Watson, John Broadus

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Travelers Rest, South Carolina, 9 January 1878;

d. New York, New York, 25 September 1958), psychology, theory and practice of behaviorism, emotional conditioning, comparative psychology.

Watson was one the most visible and notable psychologists of the twentieth century. He is matched only by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in terms of being written about, both during their careers and after their deaths. In 1915 Watson became the youngest elected president of the American Psychological Association. Despite leaving the discipline only a few years later, the interest in him and his work continues, with publications and controversies devoted to whether and to what degree his writings on behaviorism, research methods, and infant development and emotions affected psychology.

Background. Watson is described in some reports as being born to a poor farm family (his parents were Emma Kesiah Roe Watson and Pickens Butler Watson); however, in a lengthy obituary by a senior psychologist who knew him well, Robert S. Woodworth (1959), he is described as “... the second of five children of a well-to-do farmer”; still another reports puts him as the fourth child. Be that as it may, in his 1936 “Autobiography” (Watson, 1961), in which he never discusses his parents or siblings, Watson describes with evident pride the many manual skills he acquired as a farm child, which persisted into construction projects in his fifties (p. 271). These same skills likely helped him in field and laboratory research projects and were reflected in his readiness to take advantage of technology; he was a tinkerer and experimenter. Watson’s parents separated when he was twelve years old and he and his mother moved to nearby Greenville, South Carolina, where he describes himself as having done poorly in grammar and high school and being a troublemaker: “I was lazy, somewhat insubordinate, and, so far as I know, I never made above a passing grade” (p. 271).

Academic Career. Despite a purported poor high school record, Watson persuaded Furman University in Greenville to admit him at the age of sixteen in 1894. He writes disparagingly about his college performance and most of his experiences there except for one professor, Gordon B. Moore in philosophy, under whom he earned an MA in 1899. He entered graduate school in 1900 at the University of Chicago and three years later, in 1903, was awarded the PhD. He wrote that he believed he was the “youngest PhD turned out by that institution,” which was, one should understand, relatively new, having been founded in 1891. Sadly, in his eyes, the degree was blemished. On his receiving the degree magna cum laude, he was told by John Dewey and James Rowland Angell that his “... exam was much inferior to that of Miss Helen Thomson who had graduated two years before with a summa cum laude. I wondered then if anybody could ever equal her record. That jealousy existed for years” (Watson, 1936, p. 274). And well it might, as Helen B. Thompson Woolley went on to a notable career in research—on psychometrics and gender differences—and in academic administration; she founded the Experimental Laboratory at Mt. Holyoke College in 1902 and served as dean at the University of New Hampshire.

Watson planned to major in philosophy. He took courses and readings in philosophy with some of the university’s luminaries: Dewey, Angell, George Herbert Mead, and James Hayden Tufts. His interest in philosophy palled, however, and under Angell’s guidance he switched to psychology as a major, with neurology as a second minor. As his advisor, Angell made sure that Watson acquired the knowledge and skills necessary to be an experimental psychologist by arranging for him to work with the controversial biologist Jacques Loeb and the neurologist Henry H. Donaldson. Under Loeb he took biology and physiology, and under Donaldson neurology, both programs fitting in with an early plan of obtaining a medical degree. While he was too poor to continue along that line, Watson’s subsequent research and writing revealed that Loeb and Donaldson had done their job well and had produced a scientist extremely knowledgeable in neurology and general physiology. Watson writes, “Loeb wanted me to do my research under him on the physiology of the dog’s brain. Neither Angell nor Donaldson in those days felt that Loeb was a very ‘safe’ man for a green PhD candidate so I took my research jointly under Donaldson and Angell on the correlation between increasing complexity of the behavior of the white rat and the growth of medullation in the central nervous system” (Watson, 1936, p. 271).

One wonders what his career might have been like had he worked with Loeb instead of his less controversial advisors, although Loeb’s influence is clearly to be seen later in Watson’s advocacy of behaviorism. Watson’s ambitiousness is made clear early on; he published the dissertation as a separate monograph (Watson, 1903), borrowing $350 from Donaldson that took him years to repay. Despite the self-deprecating tone of the early autobiography, it is clear that Watson was recognized as a gifted scholar and researcher by the faculty and fellow students at Chicago and he reciprocated their esteem. He writes warmly and appreciatively of all of them, particularly Mead, Angell, Donaldson, Harvey Carr, and C. S. Yoakum; as will be seen below, such generous amiability did not characterize all of his personal and professional relationships later in life.

Professional Career. Watson’s academic career was meteoric: brightly visible and brief. In a profession that measures careers in decades, his lasted less than twenty years, from 1903 to 1921, ending spectacularly in a public divorce and a forced resignation from The Johns Hopkins University. In between, he became the youngest president of the American Psychological Association in 1915; headed two major journals, as editor of Psychological Review and founding editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology (1916); wrote two famous papers on behaviorism (1913 and 1915) that staked out his version of psychology as a purely objective science; and proposed how behaviorism’s principles could lead to the betterment of society and peoples’ individual lives. Watson also served in several different capacities as a psychologist in World War I: on the Committee on Classification of Personnel in the Army, and in the Signal Corps and the Aviation Medical Corps, before being (he asserted) punitively transferred to the General Staff to be trained for overseas military intelligence work in Europe; he wrote that this work was designed, ultimately, so that “...I was sure to be killed” (p. 278). By his own account, his military career was one of fractiousness and disagreements with superiors on research methods and results.

At war’s end in 1918, he returned to Johns Hopkins and the Phipps Clinic, wrote Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919) and began some experimental studies of infants. Soon he was romantically entangled with his research assistant, Rosalie Rayner. Watson subsequently divorced his first wife and was remarried to Rayner. The circumstances of his divorce led to his dismissal from Johns Hopkins in 1920. With help from friends and his characteristic energy, Watson then obtained a position with one of America’s premier advertising agencies, J. Walter Thompson Advertising Company, at a salary of $25,000, more than four times his academic salary. At the same time, he declined the offer of a position with the newly-created New School for Social Research in New York City.

This career choice was quite compatible with his often-stated belief that psychology had a duty to influence and better the lives of people and the functioning of society. Given that he was newly married, needed employment, and had led a relatively impecunious life since childhood, the attraction of a significant executive position and large salary makes perfect sense. He later moved to another similar firm, William Esty & Company, and remained in the advertising business until his retirement in 1945.

Despite his new career, however, he did not desert psychology: He wrote, “Leaving Hopkins did not mean a complete giving up of intellectual activity” (Watson, 1961, p. 280), and he remained a member of the American Psychological Association until his death (Holsopple, 1958, p. 559). For the following decade and a half he wrote a number of articles for the scientific journal Psychological Review and embarked on a writing career that interpreted psychology and behaviorism for popular audiences. He wrote several popular books and many articles for popular magazines, including the New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, Colliers, and Cosmopolitan—for all of which, he points out, he was paid generously. He gave lectures at the Cooper Institute and at the New School in New York City, and even on a street corner on one occasion. In 1924, Watson and William McDougall engaged in a public debate at the Psychology Club of Washington about behaviorism (Watson and McDougall, 1928). These talks and writing kept him in public circulation until the mid 1930s and his 1936 autobiography seems to have been a final statement. Thereafter, his time was devoted to what he had become: an important executive in the world of applied psychology—advertising and publicity.

