Mary Cover Jones

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For other people named Mary Jones, see Mary Jones (disambiguation).
Mary Cover Jones
Picture of Mary Cover Jones.jpg
Born (1897-09-01)September 1, 1897
Johnstown,Pennsylvania, US
Died July 22, 1987(1987-07-22)
Santa Barbara, California, US
Occupation American developmental psychologist
Known for Desensitization
Spouse(s) Harold Jones (married 1920)
Children 2

Mary Cover Jones (September 1, 1897 – July 22, 1987) was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and died in Santa Barbara, California. Within psychology—a scientific field dominated by male scientists throughout much of the 20th century—Mary Cover Jones stands out as a pioneer of behavior therapy; Wolpe dubbed her "the mother of behavior therapy" due to her famous study of Peter and development of desensitization.[1]


Cover Jones was the middle child of three born to Carrie Louise Higson and Charles Blair Cover. She had a brother who was five years older than her, and a sister who was four years younger than her. Jones' mother was a homemaker involved in several local community organizations while her father was a businessman. Due to regretting not attending post-secondary education himself, Jones encouraged his children to attend university[1] Visiting Chautauqua Institute on Lake Erie, Ohio became a yearly summer trip for the Cover family during Cover Jones' childhood. These trips along with her father's encouragement helped Cover Jones choose to attend Vassar College in New York after graduating in 1915. Being accepted into Vassar was no problem for Cover Jones as she was recommended by her high school.

College life[edit]

After being accepted into Vassar College, Cover Jones chose to study psychology. She took every psychology course offered at Vassar College except one that was offered by Washburn.[2] Washburn refused to admit her into the class because of a poor laboratory grade in a previous class. Soon after graduating from Vassar College, in 1919, Cover Jones attended a lecture by noted behaviorist, Watson,in New York. She eventually went on to work with Watson. This lecture seemed to convince Cover Jones to pursue psychology since she enrolled at Columbia University for graduate studies after this and completed her Master's degree there in 1920. Harold Jones was another graduate student at Columbia that Cover Jones ended up marrying in 1920.


In 1923, Cover Jones became an Associate professor of Psychological Research at the Institute of Educational Research, Teachers' College, Columbia University.[2] Cover Jones conducted her famous study of Peter during her position as associate at Columbia University. She completed her dissertation after her work in the Peter Study. She went on to work with 365 infants in various areas in New York City and studied the development of early behavior of young children. Due to a male dominated field her doctoral dissertation wasn't given much attention until it gained the attention of Wolpe.[3]

In the summer of 1927, Cover Jones, her husband, and their 2 daughters moved to California. Barbara her first daughter was born in 1922. Leslie, her second daughter, came along three years later in 1925. A position as Director of Research was offered to Harold, while Cover Jones accepted a position as research associate at the Institute for Child Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. In the late 1920s, Jones assumed a position as research associate at the Institute for Child Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley where she became involved in the longitudinal Oakland Growth Study (OGS).[4]

In 1952, Cover Jones became Assistant Professor of Education at Berkeley. Although she had relevant experience and conducted research, she was not allowed to become a full professor due to anti-nepotism rules during that era which meant that married women could not have faculty positions. The University of California, Berkeley eventually set aside that rule and in 1959 Cover Jones became full professor for one year.

1960 is a prominent year concerning Cover Jones. During 1960, she became president of the Division of Developmental Psychology of the APA. In addition, her husband, Harold, died from a heart attack, and she retired.

In 1968, Jones received the prestigious G. Stanley Hall Award from the American Psychological Association (APA[4]). The G. Stanley Hall Award is awarded to recognize notable contributions to developmental psychology. Some of Jones' contributions include her study of Peter which laid the foundation for behavior therapy, her development of desensitization, and direct conditioning to overcome fears. Unrelated to psychological research, Cover Jones spent her time being involved in committees related to child welfare and spent a great deal of time and effort on such causes.

Psychological research[edit]

Relationship with Watson[edit]

While attending a speech by leading behavioral psychologist, Watson, Cover Jones became interested in his most famous study, the Little Albert experiment. In this experiment Albert was classically conditioned to express a fearful response when a white rat was presented along with a loud noise that shocked the child. Cover Jones began to wonder if the techniques used by Watson could be used to make children less fearful of a stimulus in essence reversing his findings. These thoughts lead to her development of desensitization.[3]

Little Peter experiment[edit]

Cover Jones developed a technique known as desensitization, used to cure phobias. A patient may be desensitized through the repeated introduction of a series of stimuli that approximate the phobia.[5] Desensitization was first developed by Jones in 1924 with her famous study of Little Peter.[3]

Her most often cited work is her study of the removal a fear of rabbits through conditioning, which she conducted on a three-year-old named Peter at the Institute of Educational Research, Columbia University Teachers' College. Jones treated Peter's fear of a white rabbit by "direct conditioning", in which a pleasant stimulus (food) was associated with the rabbit.[6] Cover Jones began her experiment with the goal of finding the most effective way to eliminate irrational fears in children. Peter was chosen for the study because in all other aspects of infant life he was considered to be normal except for his fear of rabbits. Peter was not only afraid of rabbits, but Cover Jones showed he would also cry when presented with other similar items such as, feathers, a fur coat, a fur rug and cotton. Cover Jones first conducted her experiments using a range of different treatments in order to eliminate the fear response in Peter. Cover Jones described her methods used in the Peter study as “patient, meticulous and painstaking procedures,” in order to understand what was taking place. This is a method that she learned from her mentor Watson.[6]

