14 Mary Cover Jones

Claire Bailly; Cal Fishel-Stephenson; Michelle Morrison; Erin Runningen; Grant Anton; Michelle Mudriyan; and Myah Shaikh

*Note: There are 2 versions of this chapter, written by 2 different groups of students.

Group 1: Claire Bailly, Cal Fishel-Stephenson, Michelle Morrison, and Erin Runningen

General Biography

One of the most remarkable people in the history of Psychology is Mary Cover Jones. She was born on September 1, 1896, in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, and died on July 22, 1987 (Krasner, 1988). One of her most famous experiments, “The Case of Peter,” earned her the name “the mother of behavior therapy,” bestowed upon her by her friend and colleague, Joseph Wolpe, in 1974 (Rutherford, 2010). However, she did not receive proper recognition until long after she completed this experiment. A passionate figure throughout her career, she would contribute numerous academic findings that even today help shape the field of psychology.

Even in childhood, Jones excelled in her studies. In 1915 she would find acceptance into Vassar College and would have her first introduction to psychology by Margaret Floy Washburn (Logan, 1980). Under Washburn’s guidance, Jones’ curiosity towards psychology grew. While at Vassar, Jones would also happen to befriend Rosalie Rayner, one of her classmates. This friendship proved to be quite beneficial for Jones. When Rayner graduated, she attended John Hopkins University for graduate studies, and while there she would eventually become John B. Watson’s assistant (Krasner, 1988). When Jones went to visit Rayner after graduating from Vassar, she had the opportunity to attend one of Watson’s lectures. She was intrigued by Watson’s current experiment (famously known as the “Little Albert” experiment), which used classical conditioning to cause a toddler (Little Albert) to fear rats. The experiment was conducted by presenting a rat to the child, while simultaneously hitting a gong to produce a loud bang. Over time, Little Albert associated the rat with the scary noise and would cry whenever he saw the rat or stimuli that closely resembled the animal, such as fur and cotton wool (Mcleod, 2018). This led Jones to wonder if classical conditioning could also be used to remove fears.

Jones attended Columbia University in 1919 where she met her future husband, Harold Jones. Within the year they were married, and it was at Columbia that Jones would go on to perform one of her most well-known experiments (Krasner, 1988). With Watson acting as her supervisor (in name only, Watson was involved in a well-known divorce scandal which sullied his name and career. He was able to supervise with permission of the Department Head, but his name never appeared in the Columbia University Catalog), Jones conducted the case study on Little Peter (Krasner, 1988). Although the results of her experiment challenged the existing beliefs about treating underlying conditions, her work was not appreciated until long after the experiment was conducted. Still, Jones would push forward with her career, with much of her research focused on the early behavior patterns in babies and young children (Rutherford, 2010).

After her husband was offered a position as Director of Research at the Institute for Child Welfare at the University of California, Jones and her family packed their bags and moved to Berkeley, CA (Logan, 1980). Jones herself took a position as Research Associate and soon became involved in three longitudinal studies, although she herself is most associated with the Oakland Growth Study. The results of which led Jones to research the effects of puberty, drinking, and behavioral characteristics in adolescents (Krasner, 1988).

In 1960, after 33 years at the Institute, Jones and her husband retired, not long after which, her husband would pass away from a fatal heart attack. After the passing of her husband, Jones would continue to work throughout the end of her career. Jones herself passed away in 1987, leaving her sister with her final words, “I am still learning about what is important in life” (Rutherford, 2010, para. 11).

Important Achievements

Jones is a notable developmental psychologist because of her contributions to several areas of study on childhood and adolescent development. Some of her most important works included examining drinking behaviors, early or late puberty, and the deconditioning of phobias (Mussen & Eichorn, 1988). Her graduate work exploring therapies to reduce phobias in children included one of her most famous studies, “A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter” (Pomerleau, 1984). In this experiment, Jones used classical conditioning to help 3-year-old Peter overcome his fear of rabbits and other similar white, fluffy objects. Peter grew more comfortable with the rabbit with successive trials through a process of deconditioning, or the unlearning of a conditioned response, eventually touching the rabbit without fear (Jones, 1924). Jones deconditioned Peter by pairing his favorite food, candy, with the conditioned stimulus, a rabbit. Jones referred to this procedure as “direct conditioning,” but it would serve as the foundation for a phobia treatment that is today known as systematic desensitization, a process which utilizes relaxation techniques while slowly increasing the exposure to a fear-inducing stimulus (Rutherford, 2017).

