John B. Watson

(1878 - 1958)

Compiled by Emily Watson (May 1999)

Watson Biography
Time Line

In 1878 John Broadus Watson was born to Emma and Pickens Watson. A poor family in Greenville, South Carolina, his mother was very religious. John's father, with whom he was closer, did not follow the same rules of living as his mother. He drank, had extra-marital affairs, and left in 1891. Eventually John married Mary Ikes whom he met at the University of Chicago. Together they had two children, Mary and John. And, like his father, had affairs with a number of women. Watson & RaynerJohn and Mary finally divorced and he married one of his graduate students, Rosalie Rayner (see photo). They had two more children, James and William. John focused much of his study of behaviorism on his children. After Rosalie's death, his already poor relationships with his children grew worse and he became a recluse. He lived on a farm in Connecticut until his death in 1958.

The absence of his father took it's toll on John. He rebelled against his mother and teachers and turned to violence. John was able to turn his life back around with the help of his teacher, Gordon Moore, at Furman University. With Moore's help, John was able to succeed and moved on to the University of Chicago. It was there that he became interest in the field of comparative psychology and studying animals. He wrote his dissertation about the relation between behavior in the white rat and the growth of the nervous system. In 1903 he received his doctorate and later became an associate professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University.

In 1913 at Columbia University, Watson delivered a lecture entitled "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It." Before this speech the field of psychology was in disagreement over the ideas of the nature of consciousness and the methods of studying it. Many questions were raised and few answers had been given until Watson spoke. He claimed that the problem was the use of archaic methods and inappropriate subject matter. He cut consciousness and introspection out of the picture. Instead, he proposed the idea of an objective psychology of behavior called "behaviorism." He saw psychology as the study of people's actions with the ability to predict and control those actions. This new idea became known as the behaviorists theory. During the next few years, different ideas about behaviorism studied, one of which was Watson's. His view of behaviorism was considered radical and was known for its extreme anti-mentalism, it s radical reduction of thinking to implicit response, and its heavy and somewhat simplistic reliance on conditioned reactions. Even with all the different variations, they all had one common idea- that psychology was defined as the natural science of behavior, objective in its study, and was a pattern of adjustment functionally dependent upon stimulus conditions in the environment, and was emphasized in theory and research (Wozniak). In his earlier years Watson used animal subjects to study behavior. Later he turned to the study of human behaviors and emotions. Until World War I he collaborated his studies with Adolph Meyer. After the war he resumed his work at Johns Hopkins University. He wanted to develop techniques to allow him to " ‘condition and control them emotions of human subjects.' " His famous study for this was called the Little Albert Experiment in which he theorized that children have three basic emotional reactions: fear, rage, and love. He wanted to prove that these three reactions could be artificially conditioned in children. Watson used a little boy named Albert to test his theory. He repeatedly presented Albert a rat in conjunction with a sudden, loud noise to classically condition fear of the rat.

After leaving Johns Hopkins University, Watson went into the advertising business. He wanted to use his scientific theories of behaviorism and the emotions of fear, rage, and love to improve the effects of advertising on the "animal" or what we know as consumers. Watson began his training at J Walter Thompson Agency with Stanley B. Resor. He became an ambassador and in 1924 he stepped up to become vice president of the company. While he was there he also wrote and sold books about the control over human emotions. Later he moved onto work for William Esty Agency until he retired in 1945. Watson & little Albert In 1920 he published his most famous conditioning experiment; the "Little Albert" study in which he produced, in a small child, conditioned fear of a white rat by repeatedly presenting it paired with the loud "clanging" of a metal bar. This conditioned fear was then shown to generalize to other white furry objects, including a Santa mask and Watson's own white hair (Watson & Rayner, 1920). In another well-known article (Watson, 1920), he argued that thinking -- a mental activity that seems to involve no overt behavior -- is nothing more than subvocal speaking. He later retracted this extreme view, however (Watson & McDougall, 1929).

Although Watson's academic star burned brightly, it was destined to be short-lived. Like his predecessor, Baldwin, he was forced to resign his chair at Hopkins because of a sex scandal involving his assistant, Rayner. He continued to publish books on psychology--Behaviorism (1924) and The Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928)--but by the 1930s his main career interest had shifted to the advertising business, and he ended his scholarly pursuits.

In The Ways of Behaviorism, Watson states that behaviorism is the scientific study of human behavior. It is simply the study of what people do. Behaviorism is intended to take psychology up to the same level as other sciences. The first task is to observe behavior and make predictions, then to take determine causal relationships. Behavior can be reduced to relationships between stimuli and responses, the S --- R Model. A stimulus can be shown to cause a response or a response can be traced back to a stimulus. All behavior can be reduced to this basic component. According to Watson, "life's most complicated acts are but combinations of these simple stimulus- response patterns of behavior."