Research: Fields and Publications. Watson’s research and writings may be divided into four groups that correspond roughly with different stages of his career: comparative-animal psychology; behaviorism; emotional conditioning; and miscellaneous topics in vision, learning, and general psychological matters. He was an extremely energetic researcher in several fields and a prolific publisher. Watson was a good writer, lucid and uncomplicated, qualities he generously attributes to Angell, who worked on his thesis with him daily. His writings include articles, monographs, book reviews, regular journal surveys on selected psychological topics, published lectures, and nine books. In addition, there are numerous writings on non-psychological

topics; these are poorly documented and will not be taken up here.

Comparative-Animal Psychology. Watson’s first publication was his thesis, “Animal Education: An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated with the Growth of its Nervous System,” in which he sought to correlate growth of the central nervous system and the development of learning ability (1903). Note the term “psychic” in the title, a term that, among others, Watson was soon to anathematize. The research displayed two features present in almost all of Watson’s work: first, his preoccupation with the role of learning in the development of all animals—which led some, mistakenly, to charge him with rejecting the role of instincts in animal life; second, his preoccupation with research methods and what might be called “proper science” as basic to understanding the results of science and communicating them meaningfully to students and the public.

The two themes were fused in his book Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (1914). In Chapter One, the arguments for behaviorism—already advanced in earlier writings and preceded by the notorious proclamation paper (Watson, 1913)—are gone over. The several chapters are detailed examinations of basic problems in different kinds of studies, including field versus laboratory studies, and measuring vision, hearing, organic and other senses, learning, and perception. Chapter Three, “Apparatus and Methods,” considers how to avoid or get around problems discussed in previous chapters, such as animal control boxes for studying hearing, devices for motor habits or serial learning. Chapter Four is “Observational and Experimental Studies upon Instinct,” which should put to rest some discussions about Watson and instincts. The book was a manual of the problems and strategies facing every scientist studying animals in the wild or in a laboratory. It is clearly informed by Watson’s own laboratory and fieldwork experiences. A contemporary student could probably profit greatly from this book, despite its age.

Interestingly, Watson does not refer to the very similar book published some five years earlier by Margaret Floy Washburn, The Animal Mind: A Text-book of Comparative Psychology(1908), which covered much the same territory at the same technical level but from a different perspective. One has to wonder why he did not do so directly in the first chapter, which dealt with the same fundamental problems that she too had addressed. In any case, she got redress in the second edition of her book (Washburn, 1917) with criticism of behaviorism and of Watson’s explanations for various research findings on habit and, especially, his frequency theory of learning.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the ancient device of the maze became an important tool for psychologists and zoologists trying to understand how people and animals learned. How mazes, locations, and other serial habits are acquired, it should be noted, is a question that is by no means settled. Watson asked, what were the specific cues rats used to learn a maze? They might be sensory, such as visual, auditory, olfactory, cutaneous, somaesthetic, and so on. Adopting the most basic procedure of scientific research, Watson decided to eliminate each possible factor successively until left with only one remaining possibility. He did this by depriving each rat of sensory cues in sequence, one by one. He blinded, deafened, anaesthetized paws, cut off whiskers, and otherwise removed or damaged the organs that transmitted particular sensory cues. When his rat subjects learned mazes even though deprived of major sensory abilities or, as others had shown earlier, different views of the maze’s orientation in a room, he concluded that the remaining sense that he could not remove, kinesthesia, was the mechanism by which rats learned the maze (Watson, 1907). It was not until many years later that Watson’s most prominent student, Karl Lashley, would show that even this residual, spared sense could not be the sole basis for serial learning (Lashley and Ball, 1929). In any case, Watson generalized this conclusion to other serial and motor habits, and for the next ten years carried out a number of experiments with Harvey Carr and Lashley studying kinesthetic factors in human learning—for example, archery.

Critics were quick to point out, however, that this did not mean that normal animals didn't ordinarily use vision or olfaction when learning a maze, an obvious point. By the same token, however, it did not exclude the likelihood that kinesthesia could be a joint factor in serial motor actions. Objections and discussions about Watson’s argument for kinesthesia—that is, that learning the maze occurred by learning motor movement sensory cues in traversing the maze—had a long life and lasted well beyond 1907. It led ultimately to the “place versus response” debate that the behaviorist Edward Chase Tolman triggered, and which occupied behaviorist and cognitive learning theorists until well into the 1970s. It cannot be said to have been satisfactorily resolved even then, and the emergence of brain research on movement-memory areas of the hippocampus reopens the issue, though, of course, at a more profound physiological level. Nevertheless, the research was a tour de force, a demonstration of Watson’s technical competence in sensory psychology and neurology and his persistence in pursuing a problem. At this point, his first exposure to public notoriety occurred: He was attacked in a New York Times article for animal cruelty because of his techniques to deprive subjects of sensory information.

Behaviorism. There can be little doubt that Watson’s early claim to fame and notoriety was his advocacy of the objectivist psychology he called behaviorism. It was offered in contrast to what he regarded as the dominant psychology of his day, which he described as a subjectivist discipline devoted mainly to the study of consciousness by introspection. Watson, as an animal psychologist, believed that man “...is an animal different from other animals only in the types of behavior he displays” (Watson, 1930, p. ix), whereas the psychology he attacked appeared to posit an absolute, qualitative gulf between humans and all other animals. Do animals have experiences that are like the ones humans have? Can animals actually have ideas? Do they have consciousness? Do they have feelings, emotions, images? Is there any reason to think that these are not the essence of human experience? Aren't they what we have discovered from studying peoples’ minds and emotions by introspective methods since ancient times? In any case, even if animals had minds and experiences such as humans have, how could we know? Even were they capable of introspection, how would we know what their consciousness, their experiences consisted of? As they don't have language, they cannot tell us anything about their experiences. Why, then, attribute to them what they cannot possible convey to us? This interesting paradox, a positivist argument against behaviorism, presented an impasse. This is the problem that Watson confronted: how to show that humans and animals, in principle, were not different.

He undertook a multipronged approach that has engaged psychologists of all varieties, pro and con, into the twenty-first century. Some of the negative literature was extremely immoderate and even unrelenting (see, for example, Roback, 1923, 1937). Stung by much of it, Watson describes it as a “… literature of criticism. Some of this has been personal, even vituperative. I have never replied to a criticism. Only rarely has any one taken up the cudgels for behaviorism. Each behaviorist has been too busy presenting his experimental results or his generalizations to concern himself with answering criticisms” (Watson, 1930, p. x). It has to be said, however, that the evidence points to Watson’s being thin-skinned and provocative. The vocabulary of his writings and lectures was forceful, occasionally extreme, and invited equally strong reactions. But such is the polemics of serious advocacy and rejection of deep, unsettling proposals about the basics of a science; see, for example, the strong emotions displayed by early opponents of relativity theory (Crelinsten, 2006). From the very start, behaviorism touched on basic beliefs about humanity and it is no surprise that vigorous opposition resulted.

