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Horner was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and received a BA degree cum laude in 1961 from Bryn Mawr College, a Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan in 1963 and a Ph.D. degree there in 1968, all in psychology.
Horner joined the faculty of Harvard University as a lecturer in the Department of Social Relations in 1969, and in 1970 became assistant professor in that department's Personality and Development Wing.
President Jimmy Carter in 1979 named her to the President's Commission for the National Agenda for the 1980s, and one year later, chairperson of the Task Force on the Quality of American Life.