The Psychological Contributions of Margaret Floy Washburn
Mabel F. Martin
Northampton State Hospital
Best known for her work in animal psychology, Professor Washburn made original contributions in an incredible variety of other fields that might have seemed unrelated to a mind of less encyclopedic scope. If Spearman is right in identifying general intelligence with the capacity to discover relationships, Miss Washburn had it to a remarkable degree. She found relationships between such diverse phenomena as organic sensations and social consciousness.
Her originality early attracted attention, her keen critical ability commanded respect, and her warm personality won lasting friends. Students and younger psychologists found Miss Washburn always approachable and encouraging. In meetings of the American Psychological Association, it was her, custom to speak to any younger member who appeared lonely or shy and to help the newcomer to become acquainted. While the world mourns the scientist, those who knew her personally mourn a gracious, charming woman of wide sympathy and unfailing tact.
Miss Washburn's strenuous teaching and administrative duties never interfered with her own research. Productive scholarship was her vocation from her student days to the very end of her busy professorship. Her earliest publication reported experiments on the perception of distance in the inverted landscape. A year later came an article on the influence of visual associations on the-space perceptions of the skin. Next came a study of the process of recognition and shortly thereafter a discussion of the psychology of deductive logic.
Trained by Titchener, Miss Washburn was always interested in the subjective side of experience, including images. In 1899, she published the first of her many investigations of after-images. Her article in the Hall Festschrift, in 1903, foreshadowed four areas of interest in which she was to make significant contributions to psychology—the problems of
( 8) social consciousness, the problems of revived and ideated emotions, the rôle of movement in the development of mental life, and the field of animal psychology. It is impossible to label them first, second, third, and fourth, because they are so intimately intertwined in this one short, pregnant article.
As early as 1900 she had begun to doubt the validity of the extreme structuralist position. In 1903, she wrote,
"It is impossible, assuming only the mental structures discoverable by our present introspection, to give a continuous and coherent explanation of individual mental growth. There are breaks; the effect is more than the causes; the whole is greater than the structural parts we thought went to compose it. A striking example is to be found in the rise of social consciousness in the individual. By social consciousness, it is generally agreed, is meant 'ejective' consciousness, the reference of a certain mental process to another mind. Clear, fully realized social consciousness is a" late product both in individual development and in the history of the animal mind; its existence in lower animals is more than doubtful and its defects in the human child are responsible for the cruelty 'often displayed by children. . . . How does the child come to have any power at all of thinking of experience as belonging to other minds? Nothing that we can find in our own conscious life at the present time will bridge the gap."
At the time that these words were written, social consciousness was so generally taken for granted that it required Miss Washburn to call attention to the problem of its origin. Baldwin had sought to explain its rise in the individual child on the basis of imitation. Miss Washburn conceded that imitation and association may explain the particular social interpretation of a bit of behavior but not social interpretation in generally. To account for this, she proposed the interesting hypothesis that in the social animals certain motor reactions of coming to the rescue of a comrade in danger preceded the development of ejective consciousness, and that the latter developed from the former. The cries of their comrade serve as stimuli, arousing other members of the herd to attack whatever other animal is threatening him. Thus instinctive, unreflective helpfulness forms the primitive substratum from which both the desire and the possibility of mutual understanding develop. She explains,
"It is through the social action stimulated by the behavior of others that conscious creatures have been led to social interpretation of that behavior. Let us go back to our animal capable of forming representations on the one hand of its own past alarm, suggested perhaps by revisiting the scene of it; and on the other hand, of another animal's alarm, suggested by the sound of cries. The whole motor attitude is different in the two cases. These two ideas, necessarily similar in their internal
(9) constitution, would differ in the escort of organic and movement sensations accompanying them. ... From the dawn of the power to form ideas, the consciousness produced by manifestations of mental processes in another animal would contain different elements from those going to make up other representative consciousness; and these elements, the genetic elements of which we were in search, are the movements and organic sensations produced by motor reactions of social utility, already on the field before social consciousness develops."
