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John Broadus Watson (January 9, 1878 – September 25, 1958) was an American psychologist who established the psychological school of behaviorism, after doing research on animal behavior. He also conducted the controversial "Little Albert" experiment. Later he went on from psychology to become a popular author on child-rearing, and an acclaimed contributor to the advertising industry.

Early life

Watson grew up in Traveler's Rest, South Carolina, and attended Furman University in Greenville. A precocious student, he entered college at the age of 16 (he became a member of the Kappa Alpha Order) and left with a masters degree aged 21. He spent a year as a principal for grade school, then entered the University of Chicago to study philosophy with John Dewey on the recommendation of Furman professor, Gordon Moore, who U.S. and a major proponent of the view that life and the behavior of living organisms could be explained entirely by chemistry and physics without recourse to a supposed "vital force". Accordingly, Jacques Loeb taught that all behavior was dictated by instinct and learned responses to stimuli.

The combined influence of Dewey, Angell, Donaldson and Loeb led Watson to develop a highly descriptive, objective approach to the analysis of behavior that he would later call "behaviorism". Watson's behaviorism is typically considered[by whom?] a historical descendent of British empiricism, and particularly of the views of John Locke. However, Watson said nothing substantive about these things. Rather, his philosophy of science stems from{[citation needed] the history of experimental physiology through the influence of Loeb. The reflex studies of Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov (1829-1905) and Vladimir Bekhterev (1857-1927) were particularly influential. Later, Watson became interested in the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), and eventually included a highly simplified version of Pavlov's principles in his popular works.

Dissertation on animal behavior

Watson graduated from the University of Chicago in 1903. His dissertation "Animal Education: An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated with the Growth of its Nervous System.Template:Cite quote "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. Watson stayed at the University of Chicago for several years doing research on the relationship between sensory input and learning and bird behavior.


In 1913, Watson published 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 behaviorist 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.

The "manifesto" notably lacks references to specific principles of behavior. In 1913, Watson viewed Ivan Pavlov's conditioned reflex as primarily a physiological mechanism controlling glandular secretions. He had already rejected Edward L. Thorndike's "Law of Effect" (a precursor to B. F. Skinner's principle of reinforcement) due to what Watson believed were unnecessary subjective elements. It was not until 1916 that Watson would recognize the more general significance of Pavlov's formulation and make it the subject of his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. The lack of a specific mechanism of behavior caused 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 also 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.

Watson also introduced his theory of thinking as consisting of "subvocal speech" in the article. However, its addition was more of an afterthought as it appeared in a series of extended footnotes, not in the body of the article itself. Watson seems to have added the footnote because another article on subvocal speech by Anna Wyczoikowska was to appear in the same issue of the "Psychological Review". The theory of thinking as subvocal speech was not original to Watson. About 15 years earlier, H. S. Curtis had attempted to measure movements of the larynx during thinking.

With his "behaviorism", Watson put the emphasis on external behavior of people and their reactions on given situations, rather than the internal, mental state of those people. In his opinion, the analysis of behaviors and reactions was the only objective method to get insight in the human actions. This outlook, combined with the complimentary ideas of determinism, evolutionary continuism, and empiricism has contributed to what is now called radical behaviorism.

"Twelve infants" quote

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. [Behaviorism (1930), p. 82]

The quote often appears with the last sentence omitted, making Watson's position appear more radical than it actually was. Watson had, in fact, done extensive ethological studies of the instinctive behavior of animals early in his career, particularly sea birds. Nevertheless, Watson strongly sided with nurture in the nature versus nurture discussion.

Views on child-rearing

Although he wrote extensively on child-rearing in many popular magazines and in a book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928), Watson later regretted having written in the area, saying that "he did not know enough" to do a good job. Watson's advice to treat children with respect, but with relative emotional detachment, has been strongly criticized.[by whom?] However, this perspective was not unique to Watson.[citation needed] It is also associated with psychoanalytic thinkers who worried that too much emotional attachment in childhood would lead to overly dependent adults.[citation needed] (Watson's borrowing from Sigmund Freud and other early psychoanalysts remains an unexamined aspect of his behaviorism.) Modern critics[attribution needed] do not commonly mention that Watson warned strongly against the use of spanking and other corporal punishment.

