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J.B. Watson

JB Watson (JPG) John Broadus Watson was born on 9 January 1878 near Greenville, South Carolina, the son of a wayward father and a deeply pious mother. Named after John Broadus, a local fundamentalist minister, and constantly steered in a religious direction by his mother, young Watson nonetheless developed a fierce rebellious streak that became a permanent part of his character. His youthful pugnacity earned him the nickname “Swats,” and as a teenager he got arrested for fighting and for firing a gun inside city limits. He recalled that at school “I was lazy, somewhat insubordinate, and…never made above a passing grade” [John Broadus Watson, Autobiography in Carl Murchison, ed., A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. 3 (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1936), pp. 271-281, see p. 271; See also Kerry W. Buckley, Behaviorism and the Professionalization of American Psychology: A Study of John Broadus Watson, 1878-1958 (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1982), pp. 1-3].1

Watson went to Chicago expecting to work with the department’s eminent chairman,2 John Dewey (1859 1952). Ever the maverick, he found Dewey’s approach uncongenial: “I never knew what he was talking about then, and unfortunately for me, I still don’t know,” Watson recalled in his autobiography.3 Even so he continued to minor in the subject [philosophy] and took a considerable number of philosophy courses.4 A second minor, one in neurology, eventuated from his work in the neurological laboratory of H. H. Donaldson, where he made the acquaintance of the white rat. He also took biology and physiology under Jacques Loeb,i who wanted Watson to do his dissertation with him. [James R.] Angell and Donaldson did not consider Loeb “safe” 5 for a student to work with,6 so he worked with the two of them instead.7 It is a fair inference, however, that Loeb had already instilled in him a latent hostility toward subjective modes of analysis in psychology. Loeb may justly be described as Watson’s greatest precursor in exemplifying and proselytizing for this attitude.8

[Watson’s] doctoral dissertation made use of both neurological and behavioral techniques in the study of the correlation of the behavior and the growth of medullation in the central nervous system of the white rat.9 Watson graduated in 1903 and was10 [eventually] made an instructor.11 Success came at a price, however, for Watson had had to hold several jobs to support himself, and overwork contributed to an emotional breakdown. He could not sleep without a light on, and suffered anxiety attacks that dissipated only after taking ten-mile walks. He later hinted that sexual concerns may have been involved, when he reported that his breakdown “in a way prepared me to accept a large part of Freud” [Watson, Autobiography, p. 274].

Watson’s breakdown coincided with complications in his personal life, following his rejection by one young woman he had fallen in love with, and his subsequent engagement to a nineteen year old student named Mary Ickes,12 a Chicago socialite [whom he eventually married].13 Watson was a hard worker and produced a considerable number of studies with the white rat, the monkey, and the tern before he left Chicago in 1908 for Johns Hopkins.

In 1913 an article appeared proposing a new psychology. Written by John Broadus Watson, then only thirty five years old, it opened as follows:14

Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist’s total scheme of investigation [J. B. Watson, “Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It,” Psychological Review, 20, (1913): 158-177 (Herrnstein and Boring, Excerpt No. 94)].15

Watson sought to exclude from psychology all references to the orthodox modes of experience — mind, consciousness, images, and feelings — anything that could not be demonstrated behaviorally, that is, by the actions of muscles or glands. Much of Watson’s work involved attempts at the replacement of the orthodox subject matter of introspective psychology with behavioral equivalents: subvocal speech for thought, discrimination for sensory judgment, and changes in the sex organs for feelings, just to name a few.16 [For instance,] after learning to talk by conditioning, thought is nothing more “than talking to ourselves” [J. B. Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child (New York: W. W. Norton, 1928)].17

[Watson] recognized no demarcation between humans and the “lower animals.” The subject matter of behaviorism was the study of how humans and animals alike adjust to their environment.18 The descriptive categories were stimulus and response, he said. Watson believed that “In a system of psychology completely worked out, given the stimuli the response can be predicted.” His ultimate goal was “to learn general and particular methods by which I may control behavior.” 19 He believed that “If psychology would follow the plan I suggest, the educator, the physician, the jurist and the business man could utilize our data in a practical way” [Watson, “Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It.”].20

John Watson - Little Albert

According to [E. B.] Titchener, Watson’s enterprise was not psychology at all but a form of biology. In fact, many biologists had been doing for years what Watson was now proposing to do in the name of behaviorism.21 Because an animal shows movements similar to those of a human in similar circumstances, it is possible to reconstruct the animal’s consciousness as essentially similar to that of the human under these same circumstances. The observations are then to be interpreted cautiously in terms of human consciousness.22