Watson’s behaviorism rested on the following themes:

  • psychology is a natural science;
  • behavior is the fundamental biological mode of all living creatures;
  • there are native ways of behavior in reaction to the environment as a result of evolution;
  • organisms accommodate and adjust to the impact of the environment upon them by changes in behavior according to specific principles of development and learning, for example, reflex conditioning;
  • insofar as consciousness and its introspection is held to be uniquely human, it should be seen, even in 1913, as at best a limited area of psychological research compared with such basic aspects of psychology as: instincts, learning and habit formation, sensations, perception, attention, emotions, personality and social behavior, psychopathology, and the many behavioral methods available for studying and changing them;
  • insofar as conscious experience is a unique property of humans, its study is as much the province of the physicist and chemist in their research as it is of psychologists;
  • while there are no such entities as mental states— images, ideas, or thoughts—what people say is a response and should be regarded as such. If they say

they see or hear something we accept it as such; what its theoretical status is, is another matter.

Here is found what is in effect a doctrine of phenomenology. Watson was not unsophisticated philosophically, if one takes seriously the listing of classes in philosophy that he took at Chicago, but it is unlikely that he would have identified with the variety of phenomenology propounded by Edmund Husserl, though it too rejected introspectionism.

The proposal that the study of behavior and measurable responses is the main task of psychology, combined with the rejection of mental states and of introspection as a significant or verifiable method, are the two proposals that led to the persistent objections and controversies. Nevertheless, the introspective study of psychological events is but a fraction of the research devoted to studying the responses of people, verbal and otherwise, in all areas of psychology, including perception and sensation in the twenty-first century. Watson’s rejection of introspection was not a perverse whim; it mirrored serious debates among psychologists at the time he was writing about imageless thought. The imageless thought controversy was about whether there could be thoughts without images and revolved around the legitimacy of introspective claims. As a replacement for introspective analysis, Watson proposed that the rigorous application of standard experimental methods would reveal in humans, as they did in animals, the causes and interrelationships between stimuli and responses in all the domains of psychology. There was no longer a need to depend on unverifiable accounts by people of their experiences. As a result, psychology would finally have the ability to predict and control behavior. Needless to say, Watson’s vision about the prediction and control of behavior, especially of people, sparked a new controversy about his views and led to another body of criticism (see, for example, Samelson, 1994, pp. 3–18).

Watson’s attack on introspection and images went far beyond the psychological disputes of his colleagues. They argued about such questions as where images were or how evanescent they were. Watson, on the other hand, said that introspection and mental images or ideas were impossible. The way the brain worked made them impossible; stable or enduring mental things could not exist. He is very explicit about it, as can be seen in the following, which was correct for its time but, sadly for his argument, no longer holds true:

The tendency to make the brain itself something more than a mechanism for coordinating incoming and outgoing impulses has been very strong among psychologists, and even among psychologically inclined neurologists. A still wilder hypothesis is held in regard to the neural impulse.

According to many psychologists we are taught that an incoming impulse may be held in statu quo for long periods of time, or at least that it may ramble around in the nervous system for an indefinite period of time, until it can “obtain possession of the motor field,” at which time it exerts its effects. So far as we know no such thing occurs. The nervous system functions in complete arcs. An incoming impulse exerts its effect relatively immediately upon one system of effectors or another, as shown by inhibition, reinforcement, summation, phenomena in the muscle in operation or by inciting wholly new effectors to action. (1914, p. 20).

Does one detect some influence from Dewey’s famous paper on the reflex arc? In any event, being unusually well informed on brain matters in Watson’s case made him a victim of history.

Although Watson relied on physiology for his argument about introspection, he was very firm about psychology as a separate discipline with its own phenomena and tasks. To be sure, psychology was a biological discipline for him, but he writes, “Our task begins only when the physiologist puts the separate organs together again, and turns the whole (man) over to us. The physiologist qua physiologist knows nothing of the total situations in the daily life of an individual that shape his action and conduct” (1919, p. 22). This is a distinction that he reiterated ever more forcefully in later writings; as he became increasingly convinced about the role of experience and learning in the behavior of humans, his interest in them supplanted his interest in animals.

Emotional Conditioning and Child Development. The last phase of Watson’s academic and research career may be dated from his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in December 1915, “The Place of the Conditioned-Reflex in Psychology” (Watson, 1916, pp. 89–116). In it, he proposed that the conditioned reflex can serve in the place of introspective procedures with people. Further, it could reveal information about the experiences of persons who are non-verbal or handicapped, such as children, psychiatric patients, and neurologically damaged. He discussed a variety of conditioning research that he and Lashley were conducting with animals and humans, distinguishing between the Pavlovian secretory response and the motor response studied by Vladimir M. Bekhterev. After outlining many of the technical features and problems of each, Watson stated that he favored a motor response, particularly the conditioned finger reaction on which he had done some research. The research program was clearly preliminary, and ended with the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917. Watson and Lashley enrolled in military activities, and their program was not resumed when the war was over.

Watson’s presidential address looked backward; it was an answer to those who had regarded Watson’s criticism of introspection as empty because he didn't offer a viable alternative. It explored the many ways in which, by conditioning, fundamental psychological processes in sensory and motor realms—for example, habits—could be explored. However, in several places in the address one finds premonitions of Watson’s postwar interests. In a footnote he writes: “I wish I had the time to develop the view that the concept of the conditioned reflex can be used as an explanatory principle in the psychopathology of hysteria and the various ‘tics’ which appear in so-called normal individuals. It seems to me that hysterical motor manifestations may be looked on as conditioned reflexes (1916, p. 95).” In fact, aside from continuing to write about them later in connection with behaviorism and the truncated program with Lashley, his research with animals was ended. On his return from the military, his work and thinking centered on the plasticity of emotions by conditioning, infant development, and the implications for people and society.

Early in his writing, Watson described emotions as instinctive, universal, natural reactions. Whereas he ultimately rejected the notion of instinct as superfluous (see Watson, 1930, for a detailed examination of instinct vis a vis emotions), he assumed that fear, rage, and love were primary emotional responses and undertook to investigate their modifiability in children.He had already shown an interest in emotional modifiability in a paper with John J. B. Morgan (Watson and Morgan, 1917) about the effect of emotional disruption on work and attention and the return of control. However, Watson and Rosalie Rayner prepared two reports in which they revealed work that would become central to this area of study (Watson and Rayner, 1920; Watson and Watson, 1921). They reviewed experiments and tests in which children were exposed to a variety of stimuli such as objects, sounds, and noises (for example, rabbits, strange human faces, furry objects, and clanging sounds; see photograph in Drunen and Jansz, 2004, p. 69) to determine their “natural” reactions. Then, in their most famous and notorious experiment, they claimed that they had successfully conditioned a child, known forever after as “Little Albert,” to fear a rat by pairing its exposure with the loud striking of an iron bar, and that the fear had generalized to other furry objects. Generalization is the gold standard test of conditioning, so the results were compelling, generally believed, widely reported, and published in both popular magazines and such professional psychological literature as textbooks (see Todd, 1994). It is now generally agreed that the tests and experiments were poorly conceived and executed, and inadequately and incorrectly reported (Harris, 1979), but the damage had been done and Little Albert became a symbol of behaviorism’s possibilities and dangers.

