Watson's Theories of Behaviorism
By: Patricia Oelze
Updated September 10, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Who was he?
Watson was an American psychologist. Dr. Watson is best known for establishing the psychological school of Behaviorism. Watson's theories, research, and work were influential to the field of psychology, and through that, Watson 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. Watson was born in Traveler's Rest, South Carolina. Watson's parents were Pickens Butler and Emma Watson.
His mother Emma Watson was a religious woman and, so she named John after a Baptist minister. Watson's mother hoped that he too would grow up and preach the Gospel and thus subjected him to harsh religious training. Watson's mother's method backfired as he eventually felt quite antipathic towards religion and instead identified as an atheist.
John's father, an alcoholic, left his family when he was 13 to live with two other women. His family was left in poverty, and eventually, Emma had to sell the family farm. At that time, Watson and his mother, Emma Watson, moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where Emma felt he might see more success in life. Indeed, in Greenville, he was exposed to many different people and started to view the world with a psychologist's mindset.
Advanced Education and Early Career
Despite Watson's tumultuous early life and the impoverished state of Watson's 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, Watson's mother, Emma Watson, had some connections, and she assisted him in gaining admission to Furman University. There, Watson completed his classes but did not particularly excel in his academic endeavors. Watson also lacked social skills, which led to Watson being considered insubordinate by his instructors.
Watson supported himself financially while in college. He later graduated with his master's degree at age 21. Watson accomplished this by changing his focus and putting forth great effort in his studies.
Upon graduation, Watson worked for a year at a one-room school (that he titled "Batesburg Institute") in the roles of janitor, handyman, and even principal.
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. Watson worked with the following influential minds:
James Rowland Angel
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. Watson believed that psychology should only study what could be measured, seen, and observed in some way.
Early in Watson's career, Watson was influenced in this thinking by the work of Ivan Pavlov. Ivan 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. His research was some of the earliest in what is now called “Classical conditioning.”
Watson included Ivan Pavlov's basic principles in his theories and study on psychology.
Doctoral Dissertation and Beyond
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." Watson's dissertation showed that myelination was related to learning.
After Watson graduated with his doctorate, Watson was offered a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University where Watson was offered the chair of the psychology department. Unfortunately, in October 1920, Watson 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 Watson later married.
"Manifesto on Behaviorism"
Watson created the school of behaviorist methodology within psychology and Watson published his views on this psychological theory in 1913. Watson's article was entitled "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," and this article is commonly considered a manifesto on behaviorism.
Watson's article 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 that was listed in Watson's article was to understand how certain behaviors develop as a consequence of conditioning to external stimuli.
Area of Study
Watson was not particularly concerned with the following:
or other forms of internal consciousness
Watson thought it was foolish to interpret the inner workings of the mind. Watson believed psychologists should concern themselves with only what they could see.
Views on Human Behavior
Watson applied his views to all parts of human behavior including language and memory. Watson believed language to be a "manipulative habit." Watson's meaning of this term was meant to describe the human ability to manipulate the sounds made with the larynx. Watson believed that language and all behavior is conditioned (taught) in this case through imitation. Watson theorized that over time people learned to associate certain sounds or spoken words with certain objects, situations, or symbols.
Watson 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 Watson believed all people learn or can unlearn and relearn lessons as needed.
Most Influential Work
Watson's most influential and well-known work was his study of emotions. Watson was particularly interested in studying the way that emotions could be learned. Watson believed that emotions were merely physical responses to external stimuli and that rage, fear, and love were all yet to be learned at birth.
Watson was particularly interested in studying fear.
Watson explored the aspect of fear by pairing an otherwise mundane stimulus (a loud bang), with the appearance of an equally non-dangerous object (a white rat) also called a “neutral stimulus”, the sudden unpleasant sensation of loud noise paired with the rat would produce a fear response.
Watson 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, or another similar neutral stimulus. In another study, Watson also found that such fears could be unlearned through exposure to the feared object and learning new associations between stimuli.
Principles of Behaviorism
Moreover, Watson believed that the principles of behaviorism could be used to shape babies into anything an experimenter, parent, or another person might want. Watson 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 Watson's assertion that he could use behaviorism to shape any child into anything, alarming. Watson's 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 a more controversial critique of Watson's research. Because Albert was withdrawn from the study, whoever 'Little Albert' really was likely never unlearned those fears.
Watson's most controversial points were made in response to Eugenics, which was a belief that those with undesirable 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, Watson also believed that parents should not be particularly nurturing. Watson believed that children should be treated as adults and not given much attention or affection.
Watson thought that doing so would give children unrealistic expectations for their treatment in the world. This opinion later resulted in Watson receiving criticism, and Watson did later admit he perhaps did not know enough about child development to speak on such issues. Nonetheless, Watson's views were influential in the fields of psychology and child development.
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 his own childhood that lacked nurturing and Watson's 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 to Watson's 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.
For more information on how telehealth counseling can help you, click on the link above and read the following reviews left by BetterHelp users.
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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