Psychological Care of Infant and Child and Criticism to it

Watson wrote the book Psychological Care of Infant and Child in 1928, with help from his mistress, turned wife, Rosalie Rayner. Critics then determined that the ideas mainly stemmed from Watson’s beliefs because Rosalie later entitled a self-penned article I am a Mother of Behaviorist Sons[1]. In the book, Watson explained that behaviorists were starting to believe psychological care and analysis was required for infants and children[2]. He deemed his slogan to be not more babies but better brought up babies. Watson argued for the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate, claiming that the world would benefit from extinguishing pregnancies for twenty years while enough data was gathered to ensure an efficient child-rearing process. J.M. O’Donnell (1985) wrote The Origins of Behaviorism, where he deemed Watson’s views as radical calculations[3]. O’Donnell’s discontent stemmed partly from Watsons’ description of a happy child, including that the child only cry when in physical pain, can occupy himself through his problem-solving abilities, and that the child stray from asking questions[4].

The 20th century was referred to as The Century of the Child, coined by writer Ellen Key. This movement led Watson to his focus on the study of children. This century marked the formation of qualitative distinctions between children and adults[5]. All of Watson’s exclamations were due to his belief that children should be treated as a young adult. In his book, he warns against the inevitable dangers of a mother providing too much love and affection. Watson explains that love, along with everything else as the behaviorist saw the world, is conditioned. Watson supports his warnings by mentioning invalidism, saying that society does not overly comfort children as they become young adults in the real world, so parents should not set up these unrealistic expectations. Writer Suzanne Houk, Psychological Care of Infant and Child: A Reflection of its Author and his Times, critiques Watson’s views, analyzing his hope for a businesslike and casual relationship between a mother and her child[6]. Critics wondered whether limiting kissing to when saying goodnight was really a necessary precaution. Watson also warned to avoid letting the infant sit on a parents’ lap[7].

Further emphasizing nurture, Watson said that nothing is instinctual; rather everything is built into a child through the interaction with their environment. Parents therefore hold complete responsibility since they choose what environment to allow their child to develop in[8]. Laura E. Berk, author of Infants and Children: Prenatal Through Middle Childhood, examined the roots of the beliefs Watson came to honor. Berk says that the experiment with Little Albert inspired Watson’s emphasis on environmental factors. Little Albert did not fear the rat and white rabbit until he was conditioned to do so. From this experiment, Watson concluded that parents can shape a child’s behavior and development simply by a scheming control of all stimulus-response associations[9].

Watson researched many topics in his career, but child-rearing became his most prized interest. His book was extremely popular and many critics were surprised to see his contemporaries come to accept his views. The book sold 100,000 copies after just a few months of release[10]. A 1925 New York Times article even rendered Watson a groundbreaking scientist in his new focus in the field of child psychology.

Other critics were more wary of Watson’s new interest and success in child psychology. R. Dale Nance (1970) worried that Watson’s personal indiscretions and difficult upbringings could have affected his views in his book. He was raised on a poor farm in South Carolina and had various family troubles, including abandonment by his father[11]. Suzanne Houk shared similar concerns. She mentions in her article that Watson only shifted his focus to child-rearing when he was fired from John Hopkins University due to his affair with Rosalie Rayner[12].

Watson’s emphasis on child development was becoming a new phenomenon and influenced some of his successors, but there were psychologists before him that delved into the field as well. G. Stanley Hall became very well known for his 1904 book Adolescence. G. Stanley Hall’s beliefs differed from behaviorist Watson, believing that heredity and genetically predetermined factors shaped most of one’s behavior, especially during childhood. His most famous concept, Storm and Stress Theory, normalized adolescents’ tendency to act out with conflicting mood swings[13]. Whether Watson’s views were controversially radical or not, they garnered a lot of attention and were accepted as valuable in his time.

"Little Albert" experiment (1920)

Main article: Little Albert experiment

One might consider the experiment Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner carried out to be one of the most controversial in psychology in 1920. It has become immortalized in introductory psychology textbooks as the Little Albert experiment. The goal of the experiment was to show how principles of, at the time recently discovered, classical conditioning could be applied to condition fear of a white rat into "Little Albert", an 11-month-old boy. As the story of Little Albert has made the rounds, inaccuracies and inconsistencies have crept in, some of them even due to Watson himself; see Harris for an analysis. The controversy about this experiment is actually a modern development. There seemed to be little concern about it in Watson's time. Dewsbury reports 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".

Affair with Rosalie Rayner

In October 1920 Johns Hopkins University asked Watson to leave his faculty position there because of publicity surrounding the affair he was having with his graduate student-assistant Rosalie Rayner and because of his refusal to send her abroad until things had quieted down. At the time, Watson was married to Mary Ickes (sister of politician Harold L. Ickes, who would later become Secretary of the Interior to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt).

Watson's affair had become front-page news during divorce proceedings, and Baltimore newspapers published excerpts from some of Watson's love-letters to Rayner. Mary had feigned illness during a dinner party involving the Rayner and Ickes families so that she could have unfettered access to Rayner's bedroom.

A large body of rumors circulated about Watson's dismissal from Johns Hopkins University, particularly that Watson was fired for conducting research on the human sexual response with Rayner. No evidence for these rumors has publicly surfaced. The stories can be directly traced to fanciful, anachronistic stories about Watson included by the late University of Michigan psychologist James McConnell in several editions of his Understanding Human Behavior textbook, and his Worms and Things newsletter. Watson and Rayner laterTemplate:When married.


Thanks to contacts provided by an academic colleague, Watson subsequently began working for U.S. advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. He learned the advertising business' many facets at ground level, including a stint 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. His executive's salary, plus bonuses from various successful ad campaigns, resulted in an income many times higher than his academic salary. Watson headed a number of high-profile advertising campaigns, particularly for Ponds cold cream and other personal-care products. He has been widely but erroneously credited[by whom?] with re-introducing the "testimonial" advertisement after the tool had fallen out of favor (due to its association with ineffective and dangerous patent medicines). However, testimonial advertisements had been in use for years before Watson entered advertising. Watson stated that he was not making original contributions, but was just doing what was normal practice in advertising.

Later life

Watson stopped writing for popular audiences in 1936, and retired from advertising at about age 65[citation needed]. He is credited[by whom?] with popularizing the "coffee break" during an ad campaign for Maxwell House coffee.

Rosalie Rayner died in 1935 at age 36. Watson lived on a farm with a female companion for the last years of his life. Rumored[by whom?] to be a heavy drinker, Watson 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 life, and portrayed him as a man of (still) 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 of Watson himself. lll

Preceded by:
R.S. Woodworth
APA President
Succeeded by:
Raymond Dodge

See also


  1. Hergenhahn, B. R. (2005). An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning
  2. Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc.
  3. Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc.
  4. Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc.
  7. Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc.
  8. Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc.
  9. Berk, L. E. (2008). Infants and Children: Prenatal Through Middle Childhood. Illinois: Pearson Education, Inc.
  10. Hergenhahn, B. R. (2005). An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning
  11. Nance, R. D. (1970) G. Stanley Hall and John B. Watson as child psychologists. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 6(4), 303-316.
  13. Santrock, J. W. (2008). Adolescence. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
  • Berk, L. E. (2008). Infants and Children: Prenatal Through Middle Childhood. Illinois: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Hergenhahn, B. R. (2005). An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning
  • Nance, R. D. (1970) G. Stanley Hall and John B. Watson as child psychologists. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 6(4), 303-316.
  • O'Donnell, J. M. (1985). The Origins of Behaviorism. New York: New York University Press.
  • Santrock, J. W. (2008). Adolescence. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
  • Suzanne Houk. (2000, March 15). ‘Psychological Care of Infant and Child’: A Reflection of its Author and his Times. Retrieved November 30, 2009, from:
  • Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: W. W. Norton Company, Inc.



  • Watson, J.B. (1903) Animal Education, Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
  • Watson, J.B. (1914) "Behavior: An introduction to comparative psychology." Henry Holt,
  • Watson, J.B. (1924) Behaviourism, New York: J.B. Lippincott.
  • Watson, J.B. and Watson, R.R. (1928) Psychological Care of Infant and Child, New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Watson, J. B. (1930) Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.


  • Watson, John B. (1907). "Kinaesthetic and Organic Sensations: Their Role in the Reactions of the White rat to the Maze." "Psychological Review Monograph Supplement," 8(33), 1-100.
  • Watson, John B. (1908). "The Behavior of Noddy and Sooty Terns." "Carnegie Institute Publication," 103, 197-255.
  • Watson, John B. (1913). "Psychology as the behaviorist views it" Psychological Review, 20, pp. 158-177. (on-line)
  • Watson, John B. (1915). "Recent experiments with homing birds." "Harper's Magazine," 131, 457-64.
  • Watson, John B. & Rayner, Rosalie (1920). "Conditioned emotional reactions" Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), pp. 1-14. (The little Albert study, on-line)
  • Watson, J.B. (1913) Psychology from the standpoint of a behaviourist, Psychological Review 20: 158-77.
  • Watson, J. B. "John Broadus Watson [Autobiography]." In C. Murchison (Ed.), "A History of Psychology in Autobiography" (Vol. 3, pp. 271-81). Clark University Press, 1936.

Further Reading

  • Buckley, Kerry W. "Mechanical Man: John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism." Guilford Press, 1989.
  • Buckley, Kerry W. "Misbehaviorism: The Case of John B. Watson's Dismissal from Johns Hopkins University." In J.T. Todd & E.K. Morris, "Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism." Greenwood Press, 1994.
  • Burnham, John C. (1994). "John B. Watson: Interviewee, Professional Figure, Symbol." In J.T. Todd & E.K. Morris, "Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism." Greenwood Press, 1994.
  • Coon, Deborah J. "'Not a Creature of Reason': The Alleged Impact of Watsonian Behaviorism on Advertising in the 1920s." In J.T. Todd & E.K. Morris, "Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism." Greenwood Press, 1994.
  • Curtis, H. S. (1899/1900). "Automatic Movements of the Larynx." "American Journal of Psychology," 11, 237-39.
  • Dewsbury, Donald A. (1990). "Early interactions between animal psychologists and animal activists and the founding of the APA committee on precautions in animal experimentation. American Psychologist," 45, 315-27.
  • Harris, Ben. "Whatever Happened to Little Albert?" American Psychologist, February 1979, Volume 34, Number 2, pp. 151-160. (on-line)
  • Furman Psychology Department: John B. Watson. His Life in Words and Pictures. (on-line)
  • Hartley, Mariette & Commire, Anne. Breaking the Silence. New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990. (Mariette Hartley is John B. Watson's granddaughter. Hartley claims in her autobiography that Watson's theories on childrearing blighted her childhood.)
  • Samelson, F. (1981). "Struggle for Scientific Authority: The Reception of Watson's Behaviorism, 1913-1920." "Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences," 17, 399-425.
  • Todd, James T. "What Psychology Has to Say About John B. Watson: Classical Behaviorism in Psychology Textbooks, 1920-1989." In J.T. Todd & E.K. Morris, "Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism." Greenwood Press, 1994.
  • Todd, James T., & Morris, Edward K. (1986). "The Early Research of John B. Watson: Before the Behavioral Revolution." "The Behavior Analyst," 9, 71-88.
  • Todd, James T., & Morris, Edward K. "Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism." Greenwood Press, 1994.
  • Wyczoikowska, A. (1913). "Theoretical and experimental studies in the mechanism of speech." "Psychological Review," 20, 448-58.
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