Time Capsule

Most psychologists don’t think of Margaret Floy Washburn (1871–1939) as a comparative psychologist. Rather, she is probably best known as the second woman to serve as APA president (1921) and perhaps also as psychology’s first woman PhD (she completed study at Cornell University in 1894).

Nevertheless, Washburn is included — and is the only woman — among the 38 people highlighted in Donald Dewsbury’s (1984) encyclopedic history of comparative psychology as being particularly important for the field by making it “the exciting discipline that it is.”

Many of the early contributors to comparative psychology quite probably benefited from the singular contribution Washburn made in 1908: her publication of “The Animal Mind: A Text-book of Comparative Psychology.”

Commitment to the experimental method

Washburn’s prominence in comparative psychology is not due to her having produced a wealth of animal research. Located at Vassar College for most of her career, she lacked institutional support and graduate students who could assist in research projects — advantages that were available to her male colleagues at the universities where she was not welcome because she was a woman. Washburn overcame that handicap by enlisting advanced undergraduates in conducting a series of discrete studies. These were published over 35 years, principally in the American Journal of Psychology, where she served in editorial capacities from 1903 to 1937. Many of her research articles dealt with animal psychology.

The publication of “The Animal Mind,” however, firmly established Washburn as a major contributor to the field of comparative psychology in its earliest period. The book detailed the experimental research of physiologists and psychologists that were scattered across a variety of journals. She framed these materials with her own commitment to the experimental method.

Trained by E.B. Titchener in the use of introspection, Washburn believed that access to the minds of other humans came by way of carefully controlled self-reports. While she acknowledged the temptation of anthropomorphism and controlled for it as a possible source of error, she maintained that the minds of non-human animals could be inferred from their behavior, based on the analogy of human conscious experience. Her focus was “the animal mind as deduced from experimental evidence,” a phrase she suggested might have been a more appropriate title for her book. Her intent was to produce a comprehensive collection of facts gleaned from use of the experimental method and to examine the relevance of such facts for understanding animal mentality. This approach set “The Animal Mind” apart from earlier works, such as those by G.J. Romanes (1882), who relied on the anecdotal method, and E.L. Thorndike (1898), who dealt with a limited number of species.

Regarding the evidence of mind in animals, Washburn maintained, “We know not where consciousness begins in the animal world. We know where it surely exists — in ourselves; we know where it exists beyond a reasonable doubt — in those animals of structure resembling ours which readily adapt themselves to the lessons of experience. Beyond this point, for all we know, it may exist in simpler and simpler forms until we reach the very lowest of living beings.”

Her book was widely accepted and became the standard comparative psychology text for 25 years, with subsequent editions appearing in 1917, 1926 and 1937. In his history of experimental psychology, E.G. Boring (1929) recognized Washburn’s important role in establishing “animal psychology” (his term), because “The Animal Mind” provided a compendium that marked the move out of adolescence for this new field of scientific research.

‘The decay of behaviorism’

Her 1921 APA presidential address defended introspection as a valuable method of inquiry against the rising popularity of behaviorism and its determination to rid psychology’s legitimate content of all things mental, including consciousness.

Writing the preface to the 1936 fourth edition of “The Animal Mind,” Washburn declared: “The principal change in the attitude of investigators of animal behavior is the decay of behaviorism as an interpretation” and “extreme behaviorism, which ignored the existence of all qualitative differences in sensations, would not have long endured.”

She was, however, mistaken in these beliefs. The text that eventually replaced Washburn’s classic was published in 1935 as “Principles of Animal Psychology,” written by N.R.F. Maier and T.C. Schneirla. The animal mind and consciousness almost disappeared with the rising dominance of behaviorism, which Washburn had steadfastly opposed. However, in the 1964 edition of their text, Maier and Schneirla noted the emergence of new research techniques: “Through the use of comparative methodology, psychological differences as well as similarities between man and lower animals may become known.” At just that time, the cognitive revolution was emerging in psychology and interest in animal mentality was revived.

By the 1990s, Donald Griffin had become a leading proponent of the position that animal mentality can and should be subjected to careful scientific research; he founded the area of inquiry known as “cognitive ethology.” In his 2001 book, he presents arguments favoring the existence of animal consciousness and addresses resistance to the notion. He asks whether scientific investigation can tell us that animals are conscious and answers, “not yet.” He cites the 1993 conclusion of ethologist Marian Dawkins, a woman who (like Washburn) is deeply immersed in the topic. Dawkins asserts that the weight of evidence supports the likelihood that species other than human, especially mammals and birds, are consciously aware: They share with humans a complexity in behavior, the ability to “think” and care about what happens in the world and to them. For Dawkins, to deny this now “seems positively unscientific.”

Although the topic has been controversial in its delayed rebirth, Washburn would no doubt be pleased that “The Animal Mind,” 100 years after it was first published, is being seriously debated among comparative psychologists, now joined by ethologists and neuroscientists. She would perhaps respond with a wry smile.

Elizabeth Scarborough, PhD, is professor emerita of psychology at Indiana University South Bend. Kathy Milar, PhD, of Earlham College is historical editor for this series.

Further reading

  • Baars, B.J. (1997). In the theater of consciousness: The workspace of the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Dewsbury, D.A. (1984). Comparative psychology in the twentieth century. Stroudsburg, PA: Hutchinson Ross Publishing Co.

  • Furumoto, L., & Scarborough, E. (1987). Placing women in the history of comparative psychology: Margaret Floy Washburn and Margaret Morse Nice. In E. Tobach (Ed.), Historical perspectives and the international status of comparative psychology (pp.103–117). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  • Washburn, M.F. (1932). Margaret Floy Washburn: Some recollections. In C. Murchison (Ed.), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 2, pp. 333–358). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.