E. Mavis Hetherington
University of Virginia
Mavis Hetherington’s research focused on normal and deviant personality development, the development of sex role typing, the role of parental characteristics and family structure on child development, and the effects of divorce on children. In her early studies, she found that father absence in childhood affects girls as well as boys, contradicting the conventional wisdom of the time which focused on father absence as the loss of role models for boys. Hetherington’s research showed that girls’ loss of fathers in childhood had important effects on their later relationships with men. Among other things, her research demonstrated a “sleeper” effect, because the sex role problems for girls did not emerge until adolescence, when cross-sex challenges arise.
Hetherington’s best-known studies and writings are on divorce, remarriage, and step-parenting. Her multi-measure, multi-informant strategy and longitudinal designs brought sophistication to an area that relied primarily on anecdotes. She cast research on family structure in a risk-resilience framework that transformed both the research problem and the policy debate. Her most recent work, in collaboration with David Reiss and Robert Plomin, highlights the powerful role of genetic individual differences in family interactions. She always knew that each person brought a unique perspective to interactions and interpretations of family life, but she did not suspect that genetic individual differences would play the major role in family interactions.
An outstanding lecturer, Hetherington’s legendary performances, without notes, captivated student and professional audiences for decades. She also mentored many graduate students, whose careers she followed and helped over many years. In a 2004 issue of the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer, Richard Weinberg described how Hetherington transformed his professional life from law to psychology in her child psychology course at Wisconsin. Her collaborative training program at Virginia educated many outstanding PhD and post-doctoral students.
In sum, Hetherington is dynamic, smart, optimistic, charismatic, and irreverent. She has achieved singular advances in science and her contributions to education are being multiplied by the legions of researchers who carry on her important work.