John B. Watson - Behavioral Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

John B. Watson
Behavioral Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1878, Travelers Rest, South Carolina


DIED 1958, New York City, New York


Educated at Furman University and the University of Chicago



John B. Watson had little use for either structuralism or functionalism, as he thought that both were too bogged down in questions about the nature of consciousness. Watson was not one for studying introspection; he wanted to study externally measurable behavior. He rejected psychology’s prior focus on understanding the mind, and his 1913 article and address “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” not only coined the term behaviorism but also forever changed the course of psychology.

Watson saw behavior as predictable, controllable, and always the result of conditioning. He believed that there is no such thing as instinct and that no aspect of behavior is inborn. This stance came to represent what is known as radical behaviorism, which, true to its name, says that behavior, almost like a mathematical equation, is the direct and unambiguous product of environmental forces. Watson endorsed Pavlovian conditioning and extended it to the areas of learning and emotion, believing that temporal contiguity is important above all else. In other words, he said, as long as a conditioned stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus are presented closely together and in the proper order, learning will occur. Watson also believed that there are no meaningful differences between animals and humans when it comes to conditioning and learning. Unlike Pavlov, he brought humans into the lab so as to look at human conditioning directly, though Watson’s earliest research involved learning in rats.

Watson also believed that psychology as a science should be studied empirically and quantitatively, and his behaviorist manifesto, basically redefining what the word psychology meant at the time, ushered in an almost exclusive, decades-long focus on behavior rather than on the nature of the mind.

It is not that Watson had no interest in emotion. On the contrary, his research on infants led to his belief that three specific emotions are inborn: fear, rage, and love. But he believed that these emotions can be triggered automatically only by a very small number of stimuli (loud noises for fear, or tickling and patting for love, for example). Watson hypothesized that conditioning is what expands these emotional responses to other situations. So a child is not innately destined to love his mother but does so because she caresses him the most. Future love relationships will simply be the results of conditioning and of associations formed with feelings of love. Thus, according to Watson, emotional responses have nothing to do with personality or genetics.

Watson thought the same thing about remembering things and using language. He saw both as conditioned responses that are not qualitatively different from other types of behavior. He’d say that we remember things because of associations with other things, associations that have become solidified in our minds. We learn to speak because we are prompted to do so by external triggers.

Watson was also instrumental in popularizing psychology for the masses and showing that its influence can have practical applications—most specifically, helping people make money. Dismissed from his post at Johns Hopkins University because of a scandalous affair with his teaching assistant (they later married, after Watson left his wife), he went on to become an advertising executive in New York. He put his expertise to use by helping corporations persuade people to buy their products, and his theories gained currency in this decidedly nonacademic arena. Once again, in this new setting, Watson invoked the trio of fear, rage, and love. He believed that these three emotional responses, along with appeals to needs or habits, can motivate consumers to buy a product. His ad campaign for a baby powder used fear as a motivator and focused on the need for frequent use of the powder to prevent babies from getting sick. Watson was also an early adopter of celebrity testimonials (pair a celebrity with a product, and people will feel about the product the same way they do about the celebrity) and the use of demographic information to target different segments of the market (not unexpectedly, given his focus on metrics and measurable behavior).

Unfortunately, Watson’s strict, black-and-white beliefs about the nature of behavior also extended to the idea that children should not be given much affection. He felt that it is all too easy to spoil children with overt displays of love, and that parents who do so will raise children who are not able to cope with the world. Watson believed that parents should treat children as young adults, never hugging or kissing them but instead shaking hands. He had an abject hatred of mawkish, sentimental dealings with kids and felt that such displays should be avoided at all costs. It is worth noting that his two sons condemned his approach, and, sadly, one died by suicide years later.


KEY EXPERIMENT Watson’s work on a baby named Little Albert is no doubt his most famous experiment, and not necessarily in a good way. Though it certainly illustrated his principles of conditioning quite well, it is hard not to cringe at the damage that it did to the child.

Little Albert, whose actual identity is still being debated more than 80 years later, was 11 months old and not overly emotionally reactive. At the start of the experiment, he was afraid only of loud noises. In the first part of the experiment, Albert was placed on a table, and a white rat was set in front of him. As soon as Albert touched the rat, a very loud clang was produced with a metal bar. Albert immediately fell forward and whimpered.

Once was all it took. When the rat was presented on its own a week later, Albert tried to crawl off the table so fast that someone almost didn’t get there in time to catch him. Albert’s fears were then shown to have generalized to hair, a rabbit, a dog, and even a Santa Claus mask.

A month later, Albert’s fears persisted, though they had lessened a bit. Most egregiously, Watson didn’t try to remove the conditioning; he simply never bothered to try to extinguish Little Albert’s fears, and he appeared unconcerned about the possibility of lasting consequences, even though he acknowledged that such consequences were indeed possible. In fact, Watson criticized what he imagined would be the Freudian interpretation of Albert’s fears 20 years later; to Watson, the experiment was simply all in a day’s work of providing scientific proof for behaviorism and rejecting other doctrines, regardless of the consequences.

Watson did eventually advise his research assistant, Mary Cover Jones, on how to remove the fear conditioning they had created in a different boy, Peter. Thankfully, the conditioning could be removed through the process of breaking the association between the unconditioned stimulus and the conditioned stimulus, by way of extinction.


By ushering in the era of behaviorism, Watson laid the groundwork for subsequent researchers, such as B. F. Skinner, who would expand its reach and applications. Watson set the stage for environmental influences to be viewed as worthy of study, and his crossover from academia to advertising opened up a world of market-research techniques. Some of behaviorism’s best applications in clinical settings have to do with diminishing phobias and fears through techniques like systematic desensitization, which remains relevant to this day.


Has a particular smell ever reminded you of a certain time in your life or even brought back the emotions you felt at that time? Maybe it was the fragrance of a perfume or the aroma of a food, or maybe the pungent smell of burning wood reminded you of the potbellied stove your grandparents had, and of the love you felt for them. Your responses were neither inborn nor automatic to those particular stimuli. Instead, over time, you experienced those stimuli often enough in association with particular emotional states—love, comfort, excitement—that later on, even years later, those stimuli could evoke those emotional states on their own. For the same reason, music can pack quite an emotional punch. We may very well have some biological affinity for music itself, but many of the hooks and riffs and melodies that most stir us probably do so because of the emotional conditioning that was taking place while we listened to those songs over time.

Watson, of course, believed that not just pleasant emotions but also, most notably, fear can play a fundamental role in everyday conditioning. Have you ever felt creeped out by something and not been sure why? For example, your fear of a dilapidated, windowless van in a deserted parking garage is not instinctual but stems from the fact that this stimulus has been associated with enough horror movies or warnings from your parents that it has become almost certain to evoke a conditioned response of fear in you.

Since John B. Watson’s time on Madison Avenue, advertisers have become much more sophisticated in their ability to make claims that, for all their flamboyance and extravagance, are never quite overt or explicit. TV commercials suggest that if you use certain products, you will be more sexually attractive, more socially beloved, or more financially successful. Of course, the advertisers aren’t technically making those promises, but their hope is that as the products are repeatedly paired with those associations, you will also associate the products with them and eventually be motivated to put your money where your deepest insecurities are.