Cover Jones initiated the study having the rabbit 12 feet from Peter and brought the rabbit closer until it was nibbling on Peter’s fingers. As the rabbit was gradually brought closer to Peter with the presence of his favorite food (candy), his fear subsided and he eventually was able to touch the rabbit without crying.[3] After curing Peter of his phobia, Cover Jones wrote and published a paper about the experiment titled "A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter (1924)". Though now considered to be a revolutionary experiment, at the time it was largely dismissed and was not even written up as Cover Jones’ dissertation. Cover Jones; however, was able to focus on furthering her interest in psychology by researching developmental psychology more in depth.

This study by Cover Jones is considered by some to be a defining landmark in behavioral therapy and was a breakthrough in how behaviorism could be studied and manipulated in the laboratory.[6] Due to the rediscovery of this research in the 1970s, Cover Jones was considered “the mother of behavioral therapy” by her friend Wolpe and other colleagues.[4]

Oakland growth study[edit]

The Oakland growth study is one of Cover Jones' most influential studies. The Oakland growth study was the third in a series of longitudinal studies from Berkeley College. The first study in the trio was the Berkeley Growth Study, looking at newborns (1928) followed by the Berkeley Guidance study, looking at preschool age children (1928). Both studies were done by looking at children living in Berkeley, California.[7] The Oakland Growth Study (OGS) was led by Cover Jones and her husband. The study began in 1932 in Oakland, California. The Study followed 212 students in the fifth and sixth grade who were born between the years 1920-1921.[8] The participants were studied twice a year until they graduated from high school. The study’s primary goal was to understand typical adolescence. They looked at physical abilities, physiological changes, as well as peer relationships.[7] They were then studied in adulthood at ages 38, 48, and 60 years old.[9] The studies in adulthood consisted of interviews, questionnaires, personality inventories, and health assessments. The final interview of participants took place in 1980, when Cover Jones was 83 years old.

The results from the Oakland Growth Study allowed Cover Jones to publish 100 papers. Also due to the well documented data from this study, the data has been reanalyzed and used for other research in the field of child development. The study is considered to be such a huge success thanks to Cover Jones' ability to maintain friendships with the study’s participants, and her strong commitment to the research.[2]

An important finding from the Oakland Growth Study was the long term emotional, and behavioral effects of boys and girls who went through puberty at a younger age or at an older age. Additional findings of the Oakland Growth Study were the developmental effects of drinking in adolescents and the effects of economic status.[8]


Cover Jones died in Santa Barbara, California on July 22, 1987. She left behind her two daughters, Leslie Alexander, who currently lives in Santa Barbara and Barbara Coates who currently lives in Claremont, California, and her six grandchildren. Minutes before she passed away, Cover Jones told her sister, "I am still learning about what is important in life".[10]


  1. ^ Rutherford, A. "Introduction to "A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter", Mary Cover Jones (1924)" (TEXT). Retrieved 2008-11-09. 
  2. ^ a b c Ware, S. (2005), Notable American women: A biographical dictionary completing the twentieth century. (Vol. 5). Harvard University: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
  3. ^ a b c d Jones, M. C. (1924). A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter. Pedagogical Seminary, 31, 308-315. Retrieved from
  4. ^ a b c Rutherford, A. (2010). Profile of Mary Cover Jones. In A. Rutherford (Ed.), Psychology's Feminist Voices Multimedia Internet Archive. Retrieved from
  5. ^ T.L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. "Unit 6: Learning." pp. 101 [1]
  6. ^ a b c Logan, D. (1980). Mary Cover Jones: Feminine as Asset. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 5(1), 103
  7. ^ a b Ruspini, E. (2002). An introduction to longitudinal research. (pp. 12-13). New York City, New York: Routledge.
  8. ^ a b Laursen, B., Little, T. D., & Card, N. A. (2012). Handbook of developmental research methods. (p. 133). New York City, New York: The Guilford Press.
  9. ^ Grimm, K. (n.d.). intergenerational studies. Retrieved from
  10. ^ "Reiss, B.K. (1990)". A biography of Mary Cover Jones. Berkeley, CA: Wright Institute

Further reading[edit]

  • Jones, M. C. (1924). A laboratory study of fear: The case of Peter. The Pedagogical Seminary, 31, 308-315
  • Jones, M. C. (1974). Albert, Peter, and John B. Watson. American Psychologist, 29, 581-584
  • Jones, M.C. (1926). The development of early behavior patterns in young children. Pedagogical Seminary, 33, 537-585.
  • Jones, M.C. (1968). Personality correlates and antecedents of drinking patterns in adult males. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 31, 2-12.

External links[edit]