Early Childhood Education

Watson, John B. (1878-1958)


John Broadus Watson, an American psychologist, developed a new branch of psychology that he termed “behaviorism.” Drawing on the work of Ivan Pavlov, Watson provided experimental evidence that human behavior, although far more complicated than that of other animals, was influenced by the same principles, specifically, learning through association. Watson’s behaviorism was the dominant psychological viewpoint in the United States between 1920 and 1930. His work is known to have significantly influenced that of B.F. Skinner.

John Watson was born in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, on January 9, 1878, and he spent his childhood years on a farm. He entered Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina in 1894 at age sixteen. After five years of study, he was awarded a master’s degree, and then continued on to the University of Chicago to undertake doctoral study in philosophy and psychology. He subsequently dropped philosophy and in 1903, was awarded a PhD in psychology. In 1908, Watson joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University in experimental and comparative psychology, where he remained until 1920.

Watson’s ideas, first presented between 1908 and 1912, challenged the existing views of psychology, particularly those held by Sigmund Freud. Watson questioned the relevance of heredity and internal mental states to behavior, and promoted the concept that behaviorism as a branch of psychology was an objective and rigorous scientific study of human behavior, the goal of which was to predict and mold such behavior. His article “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” published in 1913 in Psychological Review, is generally considered the seminal statement of his new branch of psychology, behaviorism.

In his research, Watson’s comparisons between animal behavior and human behavior initially were based on observations of human infants. However, after his service as a psychologist in World War I, he began conducting experiments. His most significant experiment and the one for which he is best known was conducted in the winter of 1919 and 1920 and involved Albert B. Watson, or Baby Albert, a young infant, and a small white lab rat. The experimenters first established that Baby Albert was not afraid of the lab rat (he had shown an interest in it and reached out to touch it) but was afraid when the experimenters clanged metal with a hammer right behind his head (he cried). Then when Baby Albert was around 11 months old, the experimenters again presented him with the lab rat, but as soon as he touched it, they clanged the metal with the hammer right behind his head, making him cry. They repeated this for several weeks. As a result, Baby Albert cried and tried to crawl away at the mere sight of the lab rat, and in fact showed fear and cried at the sight of anything furry.

This experiment demonstrated that humans (as well as other animals such as dogs) can be conditioned through association of stimuli, a phenomenon called “classical conditioning.” This experiment also demonstrated the need for ethical standards in research with humans, especially with infants. Such standards did not exist during Watson’s time. In fact, even after the experiment was completed, no attempt was made to “decondition” Baby Albert.

During his illustrious academic career, Watson founded the Journal of Experimental Psychology, edited the Psychological Review, and served as president of the American Psychological Association. However, in 1920, Johns Hopkins University asked Watson to resign amidst personal turmoil. He did so and later entered the field of advertising. He died in 1958.

Further Readings: Buckley, Kerry W. (1989). Mechanical man: John B. Watson and the beginnings of behaviorism. New York: The Guilford Press; Todd, James T., and Edwin K. Morris (1994). Modern perspectives on John B. Watson and classical behaviorism. Portsmouth, NH: Greenwood-Heinemann Publishing; Watson, John B. (1998). Behaviorism. New York: Transaction Publishers.

Stephanie F. Leeds