John Broadus Watson (January 9, 1878 – September 25, 1958) was an American psychologist who established the psychological school of behaviorism. He did extensive research on animal behavior, but is perhaps best known for having claimed that he could take any 12 healthy infants and, by applying behavioral techniques, create whatever kind of person he desired. Watson also conducted the controversial "Little Albert" experiment, and his own personal life generated scandal. Nevertheless his work had great significance for the field of psychology, leading to the development of research methods and new understanding, despite its limitations.
John Broadus Watson was born in 1878 in Greenville, South Carolina, to Emma and Pickens Watson. His family was poor, and his father left them in 1891. A precocious but troublesome student, he entered Furman University in 1894, and graduated with a master’s degree at the age of 21.
After spending a year teaching grade school, he entered the University of Chicago to study philosophy with John Dewey. However, after studying with Dewey, Watson claimed not to understand his teaching, and he soon sought out a different academic path. He considered working on the physiology of the dog's brain with the radical biologist, Jacques Loeb, but later chose psychologist James Rowland Angell and physiologist Henry Donaldson as his advisors. His teachers were highly influential in his development of behaviorism, a descriptive, objective approach to the analysis of behavior.
In 1901, Watson married Mary Ickes, whom he had met at the University of Chicago. They had two children together, Mary and John. Watson graduated in 1903 with a Ph.D. in psychology, but stayed at the University of Chicago for several years doing research on the relationship between sensory input and learning and bird behavior. In 1907, at age 29, his reputation as a top researcher in animal behavior earned him a position at Johns Hopkins University as a professor of psychology.
In October 1920, Watson was asked to leave his faculty position at Johns Hopkins University due to an affair with his top research assistant, a graduate student named Rosalie Rayner. Both Rayner and Watson's wife, the sister of future Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, were members of prominent Baltimore political families. Not only was the Watsons' divorce that December front page news, but Baltimore papers also published excerpts from some of Watson's love letters to Rayner. Johns Hopkins president, Frank Goodnow, reportedly gave Watson a choice: his relationship with Rayner, or keeping his job at Hopkins. Watson's closeness to his research assistant, a woman half his age, was so strong that he resigned from Johns Hopkins and married Rayner in December 1920. They also had two children together, James and William.
Watson based many of his behaviorist studies on his children, which strained relationships within the family. With his affair with Rayner, he brought a scandal upon Johns Hopkins that was so great that his reputation among the U.S. academic elite was ruined. Consequently, Watson had to start over in a new career at the age of 42.
Watson stopped writing for popular audiences in 1936, and retired from advertising several years later. After Rosalie Rayner's death in 1935, he lived on a farm in Connecticut. He was rumored to have been a heavy drinker, but he actually gave up alcohol on the advice of his physician and enjoyed good health well into old age. He died in 1958 at age 80, shortly after receiving a citation from the American Psychological Association for his contributions to psychology. Historian John Burnham interviewed Watson late in his life, and reported him to still be a man of strong opinions and some bitterness towards his detractors. Except for a set of reprints of his academic works, Watson burned his very large collection of letters and personal papers, thus depriving historians of a valuable resource for understanding the early history of behaviorism and Watson himself.
His dissertation from the University of Chicago, "Animal Education: An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated with the Growth of its Nervous System," was the first modern scientific book on rat behavior. It has been described as a "classic of developmental psychobiology" by historian of psychology, Donald Dewsbury. "Animal Education" described the relationship between brain myelinization and learning ability in rats at different ages. Watson showed that the degree of myelinization was largely unrelated to learning ability.
The major work he did in his years at the University of Chicago after graduating was a series of ethological studies of sea birds done in the Dry Tortugas Islands in Florida. He studied all aspects of the birds' behavior: imprinting, homing, mating, nesting habits, feeding, and chick-rearing. These extensive studies, carried out over four years, were some of the earliest examples of what would later be called "ethology," and his comprehensive records of the birds' behavior were some of the earliest examples of the "ethogram": a comprehensive record of the naturally occurring behavior of an organism.
In 1913, Watson published what is considered by many to be his most important work, the article "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," sometimes called "The Behaviorist Manifesto." In this article, Watson outlined the major features of his new philosophy of psychology, called "behaviorism." The first paragraph of the article concisely described Watson's overall position:
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.
Watson's philosophy of science was shaped by many sources. The history of experimental physiology taught to him by Loeb was one important influence, in particular the reflex studies of Ivan M. Sechenov and Vladimir Bekhterev. The work of Ivan Pavlov, especially his conditioned reflex studies, had a large impact on Watson, and he eventually included a highly simplified version of Pavlov's principles in his popular works. In 1916, Watson even made Pavlov's formulation the subject of his presidential address to the American Psychological Association.
Watson's behaviorist "manifesto" is notable for its lack of reference to specific principles of behavior. This caused many of Watson's colleagues to dismiss "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It" as philosophical speculation without much foundation. The article only became well-known to psychologists generally after it started to be widely cited in introductory psychology textbooks in the 1950s. The article is notable for its strong defense of the objective scientific status of applied psychology, which at the time was considered to be much inferior to the established structuralist experimental psychology.
With his development of behaviorism, Watson put the emphasis on the external behavior of people and their reactions in given situations, rather than on their internal, mental state. In his opinion, the analysis of behaviors and reactions was the only objective method to gain insight in the human actions. Behaviorism influenced many important scientists, especially B.F. Skinner, who would go on to test Watson's theories and develop his own theory of operant conditioning.
At Johns Hopkins University in 1920, Watson and Rayner performed one of the most controversial experiments in the history of psychology. It has become immortalized in introductory psychology textbooks as the "Little Albert experiment." The goal of the experiment was to provide empirical evidence of classical conditioning by developing "Little Albert's" fear of a white rat.
As the story of Little Albert became well known, inaccuracies and inconsistencies and rumors crept in (see Harris 1979 for an analysis). Albert was 11 months and three days old at the time of the first test. Because of his young age, the experiment was later considered unethical. Since this experiment, the American Psychological Association has published much stronger ethical guidelines, rendering it unrepeatable. The controversy surrounding this experiment actually developed much later. There seemed to be little concern about it in Watson's time. Dewsbury (1990) reported that Watson received greater criticism from early animal rights groups over some of his experiments with rats, particularly a 1907 study, "Kinaesthetic and Organic Sensations: Their Role in the Reactions of the White Rat to the Maze."
Before the start of the experiment, when Albert was 9 months old, Watson and Rayner ran a series of emotional tests on him. The infant was confronted with many new objects and animals, and at no time showed any fear. When the actual experiment began, Watson exposed Albert to a loud sound right behind his head while also presenting him with a white rat. After obtaining the required reaction of discomfort and crying from Albert when he was exposed to both the sound and the rat simultaneously, Watson and Rayner presented him solely with the rat. A week later, after a series of testing, Albert was able to cry by being exposed to only the rat. Five days later, Albert showed generalization by reacting to a dog, a fur coat, Watson's hair, cotton wool, and other objects. Thus, Watson showed how it was possible to condition a fear response into a child. Unfortunately, Albert was taken from the hospital the day the last tests were made. Hence, the opportunity of developing an experimental technique for removing the conditioned emotional response was denied.
Although he wrote extensively on childrearing in many popular magazines and in a book, "Psychological Care of Infant and Child" (1928), he later regretted having written in the area. He has been quoted as saying that he "did not know enough" about the subject to speak with authority.
Watson's advice to treat children with respect but relative emotional detachment has been strongly criticized. This perspective was also associated with psychoanalytic thinkers who worried that too much emotional attachment in childhood would lead to overly dependent adults. This overlap of Watson's ideas about childrearing with Sigmund Freud and other early psychoanalysts remains an unexamined aspect of his behaviorism.
Also seldom mentioned by modern critics is the fact that Watson warned strongly against the use of spanking and other corporal punishment, and advised parents that masturbation was not psychologically dangerous. The 1920s and 1930s were an age in which some childrearing books still instructed parents to pin down their infants' sleeves to prevent supposedly dangerous "infantile masturbation," and descriptions of methods of spanking that would leave few or no marks were common.
After resigning from Johns Hopkins University, Watson began working for the American advertising agency of J. Walter Thompson. He learned the many facets of the advertising business at ground level, even working as a shoe salesman in an upscale department store. Despite this modest start, in less than two years Watson had risen to a vice-presidency at Thompson. Watson headed a number of high-profile advertising campaigns, for example for various personal-care products.
He has been widely, but erroneously, credited with reintroducing the "testimonial" advertisement. This method had fallen out of favor due to its association with ineffective and dangerous patent medicines, but testimonial advertisements had still been in use for years before Watson entered the field. Watson stated that he was not making original contributions, merely doing what was normal practice in advertising.
Eventually, Watson's penchant for strong rhetoric would overshadow his scientific contributions. He is famous for boasting that he could take any 12 human infants, and by applying behavioral techniques, create whatever kind of person he desired. Naturally, he admitted that this claim was far beyond his means and data, noting, pointedly, that others had made similarly extravagant claims about the power of heredity over experience for thousands of years. The quote, probably Watson's most well-known for, reads:
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. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years (1930).
The last sentence is usually left out, making Watson's position more radical than it actually was. Nevertheless, Watson stood strongly on the side of nurture in the "nature versus nurture" discussion.
Despite the notoriety and controversy surrounding John B. Watson and his works, he made many important contributions to the scientific community during his lifetime. In publishing the first modern scientific book on rat behavior and some of the earliest examples of ethology and ethograms, he was the catalyst for many important developments in the field of animal research. And, although his works on childrearing were strongly criticized, he was still an important voice in the national debate in how children should be treated. He also had a large impact on American culture through his work in advertising. And, finally, in what is perhaps his most enduring contribution, he established the psychological school of behaviorism, which changed the face of the psychological landscape in the twentieth century and influenced many important researchers in the social sciences and beyond.
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