Jones’ second most famous study was the Oakland Growth Study (OGS). The purpose of this longitudinal study was to examine adolescent development, and it included about 200 participants around 11 years of age from several elementary schools in California. Jones continued this study with some of the participants into their late adulthoods (Rutherford, 2017). During this time, Jones published over 100 papers from the Oakland Growth Study alone, of which she became a pioneer in several areas of research. Her papers addressed topics such as the psychological and behavioral implications of early or late physical maturation in adolescent boys and girls (Mussen & Eichorn, 1988). As the study progressed, her papers later examined antecedent personality factors that were associated with later drinking behavior (Pomerleau, 1984). Her incredible effort towards maintaining contact and forming connections with the study’s participants is considered one of the major reasons why the Oakland Growth Study did not suffer major attrition despite running for over 60 years, with Jones in her 80s for the final interview (Logan, 1980). The personal relationships that Jones developed with her participants would also shape her work. Jones’ outlook on her study participants grew to be more holistic, and she reflected on this point at the Temple University conference in Behavior Therapy and Behavior Modification in 1974, stating:

“My last 45 years have been spent in longitudinal research in which I have watched the psychobiological development of our study members as they grew from children to adults now in their fifties… My association with this study has broadened my conception of the human experience. Now, I would be less satisfied to treat the fears of a 3-year-old, or of anyone else, without a later follow-up and in isolation from an appreciation of him as a tantalizingly complex person with unique potential for stability and change.” (Rutherford, 2010, para. 10)

Her view of her participants as full people, even viewing children in this light, was not the only progressive perspective that she held that was unconventional for the time. She outwardly vocalized her belief that the problematization of the education of women was not due to a fault of the character of women, but rather due to the cultural expectations of domestic labor that frequently forced women to return home from college (Rutherford, 2017).

As a woman with intellectual pursuits, Jones faced sexism within her professional career. Even with these barriers, Jones was passionate to continue her work and would go on to produce the first television course educating about the psychology of child development together with her husband in 1952 (Mussen & Eichorn, 1988). She was particularly interested in how this television series could give women who were confined to their homes as a result of domestic duties an education that had previously been reserved for college campuses (Rutherford, 2017).

To add to her successes, Jones would eventually be appointed as Assistant Professor at the University of California Berkeley, earning a full professorship in 1959, one year before her retirement. After retirement, she served as the President of the American Psychology Association’s Division of Developmental Psychology, and in 1968, she was awarded the G. Stanley Hall Award by the APA for her lifetime work in developmental psychology (Mussen & Eichorn, 1988). Jones was not just a pioneer for her research, but also as a woman in a male-dominated field, supporting other women’s rights to receive an education, and viewing participants as full, complex, nuanced beings who were not reducible to mere data points or stereotypes.

Historical Context

The 20th century was a foundational period in the growth of psychology as a discipline, navigating away from a much older way of thought about human physiology and diving deeper into the mind. Behaviorism, in its early stages, began with Ivan Pavlov’s work with classical conditioning, and was thereafter built upon by Watson (Jhangiani, 2023). Further impacting Jones’ work, behaviorism dominated experimental psychology for several decades, becoming largely responsible for establishing psychology as a scientific discipline. Building from Pavlov’s work with salivating dogs, Watson found similar evidence showing that given a neutral stimulus, it is possible to make the stimulus conditioned through behavior and learning, although rather than with animals, Watson began his work with children. John A. Mills, an American psychologist and historian, noted that “we know enough to say with confidence that psychological behaviorism arose not within psychology itself but within American society, from about the 1880s onwards,” (Mills, 1998, p. 2) suggesting just how ingrained the discipline was becoming in everyday lives and how it reached far beyond the laboratory (Watson, 1913).