Thus, during the ascendency of extreme introspectionism, it was Miss Washburn who pointed out that social activity precedes social consciousness and that the animal responds to the behavior of its fellows rather than to any idea of their mental states. Later, during the ascendency of extreme behaviorism, psychologists began to conceive of the social behavior of man as a reaction to the behavior of others. It was then Miss Washburn who pointed out the one-sidedness of this conception. She showed that man reacts not so much to the overt behavior of his fellow men as to what he conceives their mental states to be.
At the outset, her motor theory of consciousness was merely a brilliant hypothesis; but in later years, numerous experimental studies, undertaken primarily for other purposes, furnished evidence in support of it. In 1916, the theory was fully elaborated in her book entitled Movement and Mental Imagery.
In this book she gave evidence for the view that an internally anticipated movement is always present when in human consciousness we have a memory idea, and also that this internal anticipation of movements means actual slight contractions of the muscles involved in performing the movements.
Miss Washburn's original and fruitful theories were so numerous and varied that she could not possibly have elaborated all of them into books.
Many are tucked away in short articles or mere brief notes in scientific and philosophical journals.
In 1904, two years before Sherrington published The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, in which he expounded the rôle of distance receptors in the development of mind, Miss Washburn had already pointed out that one essential condition for the development of higher mental processes is the possession of sense-organs for the reception of stimuli at a distance. She showed that an important difference exists between stimuli from objects directly in contact with an organism's body and those which proceed from objects at a distance. Reaction must be almost instantaneous, if an
( 10) organism is to escape an enemy in actual contact with its body. When the stimulus is at a distance, the danger is not so imminent. The full motor response may be delayed for a short interval without imperiling the life-interests of the animal. The possibility of delay brings in the further possibility of anticipation, and ultimately, the possibility of choice, learning, etc.
As we have seen, Miss Washburn's earliest contributions to the field of animal psychology were theoretical; she sought to bridge the gap in our understanding of the human consciousness by a speculative excursion into the probable beginnings of such consciousness in animals antedating man; but her scientific habit of mind could not let her rest content with hypothesis unsupplemented by experiment. Beginning in 1906,  she published a large number of experimental studies of the mental life of animals. In 1908, she published The Animal Mind. The book met with wide and lasting popularity. The second edition appeared in 1917, the third in 1926, and the fourth in 1936.
From the beginning, her interest was in seeking to learn (indirectly of course) something about the subjective experience of animals, their sensations, their capacity for sensory discrimination, their power to form associations. Because the animals could not report their experience in words, it was necessary to observe their behavior and to infer their subjective experience from the way they behaved. Miss Washburn, always a keen logician, was aware of the inferential character of all knowledge about the mental life of animals, but she held that a large part of scientific knowledge is similarly inferential. The solipsistic dilemma was perfectly familiar to her. She wrote:
"That the mind of each human being forms a region inaccessible to all save its possessor, is one of the commonplaces of reflection.... Each of us can judge his fellow-men only on the basis of his own thoughts and feelings in similar circumstances.... The science of human psychology has to reckon with this unbridgeable gap between minds as its chief difficulty.” 
Her clear recognition of the fact that all psychology suffers from essentially the same difficulty kept her from despairing of insight into the animal mind and from becoming content with the superficiality of behavior-ism. Some of the most delightful passages in her writings consist of efforts to bridge by imagination the gap between human consciousness and that of animals whose differing anatomical structure would prevent them from having the same sensations as people. She says,
"A bodily structure entirely unlike our own must create a background of organic sensation which renders the whole mental life of an animal foreign and unfamiliar to us. We speak, for example, of an 'angry' wasp. Anger, in our own experience, is largely composed of sensations of quickened heart beat, of altered breathing, of muscular tension, of increased blood pressure in the head and face. The circulation of a wasp is fundamentally different from that of any vertebrate. The wasp does not breathe through lungs, it wears its skeleton on the outside, and it has the muscles attached to the inside of the skeleton. What is anger like in the wasp's consciousness? We can form no adequate idea of it."
This unfailing recognition of the difference between overt activity and the consciousness behind it made her a keen critic of those who ignored consciousness.
Miss Washburn was much interested in methodology. She never forgot that the task of the psychologist is twofold: first to obtain the facts; and secondly to interpret them. Her emphasis shifted slightly from time to time to counterbalance the changing fashions in contemporary practice. At the beginning of her career, it was necessary to stress the importance of obtaining the facts. Nearly all the textbooks then available still relied too largely on the anecdotal method. Even Wundt lapsed into anecdote when it came to animal psychology. Miss Washburn pointed out the fallacy of relying on casual observers, who are not trained to distinguish what they see from what they infer. She showed the importance of knowing the habits of the species and even the past experience of the particular animal concerned. She also showed the need of precautions to avoid such complicating factors as hunger, fright, bewilderment, and loneliness. It was years before any large proportion of animal experimenters approximated her ideals for reliable experimental work; but at least a beginning had been made. In 1898, Thorndike's monograph on animal intelligence's (based on rigorous experimentation) had appeared and in the intervening ten years an increasing number of experimental studies had been published in a wide variety of journals. Miss Washburn felt the need of making this material more accessible to the ordinary student. She limited her book to the facts that had been determined by experiment, resisting the temptation to round ou+ by anecdote those aspects of the animal mind not yet explored experimentally. In successive editions she was able to enlarge the scope of the book, because the steady advance of the science made more facts available. Never, however, did she fall into the error of substituting hearsay for fact. She always drew a clear-cut line between observation, and inference.
On the other hand, she never forgot that observation is only the first part of the psychologist's task. His ultimate goal is an understanding of consciousness. The rise of behaviorism did not alter Miss Washburn's orientation. Instead, it sharpened her critical faculties. In the preface to the last edition, she wrote,
"The principle change in the attitude of investigators of animal behavior since the third edition of this work appeared is the decay of behaviorism as an interpretation and the revival of animal psychology. The conclusions drawn from experiments are now expressed in subjective terms. Undoubtedly one cause of this change is the rise of the configurational school. But extreme behaviorism, which ignored the existence of all qualitative differences in sensations, would not have long endured."
In this last edition of The Animal Mind, she added a chapter on higher mental processes. With characteristic fairness she reviewed a vast amount of experimental evidence which had been held to cast doubt on the existence of memory ideas in the lower animals. Her scientific impartiality in giving full weight to this evidence is the more remarkable when we re-member that the postulate that such memory ideas do exist in at least some animals below man underlay several of her original theoretical contributions. It would have been easy to slight some of the negative evidence in view of the sheer bulk of experimental literature to be summarized within the one chapter. But Miss Washburn was now as always an impartial searcher after truth. She gave the negative evidence full weight at the outset. Fortunately for her original theories, the years intervening between the third and fourth editions of The Animal Mind brought forth a flood of experimental evidence for the position that she had held in the beginning. After reviewing one of D. K. Adams's experiments, she made the comment,
"The decay of extreme behaviorism is illustrated by the experimenter's statement that the basis of these reactions 'was visual recognition, such as humans are accustomed to, with whatever identifying imaginal constituents that implies.’ 
Climaxing a vast accumulation of experimental evidence in favor of higher mental processes in certain animals, Professor Washburn described Krechevsky's rats and their hypotheses.
"The abandonment of a hypothesis is abrupt. Learning, says Krechevsky, consists of changing from one systematic, generalized, purposive way of behaving to another and another until the problem is solved, and this at every point. One wonders what has become of the aimless scratching of Thorndike’s dogs and cats. Can it be that the utter hunger of his subjects prevented their using their minds? It is quite possible."
In a number of publications, the affective life excelled all Miss Washburn's other interests. In this as in so many of the fields that she explored her earliest contributions were theoretical. For the next twenty-five years, she produced a steady stream of articles dealing with various causes of feelings and various consequences. Even before sensation she considered ideational causes. Her natural clarity of mind, enhanced by her philosophical training, made her poignantly aware of logical fallacies wherever she encountered them. So it was perhaps quite natural that this particular poignant awareness should form the subject of one of her early investigations. The following year she was co-author of four articles on the affective value of colors  a problem which she continued to investigate for more than a decade.
