An Overview Of John B. Watson’s Contributions To Psychology

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

John B. Watson was an American psychologist and professor at John Hopkins University who is best known for establishing the psychological theory of behaviorism. Although there’s some controversy associated with some of his comparative psychology experiments and views, his research and work in general have been influential on the field of experimental psychology and psychology as a whole. Read on to learn more about his life and the legacy of John Broadus Watson and how Watson’s ideas shaped modern psychology.

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John B. Watson helped pioneer the behaviorism psychology movement

Who was John B. Watson?

John Broadus Watson was born on January 9, 1878, in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. His mother, Emma Watson, was a religious woman and named John after a Baptist minister. Watson's mother hoped that he, too, would grow up to become a preacher and subjected him to harsh religious training during his childhood. In the end, Watson's mother's methods backfired as he developed antipathetic feelings toward religion and came to identify as an atheist with a love of natural science. John's father, Pickens Butler, had problems with alcohol use and left his family behind in poverty when John was 13. Eventually, Emma had to sell the family farm, and she and John moved to Greenville, South Carolina. As a young adult, John Watson married Mary Ickes, and they had two children, Mary Ickes Watson and John Ickes Watson. However, after an affair with a student, John and Mary were divorced. John went on to marry the student that he was having an affair with and together they raised two sons following behaviorist principles.

Early career

Because of his tumultuous upbringing and experiences with poverty, Watson’s life was motivated to improve his status. He had been a poor student up until this point, but his mother had formed a few connections in Greenville and was able to help him gain admission to Furman University. Watson completed his classes there, though he did not particularly excel and had trouble connecting socially with others. However, he was eventually able to graduate with his master’s degree. After that, he worked for a year at a one-room school, filling the roles of janitor, handyman, and principal.

Eventually, Watson decided to continue his education. A professor at Furman University recommended that he attend the University of Chicago to study philosophy with John Dewey, which was exactly where Watson headed next. After Watson entered the University of Chicago, he began developing what would eventually become his theory of behaviorism.

A focus on behaviorism

Watson was originally influenced in classical behaviorism by the work of Ivan Pavlov, whose research focused on theoretical and experimental studies showing that people and animals could learn to automatically associate a certain stimulus with a certain response. His research was some of the earliest in what is now known as classical conditioning. Building on this work, Watson eventually wrote his doctoral dissertation on his discovery that brain myelination was related to learning. Watson published his work and 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.

After Watson graduated with his doctorate from the University of Chicago, he took a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University, where he was later offered the role of chair of the psychology department. In October 1920, Watson was asked to leave both positions because he had begun a relationship with his graduate assistant, Rosalie Rayner, who he eventually married. Historian John Burnham would later study John Watson and conclude that he had strong opinions and felt contempt for people who stood against him. 

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John B. Watson’s key contributions to the field of psychology

John Broadus Watson contributed foundational research and theories to the field of psychology and the area of behaviorism in particular. He was interested in the purely objective experimental branch of psychology.

Behaviorism

Watson wrote the behaviorist methodology and published his theories on it. In 1913, he gave an address on this topic at Columbia University. His article was entitled, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It, and it’s commonly considered to be a manifesto on behaviorism. Watson claimed that one goal of behaviorism is to understand how certain behaviors develop as a consequence of conditioning to external stimuli. During the same time Watson served as editor of the Psychological Review, where his ideas made it into the mainstream psychology literature.

Watson’s behaviorism hypothesized that people could learn to associate certain feelings and behaviors with certain objects or situations.

This was his blueprint for the concept of learning where each individual could function within their own specified world. Building on that, Watson's most influential and well-known work was his study of emotions—particularly his theory of how emotions could be learned. He believed that emotions were merely physical responses to external stimuli and that rage, fear, and love were all yet to be learned at birth.

The study on fear

Watson showed a particular interest in studying fear. While performing psychology research at John Hopkins University, he devised an experiment where he paired an otherwise mundane stimulus (a loud bang) with the appearance of an equally non-dangerous object (a white rat). It was known as the “Little Albert” study, and it’s viewed as highly controversial since he used this technique to condition a baby to be fearful of white rats, rabbits, and other similar, neutral stimuli. Watson argued that such fears could be unlearned through exposure to the feared object and that new associations for certain stimuli could be developed.

Ultimately, Watson outlined how he believed that the principles of behaviorism could be used to shape babies into anything an experimenter or parent might want. He famously and controversially 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." 

Controversy around Watson's work and beliefs

Many find Watson's treatment of the subject in the Little Albert experiment to be disturbing and unethical, and his assertion that he could use behaviorism to shape any child into anything is considered by most to be alarming at best. His study was met with controversy, especially when it came out that the subject, Albert, had been withdrawn from it without any treatment to reverse his learned fear of white animals.

Rosalie Rayner, who worked with Watson in the Little Albert Experiment study at John Hopkins University, would later joke about Albert as a grown man being terrified of all things white and fuzzy, which drew more critiques of the research. However, perhaps the most controversial points associated with Watson were the statements he made related to the topic of eugenics, or the belief that those with “undesirable” genes should be eliminated and/or not allowed to procreate.

Finally, psychologist John Watson was also open about his belief that parents should not be particularly nurturing or provide psychological care for their children. He believed that children should be treated as adults and not given much attention or affection, because he thought that they’d develop unrealistic expectations for their treatment in the world otherwise. This opinion later resulted in criticism, and Watson did eventually admit that perhaps he did not know enough about child development to speak on such issues.  In the end, before his death in 1958, Watson burned many of his unpublished papers and his relationship with his children had become progressively worse, potentially the result of being raised using their father’s methods.

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John B. Watson helped pioneer the behaviorism psychology movement

How behaviorism relates to therapy today

Today, in introductory psychology textbooks, many therapists work off of some of the basic principles of behaviorism that were initially developed and popularized by John B. Watson. However, they also recognize that his behaviorist views underestimated the importance of thought and cognition and may not serve tremendous scientific value when considered out of context. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most well-researched and effective methods of therapy available today. It built on Watson’s work in behaviorism but combined it with research on the impact of thought patterns. CBT is considered to be the “gold standard of psychotherapy” for treating a variety of conditions including depression and anxiety. It was developed by Aaron Beck, and it examines the link between external events or circumstances, the thoughts or meaning derived from them, and the resulting feelings and behaviors.  

Many people interested in going to therapy may have difficulty finding a therapist near them, or may feel uncomfortable talking to someone in person. If you’re thinking about CBT, you might consider online therapy as an op. Research suggests that online CBT can actually be more effective for some mental health conditions like mild to moderate depression, and other studies have found it to be as efficacious as in-person therapy for a variety of other conditions. An online therapy platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed therapist who you can speak with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the mental health challenges you may be facing.

Takeaway

American Psychologist John B. Watson had a career that was somewhat shrouded in controversy, particularly due to the research he performed during his tenure at John Hopkins University. However, some of the main tenets of his theories of behaviorism have been adapted into one of the most effective and commonly used therapy methods today, CBT.

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