Eleanor J. Gibson
Researched and written by:  Leslie Anne Shafer
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work.

For over 60 years now, Eleanor Jack Gibson has been an extremely influential character in the field of psychology. She has specialized her field by focusing in perceptual development, language development, and reading in children, as well as controlled rearing in animals. This is from her love and passion for children and animals. She was born on December 7, 1910 in Peoria, Illinois to William and Isabel Jack. She has a younger sister, Emily. She received her bachelor’s degree, as well as her master’s degree from Smith College at Cornell University, and in 1938 she received her Ph.D. from Yale University and began her amazing and successful career in developmental psychology. Eleanor was influenced by Frtiz Heider, Kurt Koffka, and her to-be husband, James Gibson. They married on September 17, 1932 and together they had James J. and Jean Grier. (Skinner, P.) She did not like the introspective methods of Gestalt Psychology; she preferred being as objective as possible. Eleanor Gibson has taught at many universities, including Cornell, the University of Minnesota, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California, Emory University, and the University of Pennsylvania. (Skinner, P.)

Eleanor Gibson did not excel at school during her younger years due to discrimination against women. (Skinner, P) One obstacle that Eleanor Gibson fought courageously was the fact that as a female student, she was unable to use the laboratories, cafeterias, or libraries at Yale. Furthermore, she was unable to attend the Freudian psychology seminars. This is an example of the discrimination against women that was common during her studies at Yale during that time. Other problems that women encountered were being denied admission to graduate school, lower salaries, and the lack of opportunity for promotion. (Schultz & Schultz) Through email conversation, Eleanor Gibson expressed to me that these facts are much exaggerated and in fact she very much enjoyed her time at Yale.

While on a picnic at the Grand Canyon with her 2 year-old daughter, (Gibson, via email conversation) she embarked upon perhaps her most famous discovery, the visual cliff (1960). This was a huge milestone in child development and our understanding of the field. This was a test that she and Richard Walk used to understand an infant’s depth perception. Depth perception is the ability to understand and correctly judge the distance from ourselves to an object, as well as from one object to another. This is an important part of an infant’s development as it helps them learn to avoid bumping into furniture and walls as well as the dangers of obstacles, such as a steep staircase. The cliff consists of a drop off point that is covered by a piece of transparent glass. The dimensions of the glass are disguised by checkerboard print patterns that require the ability of depth perception in order to understand and avoid its cliff drop-off point. The cliff works by placing an infant, usually 6-14 months of age, on one side of the cliff. A tempting reward, like the infant’s parent, or perhaps a favorite toy, is placed on the other side of the cliff. The child is encouraged to seek the toy or caregiver in an attempt to test for depth perception. (Berk, L) Most children (90%) over six and a half months old will refuse to crawl out onto the piece of glass, therefore proving that they have the ability to understand objects in three dimensions. They have, at this age, grasped the concept of depth perception. 

One of Gibson’s many accomplishments is her differential theory. This suggests that we are able to perceive stimuli after we identify some specific features of the stimuli. With repetition, stimuli become differentiated from one another. By repetition, we may make more and more differentiations about stimuli as we analyze or break down patterns. She and her husband said that through differentiation, perceptual learning may be accomplished. This is important for all aspects of learning, including face recognition and reading. They said that we begin as young children who confuse stimuli. Through the process of repetition, items that were once confusing begin to become differentiated from one another. This is one of the important ways that we learn and it is also connected to depth perception as well as object perception. (Schultz & Schultz)

Gibson also studied reading skills development and perceptual development in children. Gibson is accredited for her exceptional work concerning her theory of descriptive features. Using the letters of the Roman alphabet, she wanted to show that every object is unique in the sense that in order to fully understand the object, you must know the alternative features of the object, to which it almost the object itself, but not exactly. By using this alphabet, she showed that each letter is composed of a pattern of different visually distinctive features, each letter unique from the next. She showed that some of these distinctive features include a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line. For example, the letter “N” is composed of two diagonal lines and one horizontal line. After having analyzed the alphabet, she composed a chart showing these features. Next, she developed a “confusion matrix” which showed the similarities, expressed in percentages, that one letter shared with another letter. Some letters have no similarities and some share many. The letters “C” and “G” are similar while “A” and “Z” are not. Preschoolers tend to confuse the similar letters, like “E” and “F,” and “M” and “W.” Other sets of letters are equally difficult and are referred to as “mirror images.” These include the letters “b and d,” and “p and q.” Young children frequently mistake these for each other as they are extremely difficult for them to tell apart. She used these findings with children in an attempt to show reaction time and discrimination errors between letters of similar and different features. (Schaner, S.)

For her outstanding work on perceptual development and learning, Eleanor J. Gibson received the National Medal of Science in 1992. She is only of only 10 psychologists who have ever received this award. She has also received several honorable doctorates as well as numerous awards from the American Psychological Association. (

Berk, Laura. (1999). Infants and Children; Prenatal Through Middle Childhood. Allyn 
          and Bacon: Massachusetts. 

Gibson, Eleanor J. (2002) Email Conversation Correspondence 

Schaner, Sharon. (2001). “Distinctive Features of the Hebrew Alphabet.” Retrieved April  8, 2002 from 

Schultz, Duane, & Schultz, Sydney Ellen. (2000). A History of Modern Psychology, 7th
          ed. Harcourt College Publishers: Florida.




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