An American experimental psychologist noted for her work in the field of perceptual development in infants and children.
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 all-female Smith College where she completed her undergraduate degree in 1931 and her M.S. in 1933, she excelled in scientific subjects and chose to study psychology, no doubt encouraged by such eminent teachers as Kurt Koffka (1886–1941), Fritz Heider (1896–1988), and James Gibson, who would later become her husband.
Gibson, an exceptional student, 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. She taught at Smith College from 1946–1949 and at Cornell Universityfrom 1949–1979.
Gibson's early career was hampered by many factors. Gender discrimination was the norm. Robert Yerkes (1876–1956), whom she wanted as an adviser for her post-graduate studies at Yale, rejected her simply because she was a woman. In 1949, she accompanied her husband, who had been offered a professorship, to Cornell University. There, she worked as an unpaid research associate. In time, she created her own research experiments and finally in 1965 after 16 years became a professor in her own right.
At Cornell, she and her husband were awarded a large air force grant, which enabled her to begin her work on perceptual learning. It was here that she developed her theory of avoidance learning, based on studies of children. In 1955, Gibson's first theory of perceptual learning was formulated in collaboration with her husband. Two years later, the couple again published the results of joint research. These papers later formed the basis for James Gibson's ecological theory.
Eleanor Gibson's original goal was to become a comparative psychologist, but at the time she did not have access to her own laboratory and was not able to pursue her chosen field of research. Her best-known perception research experiments, published in 1960, involved what she called the visual cliff. The work was done with Richard Walk (1920–1999), a professor at Cornell. Gibson and Walk discovered that baby animals avoid a simulated cliff constructed by suspending a piece of glass above the floor even when they have no experience with heights and falling.
For many years, Gibson had no laboratory of her own, so she studied perception as it applied to reading. This required no special laboratory equipment. After becoming a full professor, Gibson established her own infant study laboratory. This enabled her to pursue her work on perceptual development. Gibson retired from Cornell in 1972.
Gibson received many awards during her career, among them an award from the American Psychological Association for distinguished scientific contribution in 1968; the 1983 National Medal for Science; and in 1992 a lifetime achievement award.
After retiring from Cornell, Gibson was a visiting professor at other universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Emory University, University of California at Davis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.
Gibson's major published work is An Odyssey in Learning and Perception, (1991), which consolidates much of her work. She also wrote Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development, in 1967, for which she received the Century Award.
Gibson died on December 30, 2002, in Columbia, South Carolina at the age of 92.
Gibson, Eleanor Jack. Perceiving the Affordances: A Portrait of Two Psychologists. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 2002.
Gibson, Eleanor Jack. An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Pickren, Wade E. The Psychology Book: From Shamanism to Cutting-Edge Neuroscience, 250 Milestones in the History of Psychology. New York: Sterling, 2014.
Adolph, Karen E., Kari S. Kretch and Vanessa LoBue. “Fear of Heights in Infants?” Current Directions in Psychological Science 23, no. 1 (2014): 60–66.
Kretch, Kari S., and Karen E. Adolph. “Cliff or Step? Posture-Specific Learning at the Edge of a Drop-Off.” Child Development 84, no. 1 (2013): 226–40. Available online at http://www.psych.nyu.edu/adolph/publications/KretchAdolphInPress_CliffStep.pdf (accessed July 24, 2015).
Rodkey, Elissa N. “The Visual Cliff's Forgotten Menagerie: Rats, Goats, Babies, and Myth-Making in the History of Psychology.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 51, no. 2 (2015): 113–40.
Association for Psychological Science. “Appreciation: Eleanor Gibson.” http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2003/april-03/inappreciation-eleanor-gibson.html (accessed July 24, 2015).
Baranauckas, Carla. “Dr. Eleanor J. Gibson, 92, a Pioneer in Perception Studies.” http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/04/nyregion/dr-eleanor-j-gibson-92-a-pioneer-inperception-studies.html (accessed July 24, 2015).
Rodkey, Elissa. “Profile: Eleanor J. Gibson.” http://www.feministvoices.com/eleanor-j-gibson (accessed July 24, 2015).