Biography of Psychologist John B. Watson

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John B. Watson was a pioneering psychologist who played an important role in developing behaviorism. Watson believed that psychology should primarily be scientific observable behavior. He is remembered for his research on the conditioning process, as well as the Little Albert experiment, in which he demonstrated that a child could be conditioned to fear a previously neutral stimulus. His research also revealed that this fear could be generalized to other similar objects.

Early Life

John B. Watson was born January 9, 1878, and grew up in South Carolina. While he later described himself as a poor student, he entered Furman University at the age of 16. After graduating five years later with a master's degree, he began studying psychology at the University of Chicago, earning his Ph.D. in psychology in 1903.

Career

Watson began teaching psychology at Johns Hopkins University in 1908. In 1913, he gave a seminal lecture at Columbia University titled "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," which essentially detailed the behaviorist position.

According to Watson, psychology should be the science of observable behavior.

"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."—John B. Watson, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," 1913

The "Little Albert" Experiment

In his most famous and controversial experiment, known today as the "Little Albert" experiment, John Watson and a graduate assistant named Rosalie Rayner conditioned a small child to fear a white rat. They accomplished this by repeatedly pairing the white rat with a loud, frightening clanging noise. They were also able to demonstrate that this fear could be generalized to other white, furry objects. The ethics of the experiment are often criticized today, especially because the child's fear was never deconditioned.

In 2009, researchers were able to identify Little Albert as a boy named Douglas Merritte. Questioning what happened to the child had intrigued many for decades. Sadly, the researchers found that the child died at the age of six of hydrocephalus, a medical condition in which fluid builds up inside the skull.

In 2012, researchers presented evidence that Merritte suffered from neurological impairments at the time of the Little Albert experiment and that Watson may have knowingly misrepresented the boy as a "healthy" and "normal" infant.

Leaving Academia

Watson remained at Johns Hopkins University until 1920. He had an affair with Rayner, divorced his first wife, and was then asked by the university to resign his position. Watson later married Rayner and the two remained together until her death in 1935. After leaving his academic position, Watson began working for an advertising agency where he remained until he retired in 1945.

During the latter part of his life, Watson's already poor relationships with his children grew progressively worse. He spent his last years living a reclusive life on a farm in Connecticut. Shortly before his death on September 25, 1958, he burned many of his unpublished personal papers and letters.

Contributions to Psychology

Watson set the stage for behaviorism, which soon rose to dominate psychology. While behaviorism began to lose its hold after 1950, many of the concepts and principles are still widely used today. Conditioning and behavior modification are still widely used in therapy and behavioral training to help clients change problematic behaviors and develop new skills.

Achievements and Awards

Watson's lifetime achievements and awards include:

  • 1915—Served as the president of the American Psychological Association (APA)
  • 1919—Published "Psychology From the Standpoint of a Behaviorist"
  • 1925—Published "Behaviorism"
  • 1928—Published "Psychological Care of Infant and Child"
  • 1957—Received the APA's award for contributions to psychology

Selected Publications

Here are some of Watson's works for further reading:

Famous 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 anyone 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." —John B. Watson, "Behaviorism," 1925

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Article Sources
  • Watson JB. Behaviorism. New York: People's Institute Publishing Company; 1925.
  • Watson JB. Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. In: Green CD, ed. Classics in the History of Psychology. Psychological Review. 1913;20:158-177.