Even with psychology’s advances, as a woman in developmental psychology, Jones lacked recognition from the scientific community for being a woman. Getting her work recognized was further complicated by the reality that developmental psychology was considered a disreputable field during that period (Pomerleau, 1984). Despite having great success in her research and making important headway in the field of developmental psychology, Jones struggled to find university positions that would accept her because of sexist views that kept women out of university research at the time (Pomerleau, 1984). Anti-nepotism rules added another barrier to women pursuing professorship within university settings. Since Jones’ husband was a professor, Jones was denied the opportunity to earn such a position herself, and instead accepted a position as a research associate at the University of California Berkeley. She would receive a tenure track as a professor decades later (Pomerleau, 1984). Additionally, during such a time where women were shunned from such academic vigor, Jones argued that “the problems of women are related to and frequently stem from the attitudes of men toward women,” and it was about time this dated, sexist view began to disintegrate (Rutherford, 2017, p. 237).

As it is for so many influential figures in history, Jones did not embark on this journey alone, and even given the zeitgeist of the period and ever-changing climate, Jones wholeheartedly believed in the work she was pursuing. As an undergraduate student at Vassar College, Jones took “every psychology course offered” to her…except for one (Rutherford, 2017). The only psychology class she missed out on was due to a mediocre grade in an earlier lab course. After bumping into Rayner at Vassar, a figure who later became Watson’s assistant with the Little Albert experiment, Jones’ world expanded and changed indefinitely. After attending one of his weekend lectures, simply amazed and intrigued by his work, Jones’ future research and findings came to be heavily inspired by Watson’s behavioral view as her admiration grew. (Krasner, 1988). Once at Columbia University, Watson became Jones’ doctoral research advisor, supporting her work in the elimination of fear within children, treating underlying psychodynamic states rather than overt behavior. In addition to Watson as a role model, Jones became Robert Woodworth’s assistant, who later became known for his functionalist approach to psychology.

As Jones was paving her own path to call attention to the importance of developmental psychology and behavior therapy, the historical turmoil of the 1900s ended up being a major catalyst for the timeliness and content of her research. As The Great Depression swept through the United States, adults were not the only ones facing economic, societal, and familial stress; children were being forced to grow up faster during the crisis, forcibly forgoing formal schooling, obtaining a job at an early age, and all while attempting to reconcile the muddled family roles at home (“Psychological Impact of the Great Depression,” 2023). Just a few years after the official beginning of The Great Depression, Jones began one of her most influential studies, the OGS. To better understand typical adolescence, the turmoil of this period made it that much more imperative when the important findings from the study were released. Jones and colleagues revealed the long-term emotional and behavioral effects of individuals going through puberty, or being forced to grow up, at an older age, and how this would impact their psychological well-being and behavior later in life (Elder, 1998).

Further findings from this study pointed at the developmental impacts economic status had on adolescence during this crucial period of life; Beginning with the stock market crash of 1929, President Hoover’s lack of responsibility in the economy (leading to some 15 million people unemployed in 1932), and Roosevelt’s eventual inauguration, the country was arguably on less solid ground than ever before. Although such a crisis negatively impacted the United States, there was the ironic contradiction gained during this time: women (History.com Editors, 2009). Considering Jones’ work with the OGS, it is apparent how strongly the outside world impacted her work on behavior therapy.

In an effort to contribute knowledge that would eventually better the human condition, Jones remained an active researcher and advocate until just a few months before her death, where she continues to inspire and impact the world of psychology today (Rutherford, 2000).  Jones learned from the great researchers before her, and rather than considering her scientific work to include the vulnerable, valuable human beings, she considered each person a confidant and friend who happened to participate in her research, humanizing the experience.

Historical Impact

While Jones is now best known for her work involving the deconditioning of fear in a young child, at the time of its publishing her study “The Case of Peter” received little to no attention. In fact, it was considered unsuitable for her dissertation as it was merely a case study with a single participant (Pomerleau, 1984). Though she may not have been recognized for it at the time, the influence Jones’ work had on other behavioral psychologists is apparent. In fact, Wolpe described “The Case of Peter” study as “the first known example of the deliberate use of counteracting responses to overcome neurotic anxieties by gradually approaching peak stimulus.” (Wolpe, 1973, p. 96). In this quote Wolpe is explaining the process of counterconditioning, a therapeutic technique designed by Jones and inspired by the “Little Albert” experiment. Her work in establishing counterconditioning was central to the development of Wolpe’s theory of systematic desensitization, a therapeutic technique still frequently utilized today (Keller et al., 2020). It is typically used to treat a patient’s specific phobia or anxiety and involves keeping the patient in a relaxed state while they imagine a series of increasingly fearsome situations involving their specific phobias (McGlynn, 2002). Both counterconditioning and the therapeutic techniques that were inspired by it have provided individuals with coping strategies that can be used to manage various stressors more effectively.