Conditioning is the process of learning to react to the environment. Many behaviors have been previously conditioned in the human species by the environment. To gain control of a subject of study the behaviorist must know difference between what behaviors have been preconditioned and what was inherited from past generations. Gardner Murphy wrote in his book, An Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology, that some "believe that all learning is simply conditioning, and that the conditioned response is the true unit of learned behavior."

1. Human psychology has failed to make good its claim as a natural science. Due to a mistaken notion that its fields of facts are conscious phenomena and that introspection is the only direct method of ascertaining these facts, it has enmeshed itself in a series of speculative questions which, while fundamental to its present tenets, are not open to experimental treatment. In the pursuit of answers to these questions, it has become further and further divorced from contact with problems which vitally concern human interest.

2. Psychology, as the behaviorist views it, is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of chemistry and physics. It is granted that the behavior of animals can be investigated without appeal to consciousness. Heretofore the viewpoint has been that such data have value only in so far as they can be interpreted by analogy in terms of consciousness. The position is taken here that the behavior of man and the behavior of animals must be considered on the same plane; as being equally essential to a general understanding of behavior. It can dispense with consciousness in a psychological sense. The separate observation of 'states of consciousness', is, on this assumption, no more a part of the task of the psychologist than of the physicist. We might call this the return to a non-reflective and have use of consciousness. In this sense consciousness may be said to be the instrument or tool with which all scientists work. Whether or not the tool is properly used at present by scientists is a concern for philosophy and not for psychology.

3. The study of the behavior of amoebae have value in and for themselves without reference to the behavior of man. Biological studies of race differentiation and inheritance form a separate division of study which must be evaluated in terms of the laws found there. The conclusions so reached may not hold in any other form. Regardless of the possible lack of generality, such studies must be made if evolution as a whole is ever to be understood. Similarly the laws of behavior of a particluar species, the range of responses, and the determination of effective stimuli, of habit formation, persistency of habits, interference and reinforcement of habits, must be determined and evaluated in and of themselves, regardless of their generality, or of their bearing upon such laws in other forms, if the phenomena of behavior are ever to be brought within the sphere of scientific control.

4. By eliminating states of consciousness as proper objects of investigation, Watson sought to remove the barrier of subjectivity from psychology which exists between it and the other sciences. The findings of psychology become the functional correlates of structure and lend themselves to explanations in physico-chemical terms.

5. Psychology will have to neglect but few of the really essential problems with which psychology as an introspective science now concerns itself. In all probability even this residue of problems may be phrased in such a way that refined methods in behavior eventually will lead to their solution.

Time Line
1878 ~ John Broadus Watson was born in Greenville, South Carolina.
1891 ~ John's father, Pickens Watson, left his family.
1899 ~ John graduated from Furman University.
1901 ~ John majored in psychology and minored in philosophy and neurology at the University of Chicago. He married Mary Ikes.
1903 ~ John B. Watson received his doctorate from the University of Chicago.
1905 ~ Dr. Watson's first child, Mary, was born. He enrolled at John Hopkins University
1906 ~ Watson was hired as an instructor at the University of Chicago
1907 ~ Watson was hired as an associate professor of psychology at John Hopkins University. It was at JHU that he became known as the Founder of Behaviorism.
1913 ~ Watson gave the lecture and published the article entitled "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It." 1914 ~ He published Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology.
1915 ~ Watson became the President of the American Psychological Association.
1916 ~ Dr. Watson began his study on mental illnesses. He began working in advertising at the J Walter Thompson Agency.
. 1919 ~ Watson published Psychology From the Standpoint of a Behaviorists.
. 1920 ~ Watson was dismissed from John Hopkins University. He published the "Little Albert" Experiment. He turned his focus to advertising.
1924 ~ Watson became Vice President of J Walter Thompson Agency. He published Behaviorism.
1928 ~ Watson published the Psychological Care of Infant and Child.
1945 ~ He retired as Vice President of William Esty Agency.
1958 ~ Dr. John Broadus Watson burnt all of his unpublished works and died a short time later.

Hothersall, David. 1995. History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Murphy, G. (1930). An historical introduction to modern psychology. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc.
Watson, J. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.
Watson, J. (1928). The ways of behaviorism. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Pub.

Web Sites:
Green, Christopher D.
Classics in the History of Psychology , An internet resource, York University, Toronto, Ontario.
The pictures for this site were "taken" from the Kensicki website.

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