Gibson, Eleanor Jack 1910-2002

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GIBSON, Eleanor Jack 1910-2002


Born December 7, 1910, in Peoria, IL; died December 30, 2002, in Columbia, SC; daughter of William A. and Isabel (Grier) Jack; married James J. Gibson (a psychology professor), September 17, 1932 (died, 1979); children: James J., Jean Grier. Education: Smith College, B.A., 1931, M.A., 1933; Yale University, Ph.D. (psychology), 1938.


Psychologist. Smith College, Northampton, MA, instructor; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, research associate, 1949-66, Susan Linn Sage Professor of Psychology, 1966-79. Visiting professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1973, University of California—Davis, 1978, University of Pennsylvania, 1984, University of South Carolina, 1987, University of Connecticut, 1988, Emory University, 1988-90, Center for Advanced Behavioral Studies, University of Minnesota, and the Salk Institute.


Honorary degrees from Smith College, Rutgers University, Trinity College, Bates College, University of South Carolina, Emory University, Middlebury College, Columbia University, State University of New York—Albany, Miami University, and Yale University; Century Psychology Series Award, 1967; Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, American Psychological Association (APA), 1968; G. Stanley Hall Medal, APA, 1971; Guggenheim fellow, 1972-73; Wilbur Cross Medal, Yale University, 1973; Howard Crosby Warren Medal, 1977; Montgomery fellow, Dartmouth College, 1985; Gold Medal, American Psychological Foundation, 1986; National Medal of Science, 1992. Gibson's lab at Cornell was named in her honor, and one of the department's events was renamed the Eleanor J. and James J. Gibson Lecture.


(With Richard D. Walk) A Comparative and Analytical Study of Visual Depth Perception, American Psychological Association (Washington, DC), 1961.

Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development, Appleton-Century-Crofts (New York, NY), 1969.

(With Harry Levin) The Psychology of Reading, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1975.

An Odyssey in Learning and Perception (part of "Learning, Development, and Conceptual Change" series), MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.

(With Anne D. Pick) An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Perceiving the Affordances: A Portrait of Two Psychologists, L. Erlbaum Associates (Mahwah, NJ), 2002.

Contributor to journals, including Psychological Science.


Eleanor Jack Gibson was a pioneer in the study of perceptual development in children. Her "visual cliff" experiment, first conducted in 1960, is still pictured in some psychology books today. The cliff was a table upon which a sheet of plate glass lay and extended beyond the table's actual edge. When babies were placed on the table and coaxed by their mothers or offered a favorite toy to entice them to crawl out onto the clear glass, nearly all of them withdrew. Gibson showed how the infant's depth perception helps prevent injuries and falls.

Gibson began the study of psychology under teachers who included Kurt Koffka, Fritz Heider, and James Gibson, whom she would later marry. She was an exceptional student in spite of many obstacles, particularly gender discrimination. She and James married in 1932, and they had two children, to whom Gibson devoted much of her time. When she decided to pursue her postgraduate studies at Yale, she was initially rejected, and when she was accepted, she was refused use of the university's laboratories, cafeterias, and libraries, and admission to Freudian seminars. At one point, she was wrongfully accused of incompetence, and the director of the laboratory later published her work under his name.

When James was offered a position at Cornell, Gibson became his research associate, as rules against nepotism were firmly enforced at the time. When they received a large grant, she was able to begin her study of perceptual learning, and they formulated their first theory in 1955. The papers they published two years later became the basis for his ecological theory.

During the 1950s, Gibson and Richard D. Walk first tested the visual cliff theory with baby animals, and in 1961 they published A Comparative and Analytical Study of Visual Depth Perception.

In 1965, rules about the employment of family members changed, and Gibson was awarded an endowed chair as a professor of psychology. She and James became the first married couple on the Cornell campus.

James died in 1979, and Gibson, who had been able to establish her infant study laboratory just a few years earlier, devoted more of her research to ecological psychology and the concept of affordance, or how objects can be used by a person. In 1982, she was invited to teach in Beijing, China.

Gibson continued to publish, and among her later volumes is An Odyssey in Learning and Perception, a collection of her research articles and new essays "in which Gibson complements her scientific vision with the wisdom of hindsight," noted Nancy McCarell in American Journal of Psychology. Gibson also includes essays by opponents of her theories, including Leo Postman and Richard Gregory. "Throughout her commentary," wrote McCarell, "Gibson's intellectual honesty forms the ground against which her intellectual determination figures boldly."

An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development, written with Anne D. Pick, advances Gibson's theories on the development of perception in the human child from birth through the toddler years, beginning with communication, through recognizing and acting on objects, and concluding with locomotion.

Near the end of her life, Gibson wrote Perceiving the Affordances: A Portrait of Two Psychologists. The book, unlike her others, is not academic, but rather a presentation of scientific observations interspersed with personal anecdotes. In addition to covering her own research, she writes about her husband's influence, his research, and the development of his theories. The birth of her grandchildren and the death of her husband are also discussed.

F. Averill and D. M. Bernad reviewed the volume for Cognitive Systems Research, noting that "the postscript finds Gibson reflecting back on her life thus far. She explores the nature versus nurture question, suggesting that genes and the environment both contribute to the development of an individual. The reader is left with one last piece of wisdom elucidating the analogy of affordances with life: the environment affords us with the opportunity to make choices that result in the most personal satisfaction and success."

Gibson touches on concepts that include optical flow, depth perception, object constancy, and locomotion, according to Averill and Bernad, who said her discussion of these topics renders the volume "generally enjoyable because it gives the reader a greater understanding of the Gibsons' theories." Furthermore, they found the social perspective of Gibson's life to be worth reading, including the number of scientific achievements she accomplished while developing her field, notable not only in and of itself, but also for having occurred in a time of great discrimination against women.

Averill and Bernad concluded by saying that "although she confesses that she put her career on hold in order to raise her children and support her husband's professional development, she never lost her focus and desire to pursue her own questions. Such determination is the mark not simply of a brilliant woman, but more importantly, a brilliant scientist."

Gibson died on December 30, 2002, in Columbia, South Carolina, at the age of ninety-two.



Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Pick, Anne D., editor, Perception and Its Development: A Tribute to Eleanor J. Gibson, L. Erlbaum Associates (Hillsdale, NJ), 1979.


American Journal of Psychology, summer, 1993, Nancy McCarell, review of An Odyssey in Learning and Perception, pp. 273-278.

Cognitive Systems Research (McGill University), September 6, 2002, F. Averill and D. M. Bernad, review of Perceiving the Affordances: A Portrait of Two Psychologists.

Contemporary Psychology, April, 1976, Jonathan Baron, review of The Psychology of Reading, pp. 261-263.

Development Psychology, September, 1992, Herbert L. Pick, Jr., "Eleanor J. Gibson: Learning to Perceive and Perceiving to Learn," pp. 787-794.

Journal of Reading, January, 1977, Richard L. Allington, review of The Psychology of Reading, pp. 339-340.

Modern Language Journal, November, 1977, Olga K. Garnica, review of The Psychology of Reading, pp. 387-388.

New Scientist, November 14, 1992, Stuart Sutherland, review of An Odyssey in Learning and Perception, p. 45.

Science, May 22, 1970, Wendell R. Garner, review of Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development, pp. 958-959.



New York Times, January 4, 2003, p. A12.


Cornell Chronicle, (January 16, 2003).*

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Gibson, Eleanor Jack 1910-2002

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