The Watsons were thoroughly convinced that they had shown how malleable children were and how early parental actions could affect emotional behavior and learning. As Watson developed the implications of the work, he became increasingly critical and polemical about literature that took for granted the inheritance of traits and dispositions. The most formal presentation of his arguments appeared as early as the 1924 edition of Behaviorism, but the implications for instincts and emotions became explicit in his chapter in Carl Murchison’s Psychologies of 1925(Watson, 1926). Again, Watson became the target of a critical literature around a presumed extreme environmentalist position that denied hereditary factors in psychology. In any event, his assertion that early learned experience was responsible for personality, social behavior, and pathology fit in with a number of social trends at the time: the mental hygiene movement, expansion of child laws, increased employment of women, and a growing feminist movement, all of which concerned themselves with the management of children from infancy on. Watson’s argument that children’s emotional behavior could be trained provided an answer to questions about discipline; his own stated preferences for dutiful children, appearing in popular venues such as Parents Magazine, appealed to many young parents (Watson and Watson, 1928). A counter-literature quickly arose to oppose the strict childrearing program he advocated (See Drunen and Jansz, 2004). In general, it seems fair to say that his views appealed to some peoples’ predilections, but that the majority of mothers favored less strictness, especially in the early years. (For a bittersweet commentary, see Rosalie Watson’s article in Parents Magazine, 1930).

With the publication of Psychological Care of the Infant and Child in 1928, Watson’s work in psychology was truly finished. He had started out as an experimental animal psychologist and finished with an exclusive concern with human children. Along the way, he generated attention by novel research and radical proposals that often put him at odds with colleagues. He was a productive researcher but didn't follow up on much of what he did. His behaviorist proposals are generally acknowledged to be schematic, at best. Yet much of his work sparked others to pursue the issues, either pro or con, and so, long after his career had ended, something Watsonian was, and still is, present in the activities of psychologists.



Animal Education: An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated with the Growth ofthe Nervous System. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1903.

“Kinaesthetic and Organic Sensations: Their Role in the Reactions of the White Rat to the Maze.” Psychological Review Monograph Supplement 8, no. 33 (1907): 1–100.

“Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.” Psychological Review 20 (1913): 158–177.

Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, 1914.

“The Place of the Conditioned Reflex in Psychology.” Psychological Review 23 (1916): 89–117.

With John J. B. Morgan. “Emotional Reactions and Psychological Experimentation.” American Journal of Psychology 11 (1917): 163–177.

Psychology, from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1919.

With Rosalie Rayner. “Conditioned Emotional Reactions.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 3 (1920): 1–14.

With Rosalie Rayner Watson. “Studies in Infant Psychology.” Scientific Monthly 13 (1921): 493–515.

“What the Nursery Has to Say about Instincts: Experimental Studies on the Growth of Emotions, Recent Experiments on How We Lose and Change Our Emotional Equipment.” In Psychologies of 1925, edited by Carl Murchison. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1928.

With William McDougall. The Battle of Behaviorism: An Exposition and an Exposure. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1928.

With Rosalie Rayner Watson. Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: Norton, 1928. Usually cited with John B. Watson as sole author.

Behaviorism, revised ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1930.

John Broadus Watson.” In A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Volume III, edited by Carl Murchison. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961 [1936].


Buckley, Kerry W. Mechanical Man: John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism. New York: Guilford Press, 1989.

Cohen, David. J. B. Watson, the Founder of Behaviorism: A Biography. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Useful general references and sources.

Crelinsten, Jeffrey. Einstein’s Jury: The Race to Test Relativity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Drunen, Peter van, and Jeroen Jansz. “Child-rearing and Education.” In A Social History of Psychology, edited by Jeroen Jansz and Peter van Drunen. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Harris, Benjamin. “Whatever Happened to Little Albert.” American Psychologist 34 (1979): 151–160.

Holsopple, John. Q. Jr., ed. American Psychological Association 1958 Directory. Washington, DC: The American Psychological Association, 1958.

Lashley, Karl S., and Josephine Ball. “Spinal Conduction and Kinesthetic Sensitivity in the Maze Habit.” Journal of Comparative Psychology 9 (1929): 71–105.

Paicheler, Geneviève. L’Invention de la Psychologie Moderne. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1992. A discerning and European perspective on American psychology and on Watson.

Roback, Abraham A. Behaviorism and Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Sci-Art Publishers, 1923.

———. Behaviorism at Twenty-Five. Cambridge, MA: Sci-Art Publishers, 1937.

Samelson, Franz. “Struggle for Scientific Authority: The Reception of Watson’s Behaviorism, 1913–1920.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 18 (1981): 399–425.

———. “John B. Watson in 1913: Rhetoric and Practice.” In Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism, edited by James T. Todd and Edward K. Morris . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Todd, James T. “What Psychology Has to Say about John B. Watson: Classical Behaviorism in Psychology Textbooks, 1920–1989.” In Modern Perspectives on Classical Behaviorism, edited by James T. Todd and Edward K. Morris. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

———, and Edward K. Morris, eds. Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. Includes extensive references.

———, and Edward K. Morris, eds. Modern Perspectives on B. F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. Includes extensive references.

Washburn, Margaret Floy. The Animal Mind: A Text-book of Comparative Psychology, 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1917.

Watson, Rosalie Rayner. “I Am the Mother of a Behaviorist’s Sons.” Parents Magazine 67 (1930): 16–18.

Woodworth, Robert S. “John Broadus Watson: 1878–1958.” American Journal of Psychology 72 (2, 1959): 301–310.

Richard A. Littman

Watson, John B.

views updated May 23 2018

Watson, John B.

Watson’s theory and its components



John Broadus Watson (1878-1958), American psychologist and founder of behaviorism, was born near Greenville, South Carolina. He attended Furman University, from which he obtained his master’s degree in 1899 and which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1918. A thirst for graduate work in philosophy took him to the University of Chicago. Although he did continue to study philosophy (and later was to express amusement at the charge that he was ignorant of that subject), the influence of J. R. Angell, a leading functional psychologist, soon made psychology his primary interest.

Watson found his métier in the laboratory study of animal behavior, a recent innovation in American psychology pioneered by E. L. Thorndike. Indeed, Watson’s major experimental contribution was in the field of animal psychology, although he also initiated notable work in the experimental analysis of infant behavior. His concern with comparative studies was significant for the development of his behavioristic premise: the absence of speech in animals compels the experimenter to communicate with his subjects—and to arrange that they may communicate with him—in behavioral terms only.

Watson’s doctoral dissertation, Animal Education, was published in 1903. Then a continuous stream of publications followed, all on the subject of animal psychology. The flow was not interrupted by his move to Johns Hopkins in 1908, and it culminated in his textbook Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (1914). Classic among these researches was his investigation of the sensory determinants of maze learning in the rat (1907), a study in which he successively deprived the subjects of various sensory modalities in order to assess the contribution of each modality to the learning process. In addition, he worked with monkeys and birds. His work on imitation in two rhesus monkeys (1908a) convinced him that they lacked this kind of social response—a conclusion that has not stood the test of time. His work on birds (1908b) took him outside the laboratory, to a small island off the coast of Florida, where he took part in intensive investigations of the homing mechanisms of terns. Watson’s field work was characterized not only by patience—not an unusual trait in naturalists—but also by noteworthy ingenuity in adapting the methods of the laboratory to the difficult task of field observation.

