John B. Watson And Behaviorism

By Patricia Oelze

Updated May 14, 2020

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

John B. Watson Helped With Pioneering The Behaviorism Psychology Movement.
You Can Learn More About Psychology In Online Therapy.


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.

John B. Watson Helped With Pioneering The Behaviorism Psychology Movement.
You Can Learn More About Psychology In Online Therapy.


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 a 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the theory of behaviorism?

The theory of behaviorism is based on behavior analysis and operates under the premise that human behavior can be learned, unlearned, and relearned. This learning process is said to be based on exposure to external stimuli.

In behavior theory, behaviorist focus on observing covert behavior in order to discover links between environment and behavior. A popular theory of human behavior and radical behaviorism was developed by John B. Watson who is the founder of the original behaviorist methodology.

What are some examples of behaviorism?

One example of behaviorism at work are studies done by Dr. Watson who believed that human behavior and animal behavior can be changed or "conditioned" based on the presence or absence of external stimuli. Using applied behavior analysis Dr. Watson was able to successfully install and remove desired behavioral traits and emotional responses based on psychological behaviorism.

Behavior and brain science experts apply psychological behaviorism methodologies to explain behavior based on radical behaviorism theories. Radical behaviorism is a theory that makes broad assumptions about the predictable behavior of organisms. According to radical behaviorism, exposure to a negative stimulus that causes discomfort or pain will produce cognitive and behavioral changes. In-depth behavior analysis of overt behavior shows exposure to positive stimuli will increase the likelihood of the behavior recurring.

What is the main focus of behaviorism?

The main focus of behaviorism is behavior analysis of observable behavior and overt behavior. Behaviorist principles are based around the idea that behavior can be explained only by observing and interpreting overt behavior. Behavior therapy is based on the idea that behavior of organisms can be changed based on the absence or presence of specific external stimuli.

Principles of behavior and psychological behaviorism are developed by explaining behavior based on observable behaviors. Critics of behaviorism believe there should be a larger focus placed on the mind and behavior and not just overt behavior or behavioral disposition.

What is behaviorism by Skinner?

Skinner's behaviorist views focus on the concepts of operant conditioning. While operant conditioning recognizes that mind and emotions that can have an effect on behavior this theory of behavior and logical positivism places an emphasis on the study of behavior and explaining behavior that is observable. Skinner believes it's less important to focus on these inner behaviors and that behaviorist principles should be based on the observations of overt behavior.

What are the basic principles of behaviorism?

Behavioral and brain sciences study the science of behavior in order to provide behavior therapy to consciously help mental health clients eliminate undesirable behavior and replace them with the desired behavior. The theory of radical behaviorism and the radical behaviorist perspective is based on the study of behavior and the belief that behavior modification is possible.

By studying experimental analysis of behavior that is observable, psychological behaviorism is a conceptual reconstruction of the analysis of behavior. In most cases, behavioral and brain science use behavior therapy to introduce behavior modification techniques that elicit the desired behavior or response and eliminate negative or undesirable behaviors.

What is the goal of behaviorism?

Behavioral science and behavioral research are used in the study of human behavior and animal behavior. The Behaviorist view operates under the premise that human and animal behavior is learned and that the introduction or removal of certain external stimuli can be effective at controlling behavior.

How do you teach behaviorism?

It's important to understand behaviorist views of methodological behaviorism, principles of behavior and how they relate to human behavior to begin teaching radical behaviorism or logical behaviorism.

Behaviorist ideas focus on the science of behavior and observation of overt behavior. The analysis of behavior for behavior modification. Experimental analysis of overt behavior is the component of behavior science that deals with the analysis of human behavior and animal behavior. In order to fully understand the concepts behind the behavior, it's important to be able to decipher the meaning of information behavioral analysts use to make their recommendations for behavioral therapy and treatment.

What is the basic idea of behaviorism?

There is more than one type of behavior and philosophy associated with behaviorism. Radical behaviorism and logical behaviorism are examples of forms of behaviorism that operate under similar yet separate theories.

Analysis of behavior science and human behavior is done by professional behavior analysts. These analysts make recommendations for mental health treatment plans when using behaviorist methodologies like psychological behaviorism or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

What is behaviorism in the classroom?

Behaviorism in the classroom is an example of methodological behaviorism in action. Teachers and educators use the behavioral approach of methodological behaviorism to reward desired behaviors and punish undesirable behaviors.