Jones’ contributions to psychology extend far beyond the now famous “Case of Peter”, with her work with the OGS spanning the majority of her career. In fact, two series of studies that she published based on the data acquired from the OGS received widespread acclaim, specifically her work with the participants in understanding the problems of early and late maturing, and in personality antecedents of drinking problems (Logan 1980). The early study of differences in adolescent development paved the way for future researchers to explore the potential causes of these differences in development and how to treat the psychological problems that might arise within individuals who may be maturing at a rate different than that of their peers. Additionally, they can examine a wider sample of adolescents, as the sample within the OGS was narrow. Her work towards understanding the antecedents of drinking problems in particular was especially novel, as it was among the first of its kind to attempt to identify traits in adolescence that led to future alcoholism. While this was not the first study aimed at understanding the origins of alcoholism, it was the first to have empirical backing as such it built a strong framework that future researchers could employ towards their understanding of its origins. Additionally, though the sample Jones used was small, her immediate research did provide valuable information about possible adolescent interventions to prevent the future development of alcoholic personalities (Logan, 1980).

Jones’ influence on the work of Wolpe should be considered a huge step forward for behavioral therapy, especially considering the widespread use of desensitization as a therapy technique. Additionally, if one were to look at Jones’ direct work, they would find that her nurturing attitude towards the participants of the OGS established a strong precedent for how to properly treat the individuals’ scientists conduct their studies on, particularly when juxtaposed to some of the other longitudinal studies of the time. As one such infamous example, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which ran from 1932 to 1972, did not obtain informed consent from its participants. Scientists from the United States Public Health Service and Centers for Disease Control observed the effects of untreated syphilis on African American patients, while actively preventing them from receiving treatment for the disease, including the penicillin shot which would have cured them when over 250 participants registered for the WWII draft.

While the vile treatment of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study’s participants stands out amongst the various unethical experiments of the 1900s, lack of regulation in human experimentation led to numerous other ethical violations during this period such as the Willowbrook State School Hepatitis Study, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Milgram Obedience Studies, to name a few. Even Watson’s study of Little Albert, from where Jones drew inspiration for the study of Little Peter, would be considered unethical today. Jones’ care and attention to the participants of the OGS were unusual for the time, and she would later reflect on this point, stating “It has always been of the greatest satisfaction to me that I could be associated with the removal of a fear… I could not have played the role of creating fear in a child, no matter how important the theoretical implications” (Pomerleau, 1984, p. 3). This consideration of her participants and the special relationships she formed with them cannot be overstated. In fact, when she passed away over 150 members of the OGS came to her memorial service, saddened to have lost a warm and devoted friend (Krasner, 1988).


Elder, G. H., Jr. (1998). The Life Course as Developmental Theory. Child Development, 69: 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.1998.tb06128.x

Encyclopedia.com (n.d.). Psychological impact of the great depression. https://www.encyclopedia.com/economics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/psychological-impact-great-depression

History.com Editors. (2009). Great Depression History. A&E Television Networks. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history

Jhangiani, R. (2023). Introduction to Psychology: History of Psychology. Pressbooks. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/kpupsyc1100/chapter/history-of-psychology/

Jones, M. C. (1924). A laboratory study of fear: the case of Peter. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 152(4), 462–469. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221325.1991.9914707

Keller, N. E., Hennings, A. C., & Dunsmoor, J. E. (2020). Behavioral and neural processes in counterconditioning: Past and future directions. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 125, 103532. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2019.103532

Krasner, L. (1988). Mary Cover Jones. The Behavior Analyst, 11(1), 91–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392461

Logan, D. D. (1980). Mary Cover Jones: Feminine as asset. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5(1), 103–115. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1980.tb01037.x

McGlynn, F. D. (2002). Systematic desensitization. Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy, 755–764. https://doi.org/10.1016/b0-12-343010-0/00216-6

