A Black Friday Tribute to Mary Cover Jones and her Evidence-Based Cookies

In honor of Black Friday and the opening of this blog, I’d like to sell you on why the story of Mary Cover Jones and her evidence-based cookies is one of the coolest in the history of counseling and psychotherapy.

Mary Cover Jones probably wasn’t big on shopping. That’s because she was a woman scientist in the 1920s. She was too busy working in John Watson’s lab (yes, this is the same John Watson who, at least according to historical accounts, turned out to be a bit of a turkey.)

Mary Cover Jones was amazing. She’s best known for her work with a young boy named “Little Peter.” When everyone else was focusing on how to create fear in humans (or out shopping for Black Friday bargains), Mary was discovering how children’s fears could be extinguished or eliminated.

Little Peter suffered from a specific fear. As silly as it sounds, he was deeply afraid of white bunnies. This fear had generalized to white rats, white cotton balls, and just about anything white and fluffy. Using cookies, Mary Cover Jones counter-conditioned the fear right out of Little Peter. She started by having Peter enjoy his favorite cookies in one corner of the room and gradually brought a caged white rabbit over to him until, eventually, Peter was able to eat cookies with one hand and pet the bunny with the other.

But Mary Cover Jones didn’t stop with Little Peter. Over time, she worked with 70 different institutionalized children, all of whom had big fears. Not only was she successful, but her conclusions (from 1924) still constitute the basic foundation for contemporary (and evidence-based) behavioral approaches to treating human fears and phobias. This is what she wrote toward the end of her 1924 article:

“In our study of methods for removing fear responses, we found unqualified success with only two. By the method of direct conditioning we associated the fear-object with a craving-object, and replaced the fear by a positive response. By the method of social imitation we allowed the subjects to share, under controlled conditions, the social activity of a group of children especially chosen with a view to prestige effect. [Other] methods proved sometimes effective but were not to be relied upon unless used in combination with other methods.” (M.C. Jones, 1924, p. 390)

Mary’s findings remain deeply profound. They have implications not only for how we treat children’s fears, but also for how to work effectively with resistant or reluctant teens and adults. In later blogs I’ll often be serving a batch of Mary’s evidence-based cookies in one form or another.

After her work with John Watson, Mary Cover Jones continued working in a research lab. She moved across the U.S. and 50 years after her publications on children’s fears, she reflected on her life and her work. Here’s what she said:

“[M]y 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 potentials for stability and change.” (Jones, 1974, p. 186).

Just minutes before she passed away, Mary said to her sister, “I am still learning about what is important in life” (as cited in Reiss, 1990).

We should all strive to never stop learning about what’s important in life and therefore be more like Mary Cover Jones. Although the famous psychologist, Joseph Wolpe, dubbed her “the mother of behavior therapy” she was obviously much more than a behavior therapist. You can learn more about her (she would probably have liked that) from a web-based article by Alexandra Rutherford of York University at: http://www.psych.yorku.ca/femhop/Cover%20Jones.htm. Rutherford’s article was originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of theAmerican Psychological Association, Volume 27, Number 3, Summer, 2000.

And, believe it or not, Mary Cover Jones is on Facebook. You should become her friend . . . just like I did.

Mary  Cover Jones

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The MEA Conference in Missoula

Today Rita and I got to provide a 3 hour workshop on Working Effectively with Parents to Montana school counselors and educators. It was great to see former students and to experience the dedication and talents of Montana school personnel. Our main message: Welcome even the most challenging parent comments, thank parents for their openness, reflect their core values back to them, and then once a collaborative relationship is established, use a radical acceptance frame to help them become the best parents they can become.

Theories Video-Shoot 1

Did the first of a series of video-shoots today for a counseling theory-based skills project. I had my Freud action-figure sitting on the table next to me, reminding me how to act. Nevertheless, Dr. Rita still says I was more like Carl Rogers than Sigmund . . . which, basically, I consider a good thing. Carl Rogers with a psychodynamic twist. Or an actively empathic Sigmund. That’s okay with me.

Author, Speaker, University of Montana Professor