Eleanor Maccoby Biography

Eleanor Maccoby is an eminent psychology who is perhaps best-known for her research on topics such as development, sex roles, and child social development. Her PhD was awarded for the work she did in BF Skinner's learning lab at Harvard University. It was during her research and work at Harvard that her interest in child development was ignited. 

She went on to become a prominent figure who has had a lasting influence on the field of psychology.

Best Known For:

  • Research in developmental psychology
  • Research on gender and sex roles
  • Studies on selective attention
  • Investigations into the impact of divorce
  • First woman to chair the Stanford Psychology Department

Early Life and Education

Eleanor Emmons Maccoby was born on May 15, 1917 in Tacoma, Washington. She was the second of four daughters born to her parents, Eugene and Viva. She married a psychology graduate student named Nathan Maccoby during her senior year of college and the couple later went on to adopt three children. She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Washington and went on to earn both her master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Michigan.


Maccoby worked briefly with behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner before she was offered a position at Harvard University by psychologist Robert Sears. Her early research included studies on the impact of television on children and investigations into child-rearing practices. Eventually, Maccoby began to feel that her gender was impacting her ability to attain professional advancement at Harvard, so she decided to take a position at Stanford University as a professor of psychology.

Maccoby's research turned to focus on the psychology of sex differences. Her work found that biological influences were not as impactful as the scientific community previously thought. Her work also suggested that social, cultural, and parental influences were primary determinants of gender roles and preferences.

As part of her work with Carol Jacklin, Maccoby realized that much of the literature they were reviewing on sex differences had clear publication biases. While research existed on gender differences, much of it was unpublished and excluded from final manuscripts. The researchers decided to conduct a thorough review of the subject, including both published and unpublished research as part of their analysis. The resulting book, "The Psychology of Sex Differences," is now considered a classic, cited more than 11,515 times.

Her work during the 1990s centered largely on the impact that divorce had on children. Her longitudinal investigations into the effect that divorce had on families led her to write two books on the topic, including "Dividing the Child" (co-authored by Robert Mnookin) and "Adolescents After Divorce" (co-authored with Christy Buchanan and Sanford Dornbusch).

Selected Publications by Eleanor Maccoby

Some of her best-known publications date back to the 1950s as well as much more recent works. One of her earliest texts on the subject of child development was "Patterns of Child-Rearing," published in 1957. The book grew out of her large-scale study on child rearing, which served as an early work examining parent-child relationships. Other books include the 1974 work "The Psychology of Sex Differences" and the 1998 book "The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together." 

Contributions to Psychology

Maccoby's work helped pioneer research on gender roles and sex differences. She has received numerous awards and recognitions for her work, including the G. Stanley Hall Award (1982) and the American Psychology Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award (1996).

Among her many accomplishments, she also served as the president of Division 7 of the APA from 1971 to 1972 and was the first woman to serve as the chair of the psychology department at Stanford University. She was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1993.

Division 7 of the American Psychological Association also presents an award in her name, the Maccoby Award, to psychology authors who make important contributions in the area of developmental psychology. In one study ranking the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th-century, Maccoby was ranked at number 70.

Other awards that she has won over the course of her career include the Stanford University Walter J. Gores Award for excellence in teaching and an APA Distinguished Scientific Contributions award.

Eleanor Maccoby turned 100 years old on May 15, 2017. She passed away on December 11, 2018.

2 Sources
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  1. American Psychology Association, Division 7. Great leaders in developmental psychology: Eleanor Maccoby, PhD.

  2. Haggbloom SJ, Warnick R, Warnick JE, et al. The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology. 2002;6(2):139-152. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139

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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.