John B. Watson was an important contributor to classical behaviorism, who paved the way for B. F. Skinner's radical or operant behaviorism, which has had a major impact on American educational systems.
A professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University (1908–1920), Watson is often listed as one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century; his work is standard material in most introductory psychology and educational psychology texts. Yet his academic career was brief, lasting for only fourteen years, and his legacy has been hotly debated for nearly a century. Watson helped define the study of behavior, anticipated Skinner's emphasis on operant conditioning, and emphasized the importance of learning and environmental influences in human development. Watson's often harsh criticism of Sigmund Freud has been given credit for helping to disseminate principles of Freudian psychoanalysis. Watson is widely known for the Little Albert study and his "dozen healthy infants" quote.
John B. Watson is generally given credit for creating and popularizing the term behaviorism with the publication of his seminal 1913 article "Psychology asthe Behaviorist Views It." In the article, Watson argued that psychology had failed in its quest to become a natural science, largely due to a focus on consciousness and other unseen phenomena. Rather than study these unverifiable ideas, Watson urged the careful scientific study of observable behavior. His view of behaviorism was a reaction to introspection, where each researcher served as his or her own research subject, and the study of consciousness by Freud and others, which Watson believed to be highly subjective and unscientific.
In response to introspection, Watson and other early behaviorists believed that controlled laboratory studies were the most effective way to study learning. With this approach, manipulation of the learner's environment was the key to fostering development. This approach stands in contrast to techniques that placed the emphasis for learning in the mind of the learner. The 1913 article is often given credit for the founding of behaviorism, but it had a minor impact after its publication. His popular 1919 psychology text is probably more responsible for introducing behaviorist principles to a generation of future scholars of learning. In this way, Watson prepared psychologists and educators for the highly influential work of Skinner and other radical behaviorists in subsequent decades.
The Little Albert Study
In 1920 Watson and an assistant, Rosalie Rayner, published one of the most famous research studies of the past century. Watson attempted to condition a severe emotional response in Little Albert, a nine-month-old child. Watson determined that white, furry objects, such as a rat, a rabbit, and cotton, did not produce any negative reaction in the baby. But by pairing together a neutral stimulus (white, furry animals and objects) with an unconditioned stimulus (a very loud noise) that elicited an unconditioned response (fear), Watson was able to create a new stimulus-response link: When Albert saw white, furry objects, this conditioned stimulus produced a conditioned response of fear. This study is generally presented as a seminal work that provided evidence that even complex behaviors, such as emotions, could be learned through manipulation of one's environment. As such, it became a standard bearer for behaviorist approaches to learning and is still widely cited in the early twenty-first century.
The "Dozen Healthy Infants"
To a behaviorist, manipulation of the environment is the critical mechanism for learning (e.g., the Little Albert study). To illustrate this point, Watson wrote in 1930, "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–regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors" (p. 104). This quote routinely appears in introductory texts in education and psychology and is used to illustrate the radical environmental views of behaviorists.
But that sentence is only the first part of the quote. In that same statement, Watson subsequently wrote, "I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing so for many thousands of years" (p.104). This second sentence is rarely quoted with the first sentence. In taking this quote out of context, authors have presented Watson and classical behaviorism as having an extreme perspective on the importance of environment. However, Watson was reacting to the work of other psychologists and educators who believed that heredity was solely responsible for human development and learning. Early behaviorists accented the role of environment, but their views were probably not as radical and extreme as they are often presented.
Life after the University
Following a personal scandal in 1920, Watson resigned his position at Johns Hopkins and entered advertising, where he achieved some degree of success. He also published popular accounts of behaviorism after leaving his university position. His book Psychological Care of the Infant and Child (1928) was very popular, advocating a rather detached approach to parenting, with few displays of affection such as kissing and hugging of children. Given Watson's relatively short academic career, his lasting contributions in the areas of learning, psychological methods, and behaviorism are remarkable.
JONATHAN A. PLUCKER
COHEN, DAVID. 1979. J. B. Watson, the Founder of Behaviourism: A Biography. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
TODD, JAMES T., and MORRIS, EDWARD K., eds. 1994. Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
WATSON, JOHN B. 1913. "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It." Psychological Review 20:158–177.
WATSON, JOHN B. 1919. Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
WATSON, JOHN B. 1930. Behaviorism, revised edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
WATSON, JOHN B., and RAYNER, ROSALIE. 1920. "Conditioned Emotional Responses." Journal of Experimental Psychology 3:1–14.