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Mussen, P., & Eichorn, D. (1988). Mary Cover Jones (1896-1987). The American Psychologist, 43(10), 818–818. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0091933

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Rutherford, A. (2000). Heritage: Mary Cover Jones (1896-1987). PsycEXTRA Dataset. https://doi.org/10.1037/e403942005-026

Rutherford, A. (2010). Biography of Mary Cover Jones. https://www.apadivisions.org/division-35/about/heritage/mary-jones-biography

Rutherford. (2017). “Making better use of U.S. women” Psychology, sex roles, and womanpower in post‐WWII America. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 53(3), 228–245. https://doi.org/10.1002/jhbs.21861

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Wolpe, J. (1973). The practice of behavior therapy. Pergamon Press.


Group 2: Grant Anton, Michelle Mudriyan, and Myah Shaikh

General Biography

Mary Cover Jones was born in 1897 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on September 1st (Rutherford, 2010). She attended Vassar College in 1915 as an undergraduate student where she chased her desire for learning and education. While attending Vassar College she enrolled herself in every psychology course she could find and then went on to graduate in the year of 1919 (Rutherford, 2010). Within the same year, she went to a weekend lecture by John B. Watson where he discussed his study about Little Albert; this is where and when Mary Cover Jones decided she would take steps towards graduate work in psychology due to an interest in developmental psychology.

Jones started this work in 1919 at Columbia University where she quickly graduated with her master’s degree in psychology in the summer of 1920 (Rutherford, 2010). A few years later, in 1923, she was assigned to be an Associate in Psychology Research at the Institute of Educational Research, Columbia University Teachers’ College where she began her research study centered around direct conditioning with pleasant stimuli (Rutherford, 2010). In this study she used a boy named Peter who was afraid of rabbits. She would present his favorite food at the same time as the rabbit and over time Peter was able to touch the rabbit without being afraid of it (Rutherford 2010). This experiment became Jones’s most well-known study since exposure to the rabbit allowed Peter to decrease his fear.

In 1923, Jones married Harrold Jones, who was a part of her graduating class from Columbia University. In 1924, Jones published the results of her Little Peter study, and in 1926, she finished her dissertation work, where she focused on behavior patterns in young children in their early years. Within this research, she used 365 babies from three separate Baby Welfare stations located in New York City (Rutherford 2010). By the summer of 1927, she had two young children with her husband, and they decided to move to California. In California, Jones accepted a position as a Research Associate where she became a part of a study conducted by her institute, which went on for an extended period. Due to her devotion to the Oakland Growth Study (or OGS), the rest of her career was set in stone. Jones went on to publish over 100 studies from the data provided by the OGS, many of which were centered around the long-term behavioral effects through childhood and into adolescence (Rutherford, 2010).

Mary Cover Jones was then designated as an Assistant Professor of Education at Berkeley in 1952, although she had previously dedicated many years of lecturing in the department of psychology (Rutherford, 2010). In 1952, Jones and her husband also developed the very first educational course in child psychology, which was aired on television. In the year of 1959, she became a full-time Professor and in 1960 she functioned as the Division of Developmental Psychology of the APA (Rutherford, 2010). Within that same year, her husband Harold died of a heart attack during their retirement. Following her husband’s death, she continued her work and went on to win the G. Stanley Hall Award from the APA in 1968.

Mary Cover Jones died in the city of Santa Barbara, California in the year of 1987 on July 22nd (Rutherford 2010). Within the last minute she said to her sister, “I am still learning about what is important in life.” (Reiss, 1990). Because of her established work and long-term commitment to the field of behavior therapy, she was coined as the “mother of behavior therapy” and she is thought of as a pioneer within her discipline (Rutherford, 2010).

Important Achievements

Mary Cover Jones is well known for her graduate work of developing and testing techniques to reduce or eliminate phobias in children. Jones’s best-known case was of a three-year-old boy named Peter, an active, courier, and an intelligent child (Jones, 1924). To begin, Jones placed Peter in a playpen with some toys, such as beads. After some time, another experimenter placed a white rat into Peter’s playpen and Peter was frightened, he ended up screaming and fell over. Over the next few days, Peter’s reactions to different situations and objects were observed. For example, if a white ball was rolled into his playpen, he would pick it up and hold onto it. Peter showed no fear or interest in other fur-like objects such as a sweater, white cloth rabbit, and wooden doll, but Peter would cry and show immense fear with a fur rug, fur coat, a hat with feathers, and cotton. Peter was also shown a live rabbit and was more afraid of the rabbit than the rat, so the rabbit was chosen for counterconditioning (Jones, 1924).

