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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

More than the Sum of their Parts: Eleanor Maccoby’s Studies of Child Group Dynamics.

When Eleanor Emmons left home to matriculate at Reed College in 1934, she had life pretty well figured out. Her family’s Theosophy gave her an idiosyncratic but firm moral center. Her high school pacifist and socialist activism gave her a sense that good could be wrought in the world so long as people of idealism existed and followed their consciences. She was the top student in her class, a bookworm over-achiever who had never known a moment’s academic struggle. If anybody was headed for success, it was Eleanor.


Three years later, at the end of her sophomore year (she had to take a year off after her freshman year to earn enough money to return to college, her father’s carpentry business having been decimated by the Great Depression), she was failing out of Reed and contemplating suicide, her intellectual and emotional life caught in a downward spiral touched off by her study of psychology, and particularly by the wrecking-ball-like effect that her discovery of behaviorism had on everything she had ever believed or known.


Eleanor Emmons Maccoby (1917-2018) was destined to become one of the greatest psychologists of the Twentieth Century, but her road to greatness was anything but direct. She grew up on a small, half-mile long island in Puget Sound, just across the water from Tacoma, Washington. She lived there with her father, who owned a small but profitable carpentry business, her mother, a gifted singer and guitarist, her grandmother, and her sisters. Her parents had abandoned traditional Christianity, which they felt did not adequately explain the world’s various miseries that were visited upon some of its most innocent individuals, for Theosophy, a popular religious movement of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Theosophy taught the equality of all humans, the value of animal life, reincarnation, and the ability to communicate with the souls of those who have recently passed, and are awaiting their next round of rebirth.


Holding these idiosyncratic beliefs cost her family some esteem in the community, but also gave them a new group of thoughtful, idealistic, and sensitive fellow believers to discuss the nature of existence with, and the Emmonses were deeply involved with the global Theosophist community, hosting a variety of internationally renowned figures at their home when they came to speak in Washington, and actively pouring resources into the development of a Theosophist summer community on Orcas Island in 1927, which continues to this day.



Being a Theosophist made young Eleanor automatically a bit different from her classmates. They all ate meat with thoughtless abandon, whereas her belief in the beauty and sanctity of all animal life made her a vegetarian, a lifestyle almost unheard of in that era. They felt no doubts about the use of military force to achieve political ends, while she could not reconcile herself to shoveling human beings into the gnashing maw of war to achieve ends that could be attained just as easily through negotiation and mutual understanding. Her refuge in these years was books, and each week she would go to the Tacoma library, return the pile of books she had devoured, and pick up a new stack in a ritual that I suspect is familiar to a number of you out there.


As an outsider, Eleanor was often compelled to think about structures and assumptions that other people took for granted, and in high school that led her into political activity. She formed a club to talk about the day’s political issues, usually from a pacifist, left-leaning perspective that led her into engagement with labor and socialist leaders of her time, including her role in an anti-war demonstration that she and her fellow students snuck into the middle of an Army Day parade.


This, then, was the Eleanor Emmons entering Reed College - a smart, compassionate, politically engaged individual of whom much was expected, and who expected much of herself. Her first year went well - she readily found an attractive and well-respected boyfriend from the senior class, and did top notch work in her studies, and after a year of saving up, she headed into her sophomore classes full of high hopes. That was when she collided head-on with the classes led by Monty Griffith, a garrulous bull of an individual, who taught psychology from a behaviorist perspective. On one hand, it was intoxicating looking at humans from a totally different point-of-view from any she had considered before. On the other, behaviorism represented a complete repudiation of what she had previously believed. Instead of humans being individuals who crafted their destiny from free-will possessing souls that earned ever advancing places in the chain of reincarnation, she increasingly saw them as creatures who more or less mechanistically responded to stimuli in biologically coded ways that resulted in behavior patterns that were predictable and environmentally determined.


It was a blow, and it caused her to wonder what the point of being a human was, if we were essentially being railroaded forward to a largely predetermined end. Added to this existential angst was guilt about becoming sexually active before marriage, and a general lack of interest in the academic work that used to form a central pillar of her sense of self. She stopped doing her work, contemplated suicide, and to add embarrassment on top of misery, Reed’s only employee qualified to act in a counselor capacity was - Monty Griffith, who showed up unannounced to her dorm room to ask her why her grades were slipping. Eleanor was understandably too mortified to tell her psychology professor about what the psychological principles he had taught had done to her, and he left without having offered much by way of solving her problems.



