Kate Gordon (1878-1963) enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1896, where John Dewey and James Rowland Angell had arrived two years earlier. Dewey was Professor of Philosophy and J. R. Angell, outspoken in his insistence on equal opportunities for men and women (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987), was Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Psychological Laboratory, until 1904, when he became chair of the psychology department when it separated from philosophy. Both of them were the driving force behind the school of functional psychology at Chicago (Boring, 1950).

Gordon obtained her Ph.D. there with her dissertation The Psychology of Meaning, in which she gave a unified psychological account of value, integrating economic, logical, ethical, and aesthetic value. She concluded that the common denominator of value across these domains was agreeableness, which she conceived as pure sensuous pleasure. The psychological measure of value, she proposed, was the intensity of this pleasant feeling and the complexity and relations of the valued content (Gordon, 1903). That same year at the department Elizabeth Kemper Adams competed her thesis The Aesthetic Experience: Its Meaning in Functional Psychology, and J. B. Watson, who a decade later would usher in Behaviorism, completed his on Animal Education: An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated with the Growth of its Nervous System.

Gordon was awarded an Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA) European fellowship to study at Würzburg with Oswald Külpe during the winter of 1903-1904. After returning to the United States she took positions at Mount Holyoke College (1904-1906), Columbia University Teachers College (1906-1907), Bryn Mawr College (1912-1916), Carnegie Institute of Technology (19-16-1921), and University of California, Los Angeles (1922-1963) (Oglivie & Harvey, 2000; Singer, 2003). While teaching at these institutions she continued her research on vision, attention, memory, mental tests for children, and aesthetics, focusing on the role of affect on preference, judgment and recall (Nadal & Ureña, 2021). 

Gordon began her studies in Empirical Aesthetics on the topic of color. Her study of the aesthetics of color aimed to understand the reason for placing some colors toward the center of an area and others toward the outside (Gordon, 1912). She created two basic designs that enabled some colors to be arranged closer to the center and others closer to the edge, while at the same time being appealing to the participants.

Color arrangements in Gordon’s (1912) study. Black triangles indicate darker colors and lined triangles indicate brighter colors.

She only combined two colors at a time: blue and yellow, red and green, blue and red, green and yellow, blue and green, and red and yellow. Gordon rejected the method of paired comparisons because she found it exhausted participants’ aesthetic responses. She chose to show the 4 variations for each one of the 6 color combinations at a time. Each of the 29 participants was asked to name the four designs in the order of descending agreeableness. Once the participants had indicated their order for one color combination, they were shown the next. The first choices were awarded 3 points, the second ones 2 points, and the third choices 1 point. The results showed that for all the color combinations, the figure that received the most points was version III, that is to say, the one that had the brighter color in the center and the darker color at the edges. Moreover, the greater the disparity in brightness between the colors in each pair, the greater the preference for the arrangement in figure III. A subsequent experiment in which the areas of the central and peripheral forms was equal yielded the same results: participants still ranked the designs with the brighter colors in the center and the darker ones at the edges as the most agreeable (Gordon, 1912). In a final experiment, she used the same colors and color combinations as before, but making sure that their brightness was equivalent. In this case, in every color combination, the most agreeable version was the one that had in the center the first color in the order of the spectrum, that is to say, the one closet to the red end of the spectrum.

She continued her studies of color combinations using 50 colored plates of oriental rugs. She asked three people to arrange the cards in order of aesthetic merit, and she averaged their scores. She then alternatively placed each of the plates in two series of, therefore, approximately similar range of aesthetic merit. She asked 207 participants to arrange each set in order of their beauty. The results clearly indicated a vast variation in the arrangements. Without exception, every rug was placed close to the top by some participants and close to the bottom by others. The correlations of individual ranks with group ranks were .41, ranging from -.12 to .80, for one series and .42, ranging from -.32 to .84, for the other. She retested 38 of the participants three or more weeks later, and found an average correlation of .71 for one series and of .72 in the other, showing an extraordinary consistency in judgments. Thus, participants were highly consistent with their own beauty rankings, but less consistent with the group rankings (Gordon, 1923).

Later she examined the impact of pleasantness and unpleasantness on memory. Her goal was to ascertain whether pleasant or unpleasant sensations are more likely to be recalled. She selected 10 odors that ranged widely in affective quality, and asked her participants to smell the contents while she told them their names. She also prepared 10 similar bottles that contained only water, but she also said the name of one of the odors while participants smelled these. Two hundred participants were asked to remember the names of the odors and told they would subsequently be asked to point to them, and then to arrange the bottles in order of their agreeableness. There was considerable agreement across participants on the most and least pleasant odors, but considerable variation when it came to the least extreme odors. She found that participants recalled 49% of the names of the odors they had ranked as, 56% of the names of the odors they ranked as indifferent, and 50% of the names of the odors they ranked as unpleasant. However, their recall was 31% better when the bottles actually contained the odor than when they did not. The correlation between the rank order of agreeableness and the order of successful recall was -.07, that is to say, that the likelihood of recalling an odor was not related to its affective value (Gordon, 1925).


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

Gordon, K. (1903). The psychology of meaning. University of Chicago.

Gordon, K. (1912). Esthetics of simple color arrangementsPsychological Review19, 352–363.

Gordon, K. (1923). A Study of Esthetic JudgmentsJournal of Experimental Psychology6, 36–43.

Gordon, K. (1925). The recollection of pleasant and of unpleasant odorsOurnal of Experimental Psychology8, 225–239.

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.

Oglivie, M., & Harvey, J. (Eds.). (2000). The biographical dictionary of women in science. Pioneering lives from ancient times to the mid-20th century. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Routledge.

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

Singer, S. L. (2003). Adventures abroad. North American women at German-speaking universities, 1868-1915. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

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