At John Hopkins Watson received a full professorship in experimental and comparative psychology and the directorship of the laboratory. Watson did his most important work between 1908 and 1920, while at Johns Hopkins.23 After 1916, Watson emphasized the importance of conditioning.24

The United States entered World War I in 1917 and was therefore directly involved in the conflict for less than two years. During that time, however, psychologists were recruited by the government to develop and administer group intelligence tests, a task they accomplished with considerable success. This was significant because it gave additional credibility to the young discipline.25

In 1920 Watson’s academic career came to an abrupt end as a result of scandal. When divorce proceedings were instituted against him, sensational publicity was the result, and he was asked to resign from the Johns Hopkins faculty. In the same year, he married Rosalie Raynor, with whom he had collaborated on a research study of infants.26

Watson began asking what human emotional responses were innate and “unconditioned,” and in answer described his observations of human infants who presumably had not yet had time to acquire any conditioned responses.27 First, Watson observed an apparently innate fear response.28 Second, Watson observed an emotional reaction in infants he called rage.29 Finally, Watson saw evidence for a third unconditioned emotion in infants that he provisionally called love.30

He saw everything else, including such supposedly “natural” reactions as fear of the dark and love for one’s mother, as the results of Pavlovian-style conditioning.31 All the complications and complexities of adult emotional experience were presumably nothing more than conditioned responses built upon three relatively simple unconditioned emotional reflexes.32

Habits are nothing more than complex conditioned responses, such as those involved in playing tennis, in soling shoes, or in exhibiting maternal reactions to children [J. B. Watson, Behaviorism, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1930)]. These habits are integrations of conditioned responses around an activity built up from the available behavior repertoire, starting with innate movements. Movements combine by conditioning into complex acts.33

Conditioning is the basis of speech, and speech is the basis of thinking.34 [For example, an] infant’s vocalization of “da-da” is attached to the person of the [representative] father; through further conditioning it becomes “daddy.” 35 Other words and thoughts develop in a similar fashion. Subvocal speech, or thinking, has been developed through conditioning.36

i It was Loeb who first succeeded, in 1899,…in achieving artificial parthenogenesis.*
Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Charles Coulston Gillispie, ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980), vol. 8, p. 446a.

* [Loeb] found that by treating sea urchin eggs with appropriate inorganic salt solutions he could initiate embryological development, a process which up to that time had required the sperm of the male sea urchin. Thus, physical chemistry could be a tool for altering the basic processes of reproduction.
— Elliott Walker, “The Effects of colchicine and phospholipids on Sea Urchin Development,” 2000 NSF Summer Research Fellowship for Teachers, at http://hyper.vcsun.org/HyperNews/nherr/get/nherr/NSF2/43.html.


1 Raymond E. Fancher, Pioneers of Psychology, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), p. 288.

2 Op. cit.

3 Ibidem, p. 290.

4 Robert I. Watson, Sr. & Rand B. Evans, The Great Psychologists: A History of Psychological Thought, 5th ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publ., Inc., 1991), p. 474.

5 Ibidem, pp. 474-475.

6 Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Charles Coulston Gillispie, ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980), vol. 8, p. 446b.

7 Watson, Sr. & Evans, Great Psychologists, p. 475.

8 Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 8, p. 446b.

9 Watson, Sr. & Evans, Great Psychologists, p. 475.

10 Op. cit.

11 Ibidem, p. 474.

12 Fancher, Pioneers of Psychology, p. 291.

13 Watson, Sr. & Evans, Great Psychologists, p. 474.

14 Ibidem, p. 466.

15 Robert H. Wozniak, “Behaviourism: The Early Years,” at http://www.brynmawr.edu/Acads/Psych/rwozniak/behaviorism.html.

16 Watson, Sr. & Evans, Great Psychologists, p. 466.

17 Ibidem, p. 480.

18 Ibidem, p. 467.

19 Op. cit.

20 Op. cit.

21 Ibidem, p. 468.

22 Ibidem, p. 475.

23 Op. cit.

24 Ibidem, p. 481.

25 International Handbook of Psychology, Albert R. Gilgen & Carol K. Gilgen, eds. (New York: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1987), p. 537.

26 Watson, Sr. & Evans, Great Psychologists, p. 476.

27 Ibidem, p. 295.

28 Op. cit.

29 Op. cit.

30 Fancher, Pioneers of Psychology, p. 296.

31 Op. cit.

32 Op. cit.

33 Watson, Sr. & Evans, Great Psychologists, pp. 481-482.

34 Ibidem, p. 482.

35 Op. cit.

36 Op. cit.


See also

B.F. Skinner

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