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Nancy Eisenberg was named one of the top female scientists in the world by Research.com. Eisenberg had the highest rank of the five Arizonans named.

When Nancy Eisenberg began her career in 1977, there were relatively few women doing research in developmental psychology. Throughout her 44-year career, she’s watched women increase in number until they reached parity and even a majority of professionals in the field.

In that time, she’s also racked up a number of impressive achievements. The latest is being named 133 on Research.com’s list of top female scientists globally — and the top Arizonan; nationally, she ranked even higher at 86.

Research.com’s stated mission is to help academics and students in various scientific fields find publications and conferences around the world to assist their work. Every year the organization creates a list of top scientists through metrics such as the number of scientists’ citations, publications, awards and achievements.

This is the first year Research.com created a list of the top 1,000 female scientists globally and nationally.

“Of course, it’s nice,” Eisenberg told Jewish News after learning her ranking. It wasn’t a complete surprise, however, since she’s been ranked highly in other groupings of scientists.

Eisenberg was born in Cincinnati, attended the University of Michigan and then the University of California, Berkeley, for her doctorate, which she received in 1976. The following year, at 26, she landed a tenure-track position at Arizona State University, where she stayed until her retirement in 2021.

Her research is ongoing and she is still the associate editor of American Psychologist, an academic journal.

“I just don’t have to go to meetings,” she laughed.

This career wasn’t always a given.

“I was always expected to go to college, being from a good Jewish family,” she said. She was valedictorian and an outstanding science student in high school, but science didn’t excite her. But because she thought being a good student meant science, she started out in microbiology.

“My first course bored me to death. But then I took a psychology course, and it just interested me. From there, I started taking more and more psychology and something about it just clicked with me,” she said.

Eisenberg’s work focuses on developmental psychology, including the topics of prosocial behavior, empathy, emotionality, self-regulation and adjustment. Her research is multidisciplinary and looks at various factors, including personality development, cognition and moral reasoning.

“When I started, no one was looking at the role of self-regulation in sympathy and prosocial behavior and few people were studying children’s sympathy and prosocial behavior,” she told Jewish News.

There was little research on children and regulation when she turned her focus to the topic in the late 1980s and what did exist was done with “pretty primitive methods like self-reporting,” she said.

She was on the ground floor developing new research methods, such as physiological factors — like heart rate and skin conductance — and using multiple reporters and behavioral measures in studies.

“Now, self-regulation is one of the biggest constructs in developmental psychology, but when we started, it was barely on the map,” she said. “I was one of the first people doing a number of these topics in any depth.”

Traditionally, psychologists emphasized cognitive development with much less focus on social and emotional development. By the 1990s, however, it was becoming a topic in textbooks and handbooks. In 2000, the National Academy of Science released “From Neurons to Neighborhoods,” which stated outright that self-regulation is foundational to most development.

“It was a huge construct, and nobody was looking at it,” Eisenberg said.

The bulk of Eisenberg’s research has been on sympathy for others, a willingness to help others and self-regulation. She looks at connections between self-regulation and prosocial behavior, school performance and various aspects of children’s social and academic functioning.

“Self-regulation is incredibly important,” she said.

The ability to self-regulate, or control one’s attention and behavior, and inhibit oneself and focus attention as needed to adapt to a situation, is important to development. Moreover, the ability to self-regulate emotions is also related to feeling concern for others because it is easier to have sympathy for someone when you’re not at risk of being overwhelmed by someone else’s emotions.

“If you can’t manage your emotions, you’re also more likely to develop symptoms of depression and to act out externalizing behaviors, such as aggression,” Eisenberg said.

As much as she has contributed to this aspect of psychology, she started out at a somewhat different place.

Her earliest research was on the development of political attitudes while she was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Then she looked at humanitarian political attitudes involving empathy, sympathy and prosocial behavior. She gradually shifted away into child development, but a few years ago, she started thinking about what she would discover if she returned to the realm of politics and its relation to empathy.

She convinced some of her younger colleagues to start studying the development of children’s concern for “out-group” members, or those who are not in one’s “in-group.” In other words, she wants to know how people develop concern toward those they don’t associate as friends, family or neighbors.

Some people are very sympathetic to in-group members but would still harm out-group members. Sympathy and concern from in-group members do not necessarily generalize to out-group members, and this is a less-studied phenomenon and gives her more impetus to investigate it.

Her analysis is ongoing but so far, it’s clear that “parental attitudes matter. Exposure to diversity matters. Kids’ self-regulation matters. Exposure to diversity is good and parental attitudes about valuing diversity, not holding prejudice, or biased attitudes seem to be important,” she said.

Parents or teachers may say they are “color blind” to avoid talking about race. She said that view is associated with kids being less positive toward out-group members.

“It is better if parents talk about things that another group might be exposed to or why they might be upset or what they have to deal with — at a kid’s level,” she said.

“Ignoring race is not making it go away,” she said. “Recognizing that there are issues that affect people differently that people are treated differently, and talking about that in a way that helps kids understand, is probably a good thing — if you want kids who are less prejudiced.”

Eisenberg started her career when few women were making significant strides in the sciences and feels lucky that she “hit the market at the right time,” when things were starting to change. While still in college, she had two female role models in her psychology department who encouraged her, and she started applying for teaching positions when universities wanted to add women to their rosters.

Other than hearing a few negative stereotypes from male colleagues about women not needing raises since their husbands’ salaries mattered more and suggestions that nursing women “are crazy,” she doesn’t feel that she suffered directly from sexism in her career.

“I think there were more indirect ways that women could suffer, like not being asked to be editors, presidents of societies, etc.,” she said.

Eisenberg started ASU’s developmental psychology program and worked to attract competitive students to it. Looking back, she is most proud of her students, many of whom she still knows and collaborates with.

She’s also proud that she was named the first female editor of a major psychology journal, Psychological Bulletin, in 1996.

“I definitely felt I was breaking a glass ceiling,” she said. JN