Compared with the rewards of research on animals, the general psychology of his day seemed increasingly inadequate to Watson. His impatience with it achieved full expression in his declaration of independence, in a paper entitled “Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It” (1913). This paper, a landmark in the history of experimental psychology, enunciated the doctrine that psychology is the science of behavior, and it presented a methodological approach that Watson regarded as a prerequisite for the advancement of psychology. Mentalistic concepts, images, the study of consciousness and its contents, and introspection as the principal method must all be abolished, to be replaced by objective observation of the organism’s response to controlled stimuli. Indeed, human behavior was to be studied in the same careful way that animal behavior is studied in the laboratory.

After America’s entry into World War I, Watson spent a year doing military research of various kinds. It was for him an unhappy time, in which he came in contact with inefficiency and arrogance of a kind that disgusted him. Returning to Johns Hopkins, he plunged into research again, this time on infant behavior.

Watson was always inclined to involve the members of his immediate family in his work, particularly in his research on infancy and child rearing. His first wife, Mary Ickes Watson, collaborated with him in his study of the visual responses of rats (1913), and she permitted him to test one of their infants, immediately after birth, for its ability to make swimming movements in a tub of water. Mary Watson divorced him in 1920 for adultery with Rosalie Rayner, who was his assistant in research on infant behavior. The next year, Miss Rayner became Watson’s second wife. Together they published the famous study of Albert B. (1920), a child whom they conditioned to fear a white rat by producing a loud sound simultaneously with successive presentations of the rat. Some years later Watson published his thoughts on child rearing (Watson & Watson 1928); they were derived from his experimental work on conditioning of fears, but they were also characterized by a no-nonsense, tough-minded approach that led to at least one unhappy childhood, as one of the sons by his second wife testified (J. R. Watson 1950).

The sensational divorce compelled Watson to leave the academic world, and he went into the advertising business, with considerable success. His work on infant conditioning was disrupted, and though it was continued later, especially in the notable studies of Mary Cover Jones (1924a; 1924b), Watson’s part in it, and indeed his involvement in psychology generally, grew progressively less. In the first decade after his enforced retirement he still lectured on psychology, and he published some of these lectures in a semipopular book, Behaviorism (1925), a book that appears to have attracted many psychologists to the field. While Watson’s contributions to the scientific literature grew fewer and fewer, his output of articles for popular magazines increased markedly. The appeal of Watson’s popular writings may well have helped create the immense popularity that behaviorism enjoyed with the general public in America in the 1920s and early 1930s. By 1935, when his second wife died, Watson regarded himself as having withdrawn completely from active participation in psychological work (1936). In 1957 the American Psychological Association, whose president he had been in 1915, honored him as one of its surviving ex-presidents: he was awarded a ceremonial gavel with an appropriate citation for having “initiated a revolution in psychological thought.” He died almost exactly a year later, aged 80.

It is possible only to speculate about the work Watson might have done and the influence he might have had if his academic career had not been terminated so early. Almost certainly, he would have developed new lines of research, and it might have been he who performed Lamarckian experiments on the training of rats, rather than his archcritic, William McDougall. (As early as 1906 Watson had pleaded for an “experimental station for the study of certain problems of animal behavior,” one of which, deriving from a suggestion by Thorndike, was the Lamarckian experiment.) Watson’s direct influence on psychology through his students would surely have been greater than his indirect, albeit powerful, influence through the general public.

So far as the acceptance of behaviorism by professional psychologists is concerned, Watson’s enforced retirement from academic psychology may indirectly have retarded it. Free from the constraints and cautious reservations of scientific discourse, Watson stated his case with an almost evangelical fervor that certainly irritated professional psychologists (Watson & McDougall 1928). While some academic psychologists, such as Karl S. Lashley, Walter S. Hunter, and Albert P. Weiss, counted themselves behaviorists, the majority resisted teaching the new doctrine to their students, many of whom had a layman’s acquaintance with behaviorism before they came to college. The leap ahead did not come until the next generation of psychologists, which included Clark Hull, Edward C. Tolman, and, somewhat later, B. F. Skinner and Neal Miller. All of them were considerably influenced by Watson, though their contributions to learning theory are at once more elaborate and more sophisticated than his relatively simple, reflex notions.

Even more recently, concrete form has been given to developments in education and in psychiatry that Watson adumbrated. For example, he explicitly anticipated the kind of manipulation of environmental contingencies that is fundamental to the Skinnerian approach to programmed learning, which in turn is an application of psychology that bids fair to revolutionize classroom techniques. The development, especially in Britain, of behavior therapy for symptomatic treatment of psychiatric disorders owes much to Watson’s work on little Albert and similar cases; the desensitizing techniques he first described are being widely applied.

Watson’s theory and its components

In its final form, Watson’s theoretical position had the following components: functionalism, associationism, peripheralism, and extreme environmentalism.

Watson was trained at Chicago in the heyday of the functionalist school, and he was clearly impressed with the emphasis of the functionalists on process instead of structure. The functionalists were in revolt against the “new” psychology of Wilhelm Wundt, which was concerned with breaking down the contents of consciousness into “mental” elements, the identification of these rather static elements being comparable to the identification of the elements in a chemical compound by analysis. More than any previous theory, the functionalist position, with its emphasis on the importance of environmental determinants of consciousness and on the antecedents of consciousness in general, was akin to Watson’s own ideas on how behavior is modified. Although he rejected certain elements of mentalism that still remained in the functionalist position and insisted that any analysis of animal behavior should consist only of an objective description of the behavior observed, without any attempt to infer what is going on in the animal’s mind, he nevertheless adopted the functionalist view of behavior as an ongoing and continuous process. In a sense, then, Watson may be regarded as the last of the functionalists.

Watson’s associationism was in the classic tradition, which saw the association of stimulus with motor response as the bond upon which habits are built. Watson’s psychology was a reflex psychology, based on conditioning as the central process. He did not at first appear to be much impressed with the findings on reinforcement from the laboratories of Pavlov and Bekhterev; his own emphasis was upon the recency principle of learning, by which connections are formed because of the temporal contiguity of the processes involved. Later, however, without explicitly admitting the necessity of the reinforcement principle, he made use of classical Pavlovian conditioning as an explanatory principle. It was, he said, the keystone to the arch of behaviorism (1929), and he used it successfully and correctly in his account of the conditioning of fears in the infant by the association of a previously neutral stimulus with an unconditioned fear stimulus.

Watson was a peripheralist in that he sought to deny the importance of central cerebral processes. It was almost as if he believed that the mentalistic mind resides in the brain, and that contamination by the former can be avoided by eschewing the latter. Pleasure, for example, is associated with stimuli originating from the (peripheral) erogenous zones, in particular from the tumescence of genitalia. Thought is to be regarded as subvocal speech: if we think with our vocal apparatus, then its movements, be they ever so small, are the responses by which the information is transmitted. Thought, imageless or otherwise, is then intelligible as a series of muscle movements.

The notion of subvocal speech was an important element in Watson’s system, since it enabled him not only to suggest a definite physiological construct as the essential mediator in human thought but also to relate this construct to the one function—speech—which differentiates man from the other animals and which has permitted him to initiate, maintain, and extend the enormous cultural apparatus that subserves civilized life. But it was this aspect of Watson’s psychology, perhaps more than any other, which made Tolman’s derogatory epithet—"muscle twitch psychology”—stick. While Watson’s views almost certainly involve oversimplification and subsequent work on the electro-physiology of thought as it relates to subvocal speech has not in general supported him, it can be argued that the current emphasis on the analysis of meaning owes much to Watson’s assertion of the importance of implicit responses (Goss 1961).