Peter had daily play sessions with the rabbit and Jones observed his progress and tolerance with the rabbit. Certain times Peter’s behavior would improve but in moments it would also worsen, none of the changes were continuous or spaced out equally. Classical conditioning was used to help Peter’s fear; Peter would be given food he liked (unconditioned stimulus) and while the rabbit (conditioned stimulus) was brought into his playpen, this was repeated and slowly Peter would ignore the rabbit to carry on eating (Jones, 1924). Jones was putting Peter through exposure therapy so that he would lose his fear of rabbits and rats due to seeing them every day and slowly getting used to the animals around him. Over time Peter’s reaction to rats or anything with fur improved. And he began to accept new animals such as frogs, worms, and mice (Jones, 1924). Classical conditioning and social learning helped decondition Peter’s fear, and it allowed him to reduce his fear of general objects and animals. The Little Peter experiment allowed for exposure therapy to grow so that children could reduce their fears or phobias.

The Little Peter Experiment is what Jones is most known for, but she did not stop her career there. Jones took a research associate position at the University of California, Berkeley and this is where she got involved in a longitudinal study–the Oakland Growth Study (OGS). The OGS began in 1932 and was designed to follow a group of approximately 200 fifth and sixth-grade students from puberty through adolescence (Rutherford, 2010). Jones’s most notable studies using the OGS were the long-term psychological and behavioral effects of early and late physical maturation in adolescence, examining the developmental antecedents of drinking problems, and the development of early behavioral patterns in young children.

Specifically, Jones conducted a study comparing two groups of boys who had been classified as physically accelerated or delayed during adolescence. As adolescents, early maturers were more attractive physically, more relaxed, and more poised. Late maturers were described as more expressive, active, talkative, eager, and attention-seeking (Jones, 1957). The two groups of boys were compared until the age of 33, to determine the long-term effects of the rate of maturing upon personality. There were no differences found between the two groups regarding marital status, family size, or education level. The early-maturing boys made exceptional progress as junior executives and the late-maturing boys were more unsettled, showing more hyper or aimless behavior (Jones, 1957). Jones did this study to detail the competitive status between early and late-maturing adolescent boys.

Jones also used the OGS to study early behavioral patterns in young children. Jones conducted an observational study of 365 babies that were put under experimentally controlled conditions. Jones was studying the age norms and periods of development for several early behavioral patterns (Jones, 1926). Jones noted that smiling would happen earliest at around 36 days of age, but by 90 days of age, the response appeared in all 100% of children. Jones studied three types of eye coordination in babies, horizontal would appear first, followed by vertical and circular within the age groups of 33 to 130 days. Blinking was present earliest on the 46th day but in all children by the 124th day. The use of thumbs and reaching appeared around the 108th-116th day, and boys were showing early development in reaching and the use of thumbs. Head support and sitting would occur earliest at 104 days, with 100% of children on the 280th day (Jones, 1926). Jones created this study to see if racial or sex differences played a role in development patterns which showed slight differences, but Jones created a timeframe of when young children began showing signs of behavioral patterns.

The OGS was also used to explore the personality correlates and antecedents of adult male alcohol-related behavior. Cover found results that problem drinkers when compared to moderate and non-drinkers had more uncontrolled and extroverted behavior, they are disorganized under stress, and their mood fluctuates often (Jones, 1968). Problem drinkers had significantly high ratings of interest in the opposite sex, enjoyment of sensuality, higher ratings of rebellion, hostility, unconventional thought processes, and acting out (Jones, 1968). Cover’s study answered the question that the amount of alcohol intake can decipher the personality of a person and that alcohol can control behavior. The OGS influenced the rest of her growing career, but Cover’s biggest contribution to psychology today is her work on developing and testing techniques to reduce or eliminate fears/phobias in children.