During the same period, she also studied the affective value of articulate sounds. She suggested as a measure of affective sensativeness (that is, the tendency to be strongly affected both in the direction of pleasantness and in that of unpleasantess) the ratio of the sum of the number of judgments of extreme pleasantness and extreme unpleasantness to the number of judgments of indifference. 
In 1925, she tried this method out on 'poets' and 'scientists.  The
( 14) 'poets' were 33 undergraduate students recommended by the English Department of Vassar as having distinct poetic gift. With characteristic humor, Miss Washburn observed that they were "not all budding Shelleys, but recognized by their instructors as having some measure of real gift for poetic expression."The 'scientists' were 34 students who were majoring in science. The 'poets,' as might be expected, showed higher affective sensitiveness than the 'scientists,'indicating that her technique of measurement might have practical value in investigating an individual's bent.
She did not take the obvious next step of standardizing and publishing a test for selecting embryo poets and scientists. Her mind was so creative, her interests so varied, her theoretical preoccupations so numerous, that she simply could not spend the time to standardize a test sufficiently for practical purposes. She left that to others—she was content to throw out an incredible number of stimulating suggestions.
She attempted to measure temperamental characteristics of different individuals by comparing the average reaction time required to recall pleasant experiences associated with stimulus-words with the time required to recall unpleasant experiences. Friends of the experimental subjects confirmed the validity of estimates secured by her tests.
Though these experiments were undertaken primarily as a contribution to individual psychology, Miss Washburn discovered in the data much that was significant for general psychology, particularly social psychology. She found that it took slightly longer to recall unpleasant experiences than pleasant ones, that physical unpleasantness was more readily recalled than mental unpleasantness; and mental pleasantness than physical pleasantness. She explained these findings by several hypotheses, the most important being that mental unpleasantness is likely to be involved with complexes and hence suppressed, and that convention regards physical pleasures as unworthy and undignified.
In the years that followed, she and her students did a vast amount of experimentation with revived emotions and their meaning for the problems of mood and temperament.
Those who heard her at the Wittenberg symposium in 1927 will never forget her brilliant solution of the dilemma of emotion and thought. Her central thesis was that emotion interferes with thought only when the
( 15) movements made in emotion are incompatible with the movements and attitudes essential to thinking.
Indeed, ever since its inception, her motor theory of consciousness had illuminated nearly every area she touched including her earliest fields of investigation—space perception and imagery. In 1909, she showed that retinal rivalry in the after-image could best be interpreted on the hypothesis that "motor processes condition rivalry."
In 1931, she found a motor explanation for fluctuations of perspective. In 1933, she called attention to the importance of retinal rivalry in stereoscopic vision, both in the original impression and in the after-image. Shortly before her retirement in 1937, she collaborated with F. H. Verhoeff in developing a new theory of binocular vision.
Besides her major research and theoretical interests which she pursued consistently through the years, Miss Washburn experimented with in-numerable problems that to her were incidental but have subsequently attained prominence in the hands of other investigators. Had her philosophical orientation been different, she might easily have been hailed as one of the pioneers of E.S.P. In 1908, under the modest title "A Study in Guessing," she published data showing that certain subjects, prevented from actually reading the letters on certain cards, were able to guess them
( 16) more frequently than would be predictable by chance, but finding no adequate explanation within the framework of scientific psychology, she was content to report her data unexplained.
Though her interest was primarily in pure science, she was not unmindful of the responsibility of the psychologist to contribute to an under-standing of student personnel. She studied the interests, talents, and difficulties of Vassar undergraduates by a wide variety of methods, including the questionary. Mindful of the pitfalls of questionnaire, Professor Washburn confined hers to simple concrete items "readily accessible to untrained introspection, and not likely to be taken as a joke by the irreverent undergraduate." She compared test-results with academic marks, teacher's estimates, reports that the girls gave concerning their likes and dislikes, their work methods, etc. She found a large number of individuals who said that they disliked mathematics and liked to write. The chances proved to be about even that a person who liked mathematics would like to write and that one who disliked writing would like mathematics. Among the unexpected results of her inquiry was the fact that it revealed no correlation between an interest in science and a tendency to observe one's surroundings.