Watson is noted for the extreme environmentalism of his theoretical position. His most famous statement of his position, however, is probably his most fatuous and illustrates his abandon of academic caution in the post-Hopkins days (although he did apologize for this particular remark): “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select —doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors” ([1925] 1962, p. 104).

This antihereditarianism is bound up with Watson’s antipathy to the doctrine of instincts, as formulated, for example, by McDougall, who postulated more or less fixed action patterns having specific emotional concomitants and responding to specific stimuli. It is in no small measure due to Watson’s polemics that American psychology had an antihereditarian cast for a generation or more. But recently a change has occurred: it is now seen to be entirely possible to acknowledge a hereditary component in most behavior without attributing to the behavior instinctive determinants in the mentalistic way which Watson mistrusted. He seems to have been overinfluenced by his work on infant behavior: infants respond with emotion (e.g., fear) to only a few specific stimuli—loss of support, loud noises, and restraint of limbs; all other culturally potent stimuli, such as furry objects, snakes, or the sight of flames, leave the infant indifferent. Watson deduced from this that human infants are innately equipped with only a few patterns of behavior in response to specific stimuli, and that all other responses (in this case, fear responses) develop later and must therefore be regarded as learned.

Many of Watson’s ideas were not new, and many have not stood the test of time. He was not, certainly, the first to advocate methodological behaviorism: others, notably Max F. Meyer, had initiated a trend toward the objectification of psychology by the abandonment of introspective methods. Pavlov and Bekhterev did work on conditioning long before he did. His functionalist position owed much to the psychologists at Chicago. He stated his peripheralist and antihereditarian positions in too extreme terms. Nevertheless, Watson made an immense contribution to psychology, completing a revolution that others had begun and preparing the way for more sophisticated work. Nowadays there are few psychologists who are not behaviorists, though they may not recognize, much less accept, the label. While consciousness is no longer quite the dirty word it was for a long time, overt behavior, studied objectively, is the preferred subject of study. This methodological behaviorism, together with operationism and refined statistical analysis, has provided psychology with a set of tools equal, if not superior, to those of other biological sciences.

Except for Freud, Watson may well have been the psychologist best known to the general public of his day. For many people, Watson’s assertion of the absence of hereditary traits, and his faith in the acquisition by each individual of a set of habits, mediated by conditioning principles, constituted the image of psychology. The public generally approved of this image and in the United States accorded psychology support and recognition. Therefore, while Watson’s direct influence on psychology may have waned over the years, his indirect influence, both within and without psychology, may be with us for many years to come.

P. L. Broadhurst

[For the historical context of Watson’s work, see the biographies ofAngell; Bekhterev; Mcdougall; Pavlov. For discussion of the subsequent development of Watson’s ideas, seeLearning, articles onClassicalConditioningandInstrumentalLearning; and the biographies ofHull; Hunter; Lash-Ley; Tolman.]


1903 Animal Education: An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated With the Growth of Its Nervous System. Contributions to Philosophy, Vol. 4, no. 2. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1906 The Need of an Experimental Station for the Study of Certain Problems in Animal Behavior. Psychological Bulletin 3:149-156.

1907 Kinaesthetic and Organic Sensations: Their Role in the Reactions of the White Rat to the Maze. Psychological Review, Monograph Supplements, Vol. 8, no. 33. Lancaster, Pa., and Baltimore, Md.: Revue.

1908a Imitation in Monkeys. Psychological Bulletin 5: 169-178.

19086 The Behavior of Noddy and Sooty Terns. Carnegie Institution, Publications 103:187-255.

1913 Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review 20:158-177.

1913 Watson, John B.; and Watson, Mary I. A Study of the Responses of Rodents to Monochromatic Light. Journal of Animal Behavior 3:1-14.

1914 Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. New York: Holt.

(1919) 1929 Psychology From the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. 3d ed., rev. Philadelphia and London: Lippincott.

(1920) 1960 Watson, John B.; and Rayner, Rosalie Conditioned Emotional Reactions. Pages 28-37 in H. J. Eysenck (editor), Behaviour Therapy and the Neuroses. Oxford: Pergamon.

(1925) 1962 Behaviorism. Rev. ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1928 Watson, John B.; and Mcdougall, WilliamThe Battle of Behaviorism: An Exposition and an Exposure. London: Routledge.

1928 Watson, John B.; and Watson, RosaliePsychological Care of Infant and Child. London: Allen & Unwin.

1929 Behaviourism. Volume 3, pages 327-329 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. 14th ed. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

1936 John Broadus Watson. Volume 3, pages 271-281 in A History of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.


Bergmann, Gustav 1956 The Contribution of John B. Watson. Psychological Review 63:265-276.

Boring, Edwin G. (1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton.

Goss, Albert E. 1961 Early Behaviorism and Verbal Mediating Responses. American Psychologist 16:285-298.

John Broadus Watson. 1932 Volume 3, pages 528-530 in Psychological Register. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.

Jones, Mary C. (1924a) 1960 The Elimination of Children’s Fears. Pages 38-44 in H. J. Eysenck (editor), Behaviour Therapy and the Neuroses. Oxford: Pergamon.

Jones, Mary C. (1924b) 1960 A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter. Pages 45-51 in H. J. Eysenck (editor), Behaviour Therapy and the Neuroses. Oxford: Pergamon.

Watson, John R. 1950 Letter to the Editors. Life 29, no. 3:8 only.

Watson, John B. (1878–1958)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Watson, John B. (18781958)

The details of John B. Watson's contributions to developmental and child psychology are largely unknown to modern psychologists, who see little of them beyond textbook summaries. Based on an objective, empirical foundation, the best early twentieth-century research in developmental physiology, and his own work with animals, Watson adopted a life-span developmental approach which emphasized combining observational research with laboratory work employing the precision of Pavlovian principles. Watson was one of the first psychologists to argue for the impressive cognitive competence of infants, question the prevailing prejudice of inevitable intellectual decline in old age, and, unlike other pioneering developmentalists such as G. Stanley Hall, Jean Piaget, and Arnold Gesell, explicitly reject Ernst Haeckel's discredited recapitulation theory and its questionable behavioral implications.

The origins of Watson's developmental viewpoint can be traced to his earliest work with animals. His dissertation, Animal Education (1903), an analysis of the relationship between brain and behavior development in rats, suggested to Watson that infant humans, like infant rats, were not the passive, cognitively limited organisms that some of his contemporaries suggested. His extensive ethological and laboratory studies of seabirds (The Behavior of Noddy and Sooty Terns, 1908), monkeys (Notes on the Development of a Young Monkey, 1913), and other organisms convinced him of the importance of early experience to the development of adult behavior (a position which paralleled Freud's in some ways) as well as the impossibility of fully understanding learned behavior without also understanding unlearned capabilities.