Gradually, Eleanor’s spirits returned, and over the summer she made up the work to pass her classes, and applied to the University of Washington to complete her undergraduate career. Here, she met and fell in love with Nathan Maccoby, a graduate student who was a teaching assistant in the psychology department. The pair married in 1938, and received their degrees (he a Master’s and she a BS) in 1939. This was a propitious time to have a newly minted college degree, as the expansion of government programs ushered in by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal meant a parallel expansion in the need for qualified professionals to organize those programs, and soon after their graduation, Eleanor and Nathan moved to Washington DC as government employees. Eleanor’s specialty as it evolved was in survey design - how to take a program that the government wanted to know the effectiveness of, create a series of informative, non-leading questions to get that information, find a meaningful but non-biased sample in the desired community, hire and train people to conduct the survey, and then hire and train people to code the responses and crunch the numbers in a way that yielded quantifiable, actionable results. It was interesting work, Eleanor was good at it, it gave her interesting connections and skills that would be of use later, and it gave the family an extra income in what could have been lean times, but it wasn’t precisely using her psychological training to the fullest, a situation she would have to wait until after the war to rectify.


In 1947, the Maccobys relocated to Michigan, to continue their graduate studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in the company of the waves of returning soldiers studying under the GI Bill. Here, Eleanor became more interested in experimental psychology, and particularly in problems related to perception and learning. In 1950, Nathan was offered a position at Boston University, which allowed Eleanor the chance to study at Harvard with B.F. Skinner (some online sources say that she studied with him at the University of Michigan, a confusion created by the fact that, though she received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 1951, she was in fact at Harvard at the time, where she finished her PhD remotely). Skinner was one of the world’s most recognized names in psychology on the strength of his first book, The Behavior of Organisms, which in 1938 established his views on operant conditioning, including his use of the famous “Skinner Box” to train rats and pigeons into exhibiting ever more complex behaviors in the face of stimuli.



Skinner was media savvy and tending towards the egotistical, but Eleanor learned a great deal from him about the use of technology in psychological experiments, while at the same time keeping one foot in the rival Department of Social Relations, where she worked with Robert and Pat Sears to design questionnaires that would attempt to establish whether Freud’s theories about child rearing methods being recapitulated in a person’s later behavior were valid. While the Searses worked on the study of the children, Maccoby (who was not a Freudian in any sense of the term) was tasked with developing the parent interview portion of the study. Crunching the numbers later, it turned out that there was no significant link between factors like toilet training strategy and later child behavior, but the raw data generated by her interviews was important in later studies on the diversity of American approaches to parenting.


By the 1950s, the Maccobys were a professionally successful couple with a decade and a half of happy marriage behind them, but they were consistently unable to conceive a child, and so they took steps to adopt, first inviting the child of a friend’s relative to come live with them, and eventually adopting a baby boy and baby girl. These were hectic days, as Eleanor had to balance the unique needs of adopted children, with her teaching responsibilities (including running an important course on field surveying methods), with her own research activities (among which was a neat study determining what characters in movies people preferentially give their attention to).


Eleanor’s work on the parenting project appeared in 1957’s Patterns of Child Rearing, while the new edition of Ted Newcomb’s classic 1947 Readings in Social Psychology which she served as lead editor on came out in 1958, which represented two large chunks of work successfully completed, allowing her and Nathan to consider an offer from Stanford University to spend some time there working with Robert Sears on a project to determine how parents get their information in order to better design public information campaigns directed towards them. The Maccobys left for Stanford in 1958, and what was to be a temporary project turned into a permanent assignment as both Nathan and Eleanor were offered tenure positions at the university (though Eleanor’s salary was, unbeknownst to her, the lowest of any offered to a full professor there).


It was here, at Stanford in the 1960s and 1970s that Eleanor did the work that made her name not only in academic circles, but in the public imagination. She was asked by the Social Science Research Council to put together a book which presented the best knowledge to date about the developmental differences between men and women. Acting as editor and as author on one of the chapters, she produced The Development of Sex Differences in 1966, which represented the beginning of her career in gender psychology that culminated in 1974’s The Psychology of Sex Differences, co-authored with Carol Jacklin. The pair combed through all studies about sex differences, and then tracked down the authors for any data that they didn’t publish because they didn’t find any differences between the genders worth reporting. Eleanor churned through this mass of public data and long neglected but crucial unpublished results, and found that, statistically, the differences between the genders developmentally had been overstated. It was a landmark book in the history of second wave feminism, and an important example of the utility of sifting through published studies not only for their stated results, but with an eye towards “uninteresting” data that might have been discarded in the editing process.


These were also the years when Eleanor launched longitudinal studies of child development during their first six years of life, and produced a classic 1978 paper, “Social Behavior at 33 Months in Same-Sex and Mixed-Sex Dyads” that brought attention to the understudied topic of how child behavior changes when a subject is placed in a room with another child, and how gender seeps into that interaction from an early age, even when the children have been given identical uniforms that visually obscure gender information. The early 1980s saw Maccoby’s interest turned towards designing studies that revealed as much as possible the intricate structure of the mutual influence of parents and children, including “Socialization in the Context of the Family: Parent-Child Interaction” (1983), “Sex-of-Child Differences in Father-Child Interaction at 12 Months of Age” (1983) and “Children’s Dispositions and Mother-Child Interaction at 12 and 18 Months: A Short-Term Longitudinal Study” (1984), while in the late 1980s, she began a collaboration with Robert Mnookin about the psychological impact of divorce and split custody on children that resulted in a series of papers that made the legal profession more aware of the toll different custody configurations can take on the children involved.


While all of this was going on, Eleanor was turning over some of the newer results on gender differences that other researchers uncovered, and that she found in her own studies, and was wondering if, perhaps, The Psychology of Sex Differences, as thorough as it had been in 1974, required a re-think in the light of new information. After writing Dividing the Child: Social and Legal Dilemmas of Custody (1992) with Robert Mnookin, detailing the results of their studies, she turned to this topic in her last book, 1998’s The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together. Here, she found that children’s tendencies to group together with children of their own gender enforce certain conceptions of behavior and goal formation that carry over into the social interactions and life strategies of adulthood in ways that are distinct. To some, The Two Sexes represented a betrayal of the egalitarian spirit of Sex Differences, while to others it represented a necessary complexification of the subject of socially determined gender development in the light of more sophisticated investigation of intricate early-life group dynamics.



By 1998, however, Eleanor Maccoby’s position in the fabric of world psychology was all but unassailable. She won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychology Foundation in 1996, was made a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1993, and has served as president of the APA’s Division 7 (the developmental psychology section) and of the Society for Research in Child Development. She published her last psychological paper in 2007 at the age of ninety, and completed her memoirs in 2017 at the age of 99. On December 11, 2018, the woman whose life saw the end of the First World War and the launch of the first iPhone, and whose career contributed to our knowledge of the role that group relations play in the development of children, and the variety and mutuality of their relations with their parents, passed away at the age of 101, and if the Theosophy of her youth turns out to be true, and her future existence is shaped by the good she did while she was with us, she must be living a most happy life now indeed.


FURTHER READING: In 1989, Maccoby wrote an autobiographical account in Stanford University Press’s A History of Psychology in Autobiography 8, but it is much easier to find her more complete memoir, titled simply A Memoir: 1917-2017, which counts as one of the most engaging, honest, and charming examples of autobiography from a major psychological figure that I’ve ever read, from her accounts of her Tacoma youth, through her difficulties at Reed, and into the detailing of the mutual support system that Nathan and she developed to sustain each other, it is simply wonderful. If you can’t wait, and must know more about her this very moment, Reed Magazine’s In Memoriam appreciation of her life and work, which is available online (and free, unlike the American Psychologist obituary of her, which they will only let you read after you hand over $18), is very good and should tide you over until her memoirs can arrive.


Maccoby's story is also one of over 250 I tell in my A History of Women in Psychology and Neuroscience, coming Spring 2024!


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