For example, in elementary schools, many teachers use "gold stars" as a form of positive reinforcement to encourage behaviors that are considered as desirable. As a result of encouraging desirable behaviors, it is believed that using behaviorism in the classroom is effective at eliminating undesirable behaviors that disrupt the learning environment.

What are the two types of behaviorism?

There are two types of behaviorism related to the study of behavioral and brain sciences. Radical behaviorism focuses on the idea that all behavior stems from a reaction to an external event and that thoughts and feelings have little to do with the natural responses elicited from these interactions.

Logical behaviorism adds an additional component to the behaviorist theory that acknowledges the underlying effects of thoughts, feelings, and emotions on observable or covert behaviors. Critics of behaviorism, psychological behaviorism, and behavior therapy believe that methodological behaviorism is too simplistic and that behavior therapy should also be based on non-overt behaviors like thoughts and emotions.

Is behaviorism still used today?

Psychological behaviorists still apply the behavior and philosophy of Skinner's verbal behavior observations and analysis of overt behavior in modern behavior therapy. Psychological behaviorism now places a larger emphasis on using cognitive-behavioral therapy.

The handbook of behavior modification now includes cognitive-behavior therapy that is used to help people with behavioral issues to change behavior, control behavior, and to replace undesirable behaviors with new behavior. This brain-based behavior therapy is one of the types of behaviorism that have shown favorable results and is still widely used today.

Cognitive-behavior therapy is one of the behavioral terms that are consistent with the behaviorist view on operant conditioning. Behavioral and brain science experts believe behavior will change when behavioral and brain sciences professionals learn to consciously use behavior analysis to implement behavior modification techniques. These cognitive-behavioral techniques are based on external stimuli and conditions that reward positive behaviors and punish negative behaviors.

How does Behaviourism explain human Behaviour?

When it comes to understanding psychology as the behaviorist, methodological behaviorism tries to explain human behavior by observing overt behavior and verbal behavior and completing an analysis of behavior. Behavior therapy focuses on observing a history of behaviors and responses to external stimuli to make the association for behavior analysis. Upon review of verbal behavior and other observable behavior behavioral and brain sciences experts use the principles of psychological behaviorism in explaining behavior.

When behavioral and brain sciences experts were looking for ways to introduce a new behavior, the analysis of behavior begun to become the primary driver of methodological behaviorism. The ultimate goal of behavioral and brain sciences professionals like psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists is to use behavior therapy to get control of behavior in a way that is consistent with behaviorist practices and beneficial for the client.

What are the 3 principles of operant conditioning?

Related to psychological behaviorism, operant conditioning is one of the behavioral terms that describes the goals of behavior therapy in a nutshell. Operant conditioning is one of the types of psychological behaviorism that acknowledges that thoughts and feelings operating in the background may also have an effect on behavior.

Behavior modification techniques used in operant conditioning and psychological behaviorism allow for the effects of unobservable behavior including thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

According to the Journal of Applied behavior and behavioral and brain science experts, three driving principles behind operant conditioning are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.

Operant conditioning is a form of methodological behaviorism that focuses on behavioral analysis for observable human behavior and animal behavior in response to behavior management techniques.

What are the strengths of the behaviourist approach?

The strengths of radical behaviorism, logical behaviorism, methodological behaviorism, and psychological behaviorism are that all of these types of behaviorism focus on modifying behavior using the behaviorist account. Behaviorism refers to changing and improving behavior based on the introduction and removal of certain stimuli. Using psychology as a behaviorist makes it easier to create a behavior therapy treatment plan based on observable behavior and each client's individual behavioral capacities.

People who take part in behavior therapy using this simplistic approach can easily make noticeable changes in their lives when their behavior traits and patterns are revealed by a behavior analyst like a psychiatrist, therapist, or other behavioral and brain sciences professionals. Psychological behaviorism simplifies behaviorism concerns by providing behavior therapy based on the use of psychology as a behaviorist.

How did behaviorism affect research on the mind?

Psychological behaviorism took the focus off studying unobservable behavior like thoughts and emotions and placed the focus of the analysis of behavior for observable behavior including verbal behavior. Behavioral therapy began to be based on psychological behaviorism which provided intervention and treatment for alleviating bad behaviors for human behavior and animal behavior based on observable behavior and verbal behavior.

A behavior analyst like those at Behavior Analysis International makes recommendations for therapy and treatment based on responses to pain behavior and pleasure behavior. Behavioral terms like psychological behaviorism, behavioral therapy, are types of behaviorism that have shown a positive response to the interruption of pain behavior. John B. Watson is considered as the Rand of behaviorism by practicing psychology as the behaviorist.

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