Historical Context

Before Jones made her mark in behavioral and developmental psychology, several events took place and possibly influenced her achievements. The occasions occurred both in her early childhood development and during her career development. One event that would have influenced her to have an interest in Psychology was growing up seeing her mother working with the local community as a homemaker (Mussen, 1988). Also, her father, who regretted not attending higher education, encouraged her to study up to university and even ensured Jones and her siblings took a yearly summer trip to Chautauqua Institute on Lake Erie, Ohio.

One profound figure that inspired Cover Jones’s interest in human behavior was John Watson, a decorated behaviorist. While Cover completed her undergraduate degree at Vassar College, she attended Watson’s lecture on conditioning in New York. Cover wondered if, indeed, conditioning could eliminate fears and phobias. Watson’s speech inspired her to conduct the Little Peter Experiment and the concept of direct conditioning (Jones, 1924). This study would later define behavioral psychology and influence many behaviorists. Cover Jones was coined as “the mother of behavior therapy” by one of her colleagues, Joseph Wolpe, and other colleagues due to her multitude of contributions to the psychology of behavior and behavior therapy.

The zeitgeist of the period during which Cover Jones was prominent was the need to understand the behavior of humans and animals, Behaviorism (Logan, 1980). Behaviorists such as Watson believed that either heredity or environmental events influenced human behavior. Behaviorism emerged in the early 1900s, and by the time Cover was prominent, several behaviorists had tried learning how humans and animals behaved in different environments. During the rise of behaviorism, there was a rising need to eradicate human fears and phobias, especially with the rising human conflicts experienced during the First and Second World Wars as well as during the Cold War. Throughout the world, people have witnessed massive destruction of property and loss of lives and lived in fear of the recurrence of the experiences. Through such events, Cover would be inspired to devise different treatments to eliminate the fear responses.

Historical Impact

Among many historical impacts, Mary Cover Jones’s biggest impact on the field of behavior therapy was through her work focused on direct conditioning in minimizing the fears of children. This impact strengthened the way that the field of behavior analysis views the minimization of fears under specific conditions. Jones had a very positive impact on the subfield of behavior therapy and psychology, not only did she pave the way for her research, but she also did for women everywhere who aspired to work and publish in the scientific field as well. In the Little Peter experiment that was conducted by Jones, she created a new response of conditioning which she called direct conditioning. The idea of simultaneously presenting the boy with his favorite food and an animal he feared, was the most successful procedure of direct conditioning because Peter became more tolerant of the animal and slowly lost his fear. The method of direct conditioning used by Jones is known in behavioral therapy as systematic desensitization. Systematic desensitization is a therapy that aims to remove the fear response of a phobia and substitute a relaxation response to the conditional stimulus gradually using counterconditioning (McLeod, 2021). If Jones did not develop and conduct the Little Peter experiment, exposure therapy would have never grown into what it is today. Nowadays, to eliminate a phobia direct conditioning is used.


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Jones, M. C. (1957). The later careers of boys who were early- or late-maturing. Child Development, 28(1), 113. https://doi.org/10.2307/1126006

Jones, M. C. (1968). Personality correlates and antecedents of drinking patterns in adult males. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 32(1), 2–12. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0025447

Logan, D. D. (1980). Mary Cover Jones: Feminine as asset. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5(1), 103–115. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1980.tb01037.x

McLeod], [S. (1970, January 1). Systematic desensitization as a counter-conditioning process. Simply Psychology. Retrieved November 26, 2022, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/Systematic-Desensitisation.html#:~:text=Systematic%20desensitization%20is%20a%20type,stimulus%20gradually%20using%20counter%2Dconditioning.

Mussen, P., & Eichorn, D. (1988). Mary Cover Jones (1896–1987). American Psychologist, 43(10), 818–818. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0091933

Reiss, B. K. (1990). A biography of Mary Cover Jones. Scribd. Retrieved November 26, 2022, from https://www.scribd.com/document/17615966/A-Biography-of-Mary-Cover-Jones

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Open History of Psychology: The Lives and Contributions of Marginalized Psychology Pioneers Copyright © 2023 by Claire Bailly; Cal Fishel-Stephenson; Michelle Morrison; Erin Runningen; Grant Anton; Michelle Mudriyan; and Myah Shaikh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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