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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

John B. Watson (The Library of Congress. Reproduced with permission.)

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.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists