Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939) graduated at Vassar College. She was interested in both science and philosophy, so she decided to study psychology after graduating. She learnt that James McKeen Cattell had established a new laboratory of psychology and Columbia University, and she determined to study with him (Washburn, 1932). At that time, Columbia did not admit women to graduate studies, but she managed to get a special dispensation and permission to register in Cattell’s classes as a hearer. Cattell, a lifelong supporter of equal opportunities, treated her as a regular student and demanded from her the same as the rest (Dallenbach, 1940; Washburn, 1932). In 1892, he encouraged her to get her Ph.D. at Cornell, which did accept women. Edward Bradford Titchener had just arrived at Cornell to take over the psychological laboratory from Frank Angell, who was moving to Stanford University. Titchener supervised Washburn’s experimental work, and her PhD (1894) was the first he recommended. She was first woman to receive a doctorate in psychology. That same year she was elected to the America Psychological Association, and became the president in 1921. In 1931 she was elected to the US National Academy of Science. In 1926-1927 she was elected vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Dallenbach, 1940; Pillsbury, 1940).

She held positions at Wells College, Sage College, University of Cincinnati and, from 1903 until her retirement, at Vassar College. She published over 100 scientific articles, most of which she designed, conducted and prepared for publications with the assistance of students in an advanced seminar (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987). Her book on comparative psychology The Animal Mind, initially published in 1908 and kept up to date through the 4th edition of 1936, was considered the most thorough text on the topic for decades (Boring, 1950; Pillsbury, 1940). 

Her contributions to Empirical Aesthetics included studies on the conditions that influence the pleasingness of colors, on individual differences in the strength of aesthetic pleasure, and a test of aesthetic judgment (Nadal & Ureña, 2021). Her work on color preferences showed that judgments of saturated colors were more extreme than the judgments of tints, and that these were more extreme than the shades, but that her participants found the tints generally more pleasing than the shades, and these more pleasing than the saturated colors (Washburn, 1911), that fatigue reduced the pleasingness judgments, especially in the case of highly saturated colors (Norris, Twiss, & Washburn, 1911), that smaller areas were more pleasing than larger areas in the case of saturated colors, and that larger areas were more pleasing than smaller areas in the case of tints and shades (Clark, Goodell, & Washburn, 1911), that over the course of a minute of looking at saturated colors they became less pleasing but tints and shades became more pleasing (Crawford & Washburn, 1911), and that spoken negative adjectives about colors (e.g., “faded”, “crude”) reduced the judged pleasingness of those colors and positive adjectives (e.g., “warm”, “delicate”) increased their judged pleasingness (Powelson & Washburn, 1913).

Washburn also studied individual differences in the strength of pleasingness or unpleasantness reactions. She introduced the concept of affective sensitiveness to distinguish between people who strongly tended to like and dislike materials of different sorts, including tones, colors, and speech sounds, from people who were relatively indifferent to those materials (Babbitt, Woods, & Washburn, 1915; Clark, Quackenbush, & Washburn, 1913). Affective sensitiveness was not fixed; it depended on certain circumstances and conditions, such as fatigue, which tends to reduce affective sensitiveness (Robbins, Smith, & Washburn, 1915). Poets were more affectively sensitive than science students, suggesting that affective sensitiveness was related to experience and expertise in art and aesthetics (Washburn, Hatt, & Holt, 1923). 

Finally, Washburn also produced one of the first tests of aesthetic judgment of pictures. Cattell and colleagues (1918) selected 36 reproductions of artworks that ranged from technically excellent to the popular and sentimental, and asked three experts to rank the images in the order they would like to own the originals (leaving financial value aside). They calculated the average rank for each of the 36 artworks to form a composite expert rank. They then asked 144 participants to perform the same ranking, and to answer whether they had studied drawing or painting, whether they had studied art history, whether they had visited many galleries, and whether they were especially interested in images. The average correlation between the ranking of experts and participants with artistic training was .49, between the ranking of experts and participants who were artistically naïve -.11, and between the ranking of experts and untrained participants but interested in images .43. Cattell and colleagues (1918) concluded that even an interest in pictures was enough to lead participants to approximate expert’s ranking. 


Babbitt, M., Woods, M., & Washburn, M. F. (1915). Affective sensitiveness to colors, tone intervals, and articulate soundsThe American Journal of Psychology26, 289–291.

Boring, E. G. (1950). A history of experimental psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Cattell, J., Glascock, J., & Washburn, M. F. (1918). Experiments on a Possible Test of Aesthetic Judgment of PicturesThe American Journal of Psychology29, 333–336.

Clark, D., Goodell, M. S., & Washburn, M. F. (1911). The Effect of Area on the Pleasantness of ColorsThe American Journal of Psychology22, 578–579.

Clark, H., Quackenbush, N., & Washburn, M. F. (1913). A suggested coefficient of affective sensitivenessThe American Journal of Psychology24, 583–585.

Crawford, D., & Washburn, M. F. (1911). Fluctuations in the Affective Value of Colors during Fixation for One MinuteThe American Journal of Psychology22, 579–582.

Dallenbach, K. M. (1940). Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939)The American Journal of Psychology53, 1–5.

Nadal, M. & Ureña, E. (2021). One hundred years of Empirical Aesthetics: Fechner to Berlyne (1876 – 1976). In M. Nadal & O. Vartanian (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Empirical Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Norris, E. L., Twiss, A. G., & Washburn, M. F. (1911). An Effect of Fatigue on Judgments of the Affective Value of ColorsThe American Journal of Psychology22, 112–114.

Powelson, I., & Washburn, M. F. (1913). The Effect of Verbal Suggestion on Judgments of the Affective Value of ColorsThe American Journal of Psychology24, 267–269.

Pillsbury, W. B. (1940). Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939)The Psychological Review, 99–109.

Robbins, H., Smith, D., & Washburn, M. F. (1915). The influence of fatigue on affective sensitiveness to colorsThe American Journal of Psychology26, 291–292.

Scarborough, E., & Furumoto, L. (1987). Untold lives: The first generation of american women psychologists. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Washburn, M. F. (1911). A Note on the Affective Values of ColorsThe American Journal of Psychology22, 114–115.

Washburn, M. F. (1932). Some recollections. In C. Murchison (Ed.), History of Psychology in Autobiography (pp. 333–358). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

Washburn, M. F., Hatt, E., & Holt, E. B. (1923). Affective sensitiveness in poets and in scientific studentsThe American Journal of Psychology34, 105–106.

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