After 1917, Watson's research shifted from animals to humans. Focusing on unlearned behavior and emotional development, his interests included reflexes, thinking, language acquisition, and handedness. Although he argued that there was little good evidence supporting inherited differences in intelligence and other tendencies based on race and similar factors, Watson never claimed that all behavior was learned. Watson is usually portrayed as a naïve environmentalist who claimed that if given a dozen healthy babies, he could turn them into anything he wanted. But he regarded the study of unlearned behavior in humans as basic to understanding learning and behavior development. A clever debater, his famous "dozen health infants" statement, which seems to assert complete environmentalism, was actually a rhetorical device for revealing the unscientific foundations of early twentieth-century hereditarianism. A Darwinian, Watson believed that the primacy of learning over complex instinctual behavior in humans was an inherited, adaptive characteristic in which complex functional behaviors were conditioned though Pavlovian processes from simple unlearned behaviors.

For Watson, emotional development also consisted of building complex behaviors through conditioning from simpler reactionsin this case, newborns' unlearned reactions of fear, rage, and love. The so-called Little Albert Experiment (where Watson conditioned an eleven-month-old infant to show fear at the sign of a white rat) suggested that new emotional reactions could be conditioned via Pavlovian associations. Research by M. C. Jones (1924a, 1924b), supervised by Watson, showed that emotional responses might be unconditioned using a technique now known as "systematic desensitization." While his theory as a whole was considered an oversimplification, the concept of emotional conditioning was accepted broadly and serves as the basis of modern therapies for anxiety disorders.

A good Progressive, Watson believed in applying scientific findings to social problems. Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919) and Behaviorism (1924, revised 1930) contained large sections on developmental topics. Articles on child behavior in Harpers, McCalls, and Cosmopolitan, as well as advice dispensed by radio, broadened his audience. Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928) is remembered primarily for suggesting that emotional attachment between children and parents breeds overdependency. However, Watson also warned of the negative effects of corporal punishment, allayed unfounded Victorian-era fears about masturbation, and advocated an open approach about sexual issuesa view derived from extensive studies of the effectiveness of sex education in preventing venerealdisease.

Watson stopped publishing broadly in 1930. For over thirty years research on conditioning principles dominated behaviorism. Eventually, the successful application of Skinnerian behavioral principles to developmental disabilities in the 1950s reinvigorated a behavioral life-span approach to developmental psychology. The "behavior analysis of child development" has become a major component of modern behavior analysis.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Spock, Benjamin.


Bijou, S. W., and D. M. Baer. 1961. Child Development I: A Systematic and Empirical Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bijou, S. W., and D. M. Baer. 1965. Child Development II: The Universal Stage of Infancy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Buckley, K. W. 1989. Mechanical Man: John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism. New York: Guilford Press.

Jones, M. C. 1924a. "The Elimination of Children's Fears." Journalof Experimental Psychology 7: 383390.

Jones, M. C. 1924b. "A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter." Pedagogical Seminary 31: 308315.

Todd, James T., and E. K. Morris, eds. 1994. Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Watson, John B. 1914. Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

Watson, John B. 1930. Behaviorism, rev. ed. New York: People's Institute.

James T. Todd

Watson, John Broadus

views updated May 14 2018

John Broadus Watson

American psychologist and founder of behaviorism.

John Broadus Watson is best known as the founder of behaviorism , which he defined as an experimental branch of natural science aimed at the prediction and control of behavior. Its model was based on Ivan Pavlov's studies of conditioned reflex: every conduct is a response to a stimulus or to a complex set of stimulus situations. From birth , a few stimuli elicit definite reactions. But most behaviors are conditioned; they result from the association of unconditioned stimuli to other stimuli.

Watson was born in 1878 to a poor, rural South Carolina family . His mother was a pious Baptist; his father left the family in 1891. After taking a traditional classical curriculum at Furman University, he studied philosophy at the University of Chicago. Disappointed with John Dewey's teaching, he began work in animal psychology, and received his Ph.D. in 1903. Watson was a professor at Johns Hopkins University from 1908 to 1920, when he was dismissed because of his relationship with a graduate student, Rosalie Rayner. He divorced his wife, married Rosalie, and had a successful career in advertising. In 1957, he was awarded a gold medal by the American Psychological Association (of which he had been the youngest president, in 1915). Watson died in 1958.

Developmental issues were crucial for behaviorism. According to Watson, unhealthy adult personalities resulted from habit systems carried over from infancy . Early childhood was key, and a detailed knowledge of child development was indispensable for designing a behavioral social technology. The significance of childhood and child-study for behaviorism is summed up in Watson's most famous statement: "Give me a dozen healthy infants and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and the race of his ancestors."

By 1917, Watson had focused his research on children. He carried out pioneering observational and experimental work on newborns and infants, produced Experimental Investigation of Babies (1919), one of the first psychology films done in the United States, wrote the bestselling manual Psychological Care of Infant and Child, and became a popular child-rearing expert. Much of his research was directed at distinguishing unlearned from learned behavior. Observations of hundreds of babies revealed that sneezing, hiccoughing, crying, erection of penis, voiding of urine, defecation, smiling, certain eye movements and motor reactions, feeding responses, grasping, and blinking were unlearned, but that they began to become conditioned a few hours after birth. Crawling, swimming, and handedness appeared to be learned. Watson also traced the beginnings of language to unlearned vocal sounds, and found that three forms of emotional ("visceral") response can be elicited at birth by three sets of stimuli: fear (by loss of support and loud sounds; Watson did not notice that his conditioning fear of fire through burning alone contradicted his view), rage (by hampering of bodily movement), and love (by stroking of the skin, tickling, gentle rocking, patting). Just as there was no innate fear of darkness, there was no instinctive love of the child for the mother; all "visceral habits" were shaped by conditioning. In one of the most controversial experiments of all psychology, Watson conditioned eleven-month-old "little Albert" to fear furry objects; this case was for him proof that complex behavior develops by conditioning out of simple unlearned responses.

Watson considered the ultimate aim of psychology to be the adjustment of individual needs to the needs of society. He encouraged parents to approach childrearing

as a professional application of behaviorism. Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928) is dedicated "to the first mother who brings up a happy child." Such a child would be an autonomous, fearless, self-reliant, adaptable, problem-solving being, who does not cry unless physically hurt, is absorbed in work and play , and has no great attachments to any place or person. Watson warned against the dangers of "too much mother love," and advocated strict routines and a tight control over the child's environment and behavior. His disapproval of thumb-sucking, masturbation, and homosexuality was not moral, but practical, and he encouraged parents to be honest about sex. He agreed with psychoanalysts on the importance of sexuality . Partly because of the premature end to Watson's university career, his views did not have a decisive influence on academic child psychology . They contributed, however, to professionalizing child-rearing, and bolstered contemporary arguments, by Fred and John Dewey for example, on the determining lifelong effects of early development.

Further Reading

Buckley, K.W. Mechanical Man. John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism. New York: Guilford Press, 1989.

Cohen, D. Behaviorism. [1924, 1930], New York: W.W. Norton, 1970.

. Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York W.W. Norton, 1928.

. J.B. Watson: The Founder of Behaviorism. London Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Watson, John B. (1878–1958)

views updated Jun 08 2018

WATSON, JOHN B. (18781958)

John B. Watson was an important contributor to classical behaviorism, who paved the way for B. F. Skinner's radical or operant behaviorism, which has had a major impact on American educational systems.

A professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University (19081920), Watson is often listed as one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century; his work is standard material in most introductory psychology and educational psychology texts. Yet his academic career was brief, lasting for only fourteen years, and his legacy has been hotly debated for nearly a century. Watson helped define the study of behavior, anticipated Skinner's emphasis on operant conditioning, and emphasized the importance of learning and environmental influences in human development. Watson's often harsh criticism of Sigmund Freud has been given credit for helping to disseminate principles of Freudian psychoanalysis. Watson is widely known for the Little Albert study and his "dozen healthy infants" quote.

Popularizing Behaviorism

John B. Watson is generally given credit for creating and popularizing the term behaviorism with the publication of his seminal 1913 article "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It." In the article, Watson argued that psychology had failed in its quest to become a natural science, largely due to a focus on consciousness and other unseen phenomena. Rather than study these unverifiable ideas, Watson urged the careful scientific study of observable behavior. His view of behaviorism was a reaction to introspection, where each researcher served as his or her own research subject, and the study of consciousness by Freud and others, which Watson believed to be highly subjective and unscientific.

In response to introspection, Watson and other early behaviorists believed that controlled laboratory studies were the most effective way to study learning. With this approach, manipulation of the learner's environment was the key to fostering development. This approach stands in contrast to techniques that placed the emphasis for learning in the mind of the learner. The 1913 article is often given credit for the founding of behaviorism, but it had a minor impact after its publication. His popular 1919 psychology text is probably more responsible for introducing behaviorist principles to a generation of future scholars of learning. In this way, Watson prepared psychologists and educators for the highly influential work of Skinner and other radical behaviorists in subsequent decades.

The Little Albert Study

In 1920 Watson and an assistant, Rosalie Rayner, published one of the most famous research studies of the past century. Watson attempted to condition a severe emotional response in Little Albert, a nine-month-old child. Watson determined that white, furry objects, such as a rat, a rabbit, and cotton, did not produce any negative reaction in the baby. But by pairing together a neutral stimulus (white, furry animals and objects) with an unconditioned stimulus (a very loud noise) that elicited an unconditioned response (fear), Watson was able to create a new stimulus-response link: When Albert saw white, furry objects, this conditioned stimulus produced a conditioned response of fear. This study is generally presented as a seminal work that provided evidence that even complex behaviors, such as emotions, could be learned through manipulation of one's environment. As such, it became a standard bearer for behaviorist approaches to learning and is still widely cited in the early twenty-first century.

The "Dozen Healthy Infants"

To a behaviorist, manipulation of the environment is the critical mechanism for learning (e.g., the Little Albert study). To illustrate this point, Watson wrote in 1930, "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might selectdoctor, lawyer, artistregardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors" (p. 104). This quote routinely appears in introductory texts in education and psychology and is used to illustrate the radical environmental views of behaviorists.

But that sentence is only the first part of the quote. In that same statement, Watson subsequently wrote, "I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing so for many thousands of years" (p.104). This second sentence is rarely quoted with the first sentence. In taking this quote out of context, authors have presented Watson and classical behaviorism as having an extreme perspective on the importance of environment. However, Watson was reacting to the work of other psychologists and educators who believed that heredity was solely responsible for human development and learning. Early behaviorists accented the role of environment, but their views were probably not as radical and extreme as they are often presented.

Life after the University

Following a personal scandal in 1920, Watson resigned his position at Johns Hopkins and entered advertising, where he achieved some degree of success. He also published popular accounts of behaviorism after leaving his university position. His book Psychological Care of the Infant and Child (1928) was very popular, advocating a rather detached approach to parenting, with few displays of affection such as kissing and hugging of children. Given Watson's relatively short academic career, his lasting contributions in the areas of learning, psychological methods, and behaviorism are remarkable.

See also: Educational Psychology.


Cohen, David. 1979. J. B. Watson, the Founder of Behaviourism: A Biography. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Todd, James T., and Morris, Edward K., eds. 1994. Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Watson, John B. 1913. "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It." Psychological Review 20:158177.

Watson, John B. 1919. Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Watson, John B. 1930. Behaviorism, revised edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Watson, John B., and Rayner, Rosalie. 1920. "Conditioned Emotional Responses." Journal of Experimental Psychology 3:114.

Jonathan A. Plucker

John Broadus Watson

views updated Jun 11 2018

John Broadus Watson

John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) founded the behaviorist movement in American psychology. His view that only observable events, and not mental states, are the substance of psychology provided the behavioristic flavor that still characterizes much of psychology today.

John B. Watson was born on Jan. 9, 1878, on a farm near Greenville, S.C. At 16 he enrolled at Furman University and graduated 5 years later with a master's degree. He then entered the University of Chicago and in 1901 received his doctorate. His major in psychology was under J. R. Angell, his philosophy minor under John Dewey, and his neurology major under H. H. Donaldson.

Watson remained at Chicago as an assistant and instructor until 1908. During this period he married Mary Ickes. His empirical work focused on animal behavior and relied on white rats, monkeys, and birds as objects of study. In 1908 he moved to Johns Hopkins, where he remained until 1920. A widely publicized divorce action precipitated his resignation, withdrawal from academics, and a second marriage.

Watson was a highly productive scientist. During his time at Johns Hopkins, he published more than 35 papers, reports, and books. He was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1915 and served as editor on a number of professional journals into the 1920s.

In 1913 Watson published the theoretical paper "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It." This paper presented for the first time an articulated statement of behaviorism as a reaction to Wundtian psychology, characterized by the study of consciousness and the reliance on introspection to obtain data. For Watson, psychology was to become an "objective experimental branch of natural science." Consciousness could no longer be the substance of psychology, and introspection was an unreliable method because they both required mentalities language construction.

Watson strongly rejected any belief in instincts and indicated that it was a misnomer for early experiences. Differences in ability and talent originate in early experience in contrast to being innately determined.

In 1920 Watson went to work in advertising, where his perseverance and ability again caused him to be successful. Despite his withdrawal from professional psychology, he continued to write articles relevant to psychology for popular consumption. His second wife, Rosalie Rayner, died in 1934; Watson went into retirement in 1946 and lived in Woodbury, Conn. He died on Sept. 25, 1958, in New York City.

Further Reading

Watson's own account of his life and work appears in Carl A. Murchison, ed., A History of Psychology in Autobiography (4 vols., 1930-1952). He figures in such general works on psychology as Edwin G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology (1929; rev. ed. 1957), and Robert I. Watson, The Great Psychologists from Aristotle to Freud (1963).

Additional Sources

Buckley, Kerry W. (Kerry Wayne), Mechanical man: John Broadus Watson and the beginnings of behaviorism, New York: Guilford Press, 1989.

Cohen, David, J. B. Watson, the founder of behaviourism: a biography, London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. □

John Broadus Watson

views updated May 17 2018

John Broadus Watson


American psychologist whose work involving the experimental study of the relations between environmental events and human behavior became the dominant psychology in the United States in the 1920s and 30s. Watson's first major published work, Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, argued forcefully for the use of animals in psychological study. Watson established a laboratory for comparative, or animal, psychology at Johns Hopkins University in 1908.

Watson, John Broadus

views updated May 23 2018

Watson, John Broadus (1878–1958) US psychologist, the founder of behaviourism in the USA. His work did much to make psychological research more objective, and his point of view was continued in the work of B. F. Skinner.

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John Broadus Watson

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