety and motivation

After a year of working with intelligence tests at Yale with Catherine Cox Miles, Janet Taylor took a rotating internship in New York State. Deciding against pursuing clinical psychology, she moved to the University of Iowa to work with Kenneth Spence, co-author of the Hull-Spence theory of behavior. For her dissertation, Taylor developed the MAS, which measured individual motivational levels and was used to select subjects for experimental studies. In further research, she studied the relationship between anxiety levels and performance. The MAS is still used in psychology to measure anxiety levels.

After receiving her Ph.D. in 1949, Taylor joined the psychology department of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, as the first woman faculty member. Two years later, she was promoted from instructor to assistant professor and she became an associate professor in 1956. Despite a demanding teaching load, that required her to develop seven different courses, from introductory and experimental psychology to statistics, during her first year at Northwestern, she continued her productive research program. Taylor published eighteen papers and co-authored a statistics textbook during her ten years at Northwestern.

Marries Kenneth Spence

Janet Taylor Spence returned to Iowa City with her new husband in 1959. Since nepotism policies at the university prevented her from working in the same department as her husband, she became a research psychologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital. When Kenneth Spence moved to the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, she found a research associate position at a Texas state school for retarded children. In 1965, she obtained a faculty appointment in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas. During this period, Spence studied motivation and reinforcement, first with schizophrenics at the Veterans Hospital and then applying her experimental methods to developmental issues in children. She made the remarkable discovery that rewards were not only ineffective, but were counterproductive, as motivators of performance. Instead, Spence demonstrated the importance of intrinsic motivation in individual performance.

With her husband's death in 1967, Spence finally was able to join the psychology department of the University of Texas. Between 1968 and 1972, she served as department chair. In addition to her numerous publications, Spence served on the editorial boards of a number of psychology journals and, from 1973 until 1979, she edited Contemporary Psychology. She also has worked with many professional committees, including those of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Spence was as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1978 and, in 1979, she became Ashbel Smith Professor of Psychology and Educational Psychology at the University of Texas.

Undertakes gender research

In the 1970s, Spence began collaborating with Robert Helmreich. Their "Work and Family Orientation Questionnaire" examined various factors in achievement motivation; in particular, perseverance, mastery, and competitiveness. They also began examining achievement motivation and behavior. At the same time, Spence and Helmreich began examining gender issues. They developed several indices for measuring gender-related characteristics and attitudes, including the "Attitudes toward Women Scale" and the "Personal Attributes Questionnaire." Their 1978 book, Masculinity and Femininity: Their Psychological Dimensions, Correlates and Antecedents, moved the study of gender into the mainstream of psychological research. Spence's theory of gender identity was published in 1985.

Spence, who also became the Alma Cowden Madden Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas, retired in 1997. She lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Deaux, Kay. "Janet Taylor Spence (1923-)." In Women in psychology: a bio-bibliographic sourcebook, edited by Agnes N. O'Connell and Nancy Felipe Russo. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Spence, J. T. "Janet Taylor Spence, 1923-." In Models of achievement: reflections of eminent women in psychology, edited by A. N. O'Connell and N. F. Russo. Vol. 2. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1988.

Swann, William B., Judith H. Langlois, and Lucia Albino Gilbert. Sexism and stereotypes in modern Society: the gender science of Janet Taylor. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists