John B. Watson And Behaviorism

By Patricia Oelze

Updated December 17, 2018

Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC


John B. Watson is an American psychologist who is best known for establishing the psychological school of Behaviorism. His theories, research, and work were influential to the field of psychology, and through that, he left his marks on the larger world.

Childhood and Early Education

Born on January 9, 1878, John Broadus Watson became more commonly known as John B. Watson in academic circles. He was born in Traveler's Rest, South Carolina. His parents were Pickens Butler and Emma Watson. His mother Emma was a religious woman and, so she named John after a Baptist minister. She hoped that he too would grow up and preach the Gospel and thus subjected John to harsh religious training. Her methods backfired as John eventually felt quite antipathic towards religion and instead identified as an atheist.

John's father, an alcoholic, left his family when John was 13 to live with two other women. The family was left in poverty, and eventually, Emma had to sell the family farm. At that time, they moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where Emma felt John might see more success in life. Indeed, in Greenville, John was exposed to many different people and started to view the world with a psychologist's mindset.

Early Education and Early Career

Despite his tumultuous early life and the impoverished state of his family, Watson knew he must attend college to improve his own life. Up to this point, Watson had not been a very good student. However, his mother had some connections, and she assisted him in gaining admission to Furman University. There, he completed his classes but did not particularly excel in his academic endeavors. He also lacked social skills, which led to him being considered insubordinate by his instructors.

Watson supported himself financially while in college and graduated with his master's degree at age 21. He accomplished this by changing his focus and putting forth great effort in his studies. Upon graduation, he worked for a year at a one-room school (that he titled "Batesburg Institute") in the roles of janitor, handyman, and even principal.

Early Study and Career In Psychology

Eventually, Watson decided he must continue his education. A professor at Furman recommended that he attend the University of Chicago and study philosophy with John Dewey. Watson successfully petitioned the President of the university to allow him admission. He worked with Dewey and other influential minds, James Rowland Angel, Jacques Loeb, and Henry Herbert Donaldson.

Watson's study and work in psychology began at the University of Chicago where he began developing what would come to be called behaviorism. Watson disliked unobservable data and believed that psychology should only study what could be measured, seen, and observed in some way.


Early in his career, Watson was influenced in this thinking by the work of Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov had discovered the relationship between stimulus and response and recorded his research showing that people and animals could learn to associate one thing with something else. Watson included Pavlov's basic principles in his theories and study on psychology.

For his doctoral dissertation, Watson studied brain myelination and learning in rats. The resulting paper was titled "Animal Education: An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated with the Growth of its Nervous System." It showed that myelination was related to learning.

After graduating with his doctorate, Watson was offered a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University where he was offered the chair of the psychology department. Unfortunately, in October 1920, he was asked to leave the positions due to bad publicity. Watson had been found to be having a relationship with his graduate assistant, Rosalie Rayner, who he later married.

Significant Contributions

John B. Watson created the school of behaviorist methodology within psychology and he published his views on this psychological theory in 1913. The article was entitled "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," and it is commonly considered a manifesto on behaviorism. It outlined behaviorism as an objective branch of science that would base its theories and findings on experimental research using purely observable data. One goal of behaviorism was to understand how certain behaviors develop as a consequence of conditioning to external stimuli.

Watson was not particularly concerned with thought, cognition, introspection, or other forms of internal consciousness. He thought it was foolish to interpret the inner workings of the mind and believed psychologists should concern themselves with only what they could see.


Watson applied his views to all parts of human behavior including language and memory. He believed language to be a "manipulative habit." This term was meant to describe the human ability to manipulate the sounds made with the larynx. He believed that language and all behavior is conditioned (taught) in this case through imitation. He theorized that over time people learned to associate certain sounds or spoken words with certain objects, situations, or shapes on paper (words).

He hypothesized that just as people learn to associate sounds with objects or symbols, so too did people learn to associate certain feelings, behaviors, and other things with situations, objects, and symbols. This was Watson's blueprint for learning, through which he believed all people learn or can unlearn and relearn lessons as needed.

Watson's most influential and well-known work was his study of emotions. He was particularly interested in studying the way that emotions could be learned. He believed that emotions were merely physical responses to external stimuli. He also believed that rage, fear, and love were all yet to be learned at birth.

Watson And Little Albert

Watson was particularly interested in studying fear. By pairing an otherwise mundane stimulus (a loud bang), with the appearance of an equally non-dangerous object (a white rat), that the sudden unpleasant sensation of loud noise paired with the rat would produce a fear response. He studied this phenomenon in the famous and controversial "Little Albert" study. In this study, he used loud noises to condition (or teach) a baby to be fearful of white rats, rabbits, and other similar stimuli. In another study, Watson also found that such fears could be unlearned through exposure to the feared object and learning new associations between stimuli.


Moreover, Watson believed that the principles of behaviorism could be used to shape babies into anything an experimenter, parent, or another person might want. He famously said:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take anyone at random and train him to become any 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 to the contrary, and they have been doing so for many thousands of years." -John. B Watson

Many find Watson's treatment of Little Albert and his assertion that he could use behaviorism to shape any child into anything, alarming. The study of Little Albert and his learned fears was met with controversy when it was determined that Albert had withdrawn from the study and did not receive treatment to repair his learned fears of white animals. Rosalie Rayner would later joke about Albert as a grown man being terrified of all things white and fuzzy, which drew more controversial critique of the research. Watson and Rayner ultimately experimented on a human child without regard to their certain ability to reset the fear he'd learned, and because Albert was withdrawn from the study, whoever 'Little Albert' really was likely never unlearned those fears.

Watson's controversial points were made in response to Eugenics, which was a belief that genes were most important and those with lesser genes should be eliminated and not allowed to pass on their genes, an attitude popular during Watson's time. Watson emphasized the role of nurture and the ability for children to become anything, responding to the environment around them. Some of Watson's thinking and the behaviorist approach is how and why we know that some environments are helpful to the development of emotionally healthy children and adults and others are not.

Despite Watson's recognition of the importance of nurture in the nature-nurture debate, he also believed that parents should not be particularly nurturing. He believed that children should be treated as adults and not given much attention or affection. He thought that doing so would give children unrealistic expectations for their treatment in the world. This is a view that was criticized, and Watson did later admit he perhaps did not know enough about child development to speak on such issues. Nonetheless, his views were influential in the fields of psychology and child development.

Lessons to Be Learned

John B. Watson overcame environmental obstacles of his own and benefited from the nurturing of his early mentors at college, despite stating that nurture wasn't necessary or could affect a child's expectations in life. Perhaps John's on childhood that lacked nurturing and his later success influenced that opinion. Watson contributed greatly to the understanding of certain behaviors, which may be conditioned by stimuli found in the environment, and revolutionized treatment of some behaviors. Therapists today utilize a similar method of "exposure" to help clients move past fears and other conditioned responses of all sorts of things.

If in your own life, you have faced adversity, developed fears, and find yourself held back by your circumstances, the right people and experiences can also help you to overcome those barriers. Therapy is a tool that many people turn to for help to work past difficult situations and fears.

Many therapists use the principles of behaviorism that were initially developed and popularized by John B. Watson. However, many psychologists also recognize that the views of learning advanced by Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson underestimated the importance of thought or cognition.

Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is one of the most researched methods of therapy in use and shows success with all sorts of problems. CBT was developed by Aaron Beck, who incorporated elements of behaviorism. CBT examines the links between events or external circumstances, thoughts or meaning derived from those, and resulting behavior to help people manage behavior and emotions.

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