Her early studies of vision, imagery, and association formed an excellent background for an investigation of the difficulties of poor spellers. The English Department of Vassar College had the custom of selecting conspicuously bad spellers for special training. Miss Washburn investigated the psychological characteristics of this selected group in comparison with an equal number of good spellers. Both groups were given tests of visual-verbal and auditory-verbal memory, and also tests of ability to recall nonsense figures composed of straight lines, and a "Reading Backwards Test." Both groups of subjects proved nearly equal in memory for verbal material, whether it was presented visually or in auditory-motor terms, but the -good spellers proved to be decidedly more accurate in recalling visual material that could not be translated into words and they were also superior in the speed with which words presented visually could be associated with auditory-motor terms.
Miss Washburn developed her tests for the control of visual imagery into a group test which she gave to two groups of Vassar College freshmen, whose natural ability in geometry had been estimated by their instructor. By computing rank difference coefficients, she showed that there is good correlation between the teacher's estimate of natural ability in geometry and the control of visual imagery as measured objectively by the test."
In Miss Washburn herself, "ejective consciousness" was developed to an unusual degree. It was characteristic of her power to recognize the capacities and insights of other people that she regularly utilized the judgment of her colleagues in other departments when she wished to select as experimental subjects groups of students specially gifted in a particular field, such as poetry, science, or mathematics. Though she created a few psychological tests and experimented with many others, she never forgot for a moment that the validity of all tests rests ultimately on the subjective judgments of persons. Fully acknowledging the value of tests for quantitative and comparative purposes, she herself was more interested in the subjective judgements that antedate and validate them.
Her experiments on absolute judgments of character traits in self and in others,40showed that observers tended to underestimate their own care-fulness, industry, and orderliness, and a majority underestimated their own punctuality, enthusiasm,patience, and thrift, whereas many overestimated their own impulsiveness and aggressiveness. She concluded that there are two important influences affecting the relation between absolute judgments of the self and others.
"The first relates to whether the trait judged is one that is habitually repressed in society. People do not give free social expression, as a rule, to their pessimism, their impatience, their impulsiveness, and their aggressiveness. Hence, as our results show, when judging themselves absolutely they regard themselves as more pessimistic, more impatient, more impulsive and more aggressive than their companions think them. Secondly, traits like carefulness, punctuality, industry, and orderliness refer to an ideal standard, which will be higher in proportion as a person's performance judged by others is more excellent. An industrious, orderly, and punctual person is not satisfied with his own performance. Hence our results show a tendency to underestimate one's own possession of these traits when one's own judgments are compared with those of one's companions on oneself."
After more than a generation of teaching, Miss Washburn still seemed a comparatively young woman in her alertness, vivacity, social charm, and above all, her continued zeal for research.
At the end of her busy career, the problems of students were of more concern to her than in the earlier years. Her last publication dealt with mathematical ability, reasoning, and academic standing. It appeared in the Golden Jubilee volume of this JOURNAL.
She found that high academic standing does not necessarily guarantee good reasoning ability but good reasoning ability is an excellent guarantee of high academic standing. Good mathematical ability does not guarantee good reasoning ability as much as good reasoning guarantees good mathematical ability. According to the standard set by her test, it is harder to be good in reasoning than in mathematics. She points out that the process of reasoning with nonmathematical, nonquantitative relations is more likely to be interfered with by preconceived ideas extraneous to the reasoning itself. If her health had been spared a little longer, her penetrating insight and her creative capacity would almost certainly have drawn from such studies as these, educational conclusions of far-reaching significance. This study was made with the coöperation of Miss Virginia Pearce and Miss Katherine Payne. Before its theoretical and practical implications could be fully elaborated, Professor Washburn was already in her last illness. Dr. Polyxenie Kambouropoulou transcribed her notes.
In the hands of the students she taught and the colleagues she inspired, her work will go on.