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Clara Mayo



Training Location(s):

PhD, Clark University, (1959)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Boston University, (1961-1981)

Veterans Administration Hospital, Brockton, MA, (1959-1964)

Media Links:



Career Focus: Social psychology; gender and nonverbal behavior; prejudice; sexism; racism;  nonverbal communication; positive marginality.


Clara Mayo was born Clara Alexandria Weiss on September 13, 1931 in Linz, Austria. She was the first and only child of Joseph and Maria Weiss. They were a close-knit family and the setting for her childhood was comfortable; on weekends there would be drives to Vienna in a fancy Packard automobile. In 1938 however, Clara and her parents had to relocate in another state because of Hitler's rise to power; they had to leave immediately and left everything behind. The family then moved to southern France where they became refugees attempting to elicit help from strangers so that they could immigrate to the United States. In 1939 the family finally reached the United States.


Before her family moved from Austria, Clara Weiss started school speaking German, and also picked up French. She then learned English upon their arrival to New York City in 1939. Her method of learning English was by "reading her way from A to Z around the Children's Room of the New York Public Library" (LaFrance, 1990, p. 239). After they settled in New York City, her parents enrolled her in public school. When she finished elementary school Clara attended Hunter High School where she received excellent grades.


Following high school, she enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. There, she majored in philosophy, but was introduced to psychology through a research assistantship with Urie Bronfenbrenner in 1952. She then became interested in research on the capacity of detecting small behavior cues, demonstrating that women are especially good at reading other people's nonverbal cues. She graduated in 1953 with a major in philosophy from Cornell University and decided to undertake graduate work in psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1953. During this time she married James P. Mayo. The psychology program featured a human services and community mental health program in which she learned a great deal.


After receiving her master's degree from Wellesley in 1955, Mayo was accepted into the social psychology doctoral program at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Mayo's dissertation advisor was Walter Crockett. In her dissertation she examined the impressions people form when faced with inconsistent information about others, in order to understand why people's stereotypes persist even when they are confronted with disconfirming information. Her focus was on social problems such as sexism and racism. For example,  she examined subtle nonverbal differences in how blacks and whites manage conversational interactions. Mayo received her Ph.D. in 1959 from Clark University.


When Mayo left Clark, she started her career as social psychology trainee at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Brockton, Massachusetts. From 1960 to 1964 she worked as a research social psychologist in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Boston where she began studying people's perceptions of and attitudes about mental illness. However, she wanted to find an academic position where she could work with undergraduate and graduate students. She became a lecturer at Boston University and then associate professor in the Psychology Department. In 1974, she became a full-time professor and in 1978, she became the director of the graduate program in Afro-American studies at Boston University where she taught The Psychology of Racism as well as a course called Prejudice, Sexism and Racism in the Psychology Department. In 1978, Clara and James Mayo divorced.


In her studies of racial and gendered aspects of nonverbal behavior, Clara Mayo was interested in how small cues could act as powerful barriers to social change. In the book Moving Bodies: Nonverbal Communication in Social Relationships LaFrance and Mayo (1978) argued that "nonverbal communication operates according to a complex set of overlearned rules and at a number of levels from individual action to social scripts" (LaFrance, 1990, p. 241). In another book Gender and Nonverbal Behavior, Mayo and Henley (1981) argued for the importance of nonverbal behavior in creating gender differences and maintaining power discrepancies. Mayo and Klein also contributed to the Handbook of Community Psychiatry in 1964, showing how community could be used for social change. One of Mayo's last publications was Training for Positive Marginality (1982) in which she argued for the positive potential of holding a marginal position in society.


Mayo also did research on racial integration.  In her study of a school busing program called "Operation Exodus" she attempted to document why black families decided to pay to send their children to all-white schools in Boston. She also studied the unfair treatment of African-Americans in U.S. courts by focusing on jurors' racial attitudes and expressions of prejudice toward black defendants.  Unfortunately, Mayo's research was cut short due to her sudden death on November 21, 1981.


Despite her short career, Clara Mayo as a social psychologist, scholar, teacher, trainer, and expert witness made important contributions to the social psychology of race and gender.  She was elected to the presidency of the New England Psychological Association from 1976 to 1977, and then to the presidency of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). Unfortunately, she died before being able to serve her entire term. SPSSI established a graduate student research award in her honour.


by Zahra Shabzandehdar Nakhjiri (2010)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works:
By Clara Mayo

Bell, C., Cheney, J & Mayo, C. (1972). Structural and subject variation in communication networks. Human Relations, 25, 1-8.


Becker, F. D. & Mayo, C. (1971). Delineating personal distance and territoriality. Environment and Behavior, 3, 375-381.


Fertig, E. S. & Mayo, C. (1970). Impression formation as a function of trait consistency and cognitive complexity. Journal of Experimental Research in Personality, 4, 190-197.


LaFrance, M. & Mayo, C. (1978). Moving bodies: Nonverbal communication in social relationships. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.


LaFrance, M. & Mayo. C. (1976). Racial differences in gaze behavior during conversation: Two systematic observational studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 4547-4552.


Mayo, C. (1982). Training for positive marginality. In L. Bickman (Ed.), Applied Social Psychology Annual. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.


Mayo, C. & Crockett, W. H. (1964). Cognitive complexity and primacy-recency effects in impression formation. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 68, 335-338.


Mayo, C. & Havelock, R. G. (1970). Attitude toward mental illness among hospital personnel and patients. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 7, 291-298


Mayo, C., Havelock, R. G. & Simpson, D. L. (1970). Attitude toward mental illness among psychiatric patients and their wives. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 27, 128-132.


Mayo, C. & Henley, N. M. (1981). Gender and nonverbal behavior. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.


Mayo, C. & LaFrance, M. (1978). Cultural aspects of nonverbal communication. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 2, 71-89.


Mayo, C. & LaFrance, M. (1978). On the acquisition of nonverbal communication: A review. Merrill Palmer Quarterly, 24, 213-228.

About Clara Mayo

Heilburn, C. (1979). Reinventing womanhood. New York: Norton.


LaFrance, M. (1990). Clara Mayo (1931-1981). In A. N. O'Connell & N. F. Russo (Eds.), Women in psychology: A bio-bibliographic sourcebook (pp. 238-245). New York: Greenwood Press.


Teele, J.,  Jackson, E. & Mayo, C. (1967).  Family experiences in Operation Exodus: The bussing of Negro children. New York, NY: Monograph Publisher.