John B. Watson was an early 20th century psychologist who established the psychological field of behaviorism.

Professional Life

John B. Watson was born on January 9, 1878 in South Carolina. His mother, Emma, was devoutly religious and named him after a Baptist minister in the hope that he would join the clergy. She disavowed smoking, drinking, and other vices, but Watson grew into an adult who openly opposed religion. He had a troubled adolescence, getting arrested for fighting and disorderly behavior twice, and performed poorly academically.

With the assistance of his mother's professional connections, Watson was accepted to Furman University in South Carolina. His academic life turned around dramatically, and he graduated with a master’s degree by the time he was 21. Next, he enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Chicago, where he studied psychology and began to develop his behaviorist theories. Watson was heavily influenced by Vladimir Bekhterev and Ivan Pavlov, and he used principles of experimental physiology to examine all aspects of behavior. In 1903, Watson presented his dissertation at the University of Chicago and remained there as a research professor, focusing on learning and sensory input in animals.

In 1908, Watson accepted a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University. During this time, Watson entered into an affair with one of his graduate students, Rosalie Rayner, while married to his first wife, Mary Ickes Watson. Watson was asked to leave his position at John Hopkins University in 1920, and Watson and Rayner were married in 1921. The couple remained together for 15 years until Rayner's death at the age of 36. After leaving the teaching profession, Watson entered the field of advertising, rising to an executive position in only two years. He spearheaded many enormously successful advertising campaigns, including ads for Ponds Cold Cream and Maxwell House Coffee.

Watson was the grandfather of actress Mariette Hartley, who argued that she developed psychological problems as a result of being raised according to behaviorist principles. Prior to his death, Watson burned most of his letters and personal papers. Watson served as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1915, and he received a Gold Medal for his contributions to his field by the APA shortly before his death in 1958.

Contribution to Psychology

Watson published his groundbreaking article on behaviorism in 1913, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” often referred to as “The Behaviorist Manifesto.” Because there was little evidence of a specific behavior mechanism in his theory, many of Watson’s colleagues did not accept his beliefs as scientifically valid. His 1919 text, Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, was more readily accepted, though Watson’s behaviorist theories were not fully adopted into academia and mainstream psychology for another decade.

Watson’s behaviorist theory focused not on the internal emotional and psychological conditions of people, but rather on their external and outward behaviors. He believed that a person’s physical responses provided the only insight into internal actions. He spent much of his career applying his theories to the study of child development and early learning.

Watson conducted several experiments exploring emotional learning in children. One of his most famous experiments was the Little Albert experiment, which explored classical conditioning using a nine month-old baby boy. In the experiment, Watson demonstrated that Little Albert could be conditioned to fear something, like a white rat, when no such fear existed initially. Watson combined a loud noise with the appearance of the rat, in order to create fear in the baby. The experiment was highly controversial and would likely be considered unethical by today's research standards.

In 1928, Watson published Psychological Care of Infant and Child, in which he cautioned against providing children with too much affection, and instead endorsed the practice of treating children like miniature adults. He believed that excessive early attachments could contribute to a dependent, needy personality in adulthood, emphasizing that people do not receive excessive comfort in adulthood and therefore should not receive it in childhood. He specifically argued against thumb-sucking, coddling, and excessive sentimentality, and he emphasized that parents should be open and honest with children about sexuality. While the book sold well in its first year, some found Watson’s unsentimental advice chilling. Two years after the books publication, Watson's wife published an article entitled "I am a Mother of Behaviorist Sons" in Parents magazine that encouraged the displays of affection that her husband admonished.

Watson's behaviorism has had a long-lasting impact on the nature-versus-nurture debate, and his work illuminated the strong role early experiences play in shaping personality. Watson paved the way for subsequent behaviorists, such as B.F. Skinner, and behaviorism remains a popular approach for animal training. Some mental health professionals use behaviorist principles to condition away phobias and fears. In addition, advertisers frequently use behaviorist conditioning to encourage consumers to purchase products.


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