J.B. Watson was an American psychologist best known for coding and popularizing a school of psychology called Behaviorism. Unlike the ‘original’ Freudian psychology which explored the unconscious, emotional and other intangible concepts, Watson proposed that psychology should study observable behaviors measurable through the scientific method. He is best known for demonstrating this through the Little Albert experiment and the ‘dozen healthy infants quote’. His compelling theory however fell short of success in practice as Watson himself experienced. While Watson’s practice and legacy have been hotly debated for decades now, he remains among the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Read on to see why!
The full story
John B. Watson famously claimed that if he were to be given a dozen healthy infants, he could shape them into anything; doctors, lawyers, artists, beggars, or thieves, regardless of their background or genetic predispositions. First, he completed experiments with 8-month old Albert and later, he applied his theory when raising his own children. In essence, he applied the scientific method to human psychology which he called behaviorism.
The ‘Little Albert’ Experiment
With the ‘Little Albert’ experiment, Watson used the method of classical conditioning to program a baby to be afraid of a lab rat. Earlier, Pavlov demonstrated how conditioning can trigger biological responses that are inherited genetically. Watson hypothesized that we can also instill new behaviors that were not inherited.
To conduct the experiment, Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner, placed the boy in a room where a white rat was allowed to roam around. First, the boy showed no fear. Then, Rayner struck a steel bar with a hammer, every time Albert reached out to touch the rat, scaring Albert and causing him to cry. Eventually, Albert tried to get away from the rat, illustrating that he had been conditioned to fear the rat. Weeks later, Albert showed distress towards any furry object, showing that his conditioning had not only been sustained but also generalized.
Watson assumed that our behavior is either a reflex evoked by a stimulus, or a consequence of our individual history of earlier exposure to reinforcements and punishments paired with our current motivational states and stimuli.
Watson vs. Freud
Unlike Freud and Jung, he was not interested in thoughts or the mind, because, in his opinion, the analysis of actions and reactions was the only way to apply the scientific method to psychology and get objective insight into human behavior. He thought of psychology as an objective branch of natural science: “Its goal, the prediction, and control of behavior.” Like his fellow behaviorists, he believed that intelligence, temperament, and personality are determined by the environment in which the child is raised.
The Psychological Care of Infant and Child
Watson published “The Psychological Care of Infant and Child”. In his book, he advised parents not to touch their children too often and keep an emotional distance so as not to spoil them. Playing with children, he warned, would interrupt their routines. A happy child doesn’t cry or seek attention.
His book became a bestseller and soon other scientists of his time advised against showing affection. Some western governments started to hand out leaflets advising that parents should stop kissing their children. Parents developed the idea that children should be left to sit quietly during the day. At night they should be left crying alone until they fall asleep, a method called “sleep training”.
Watson’s life and family
Watson, who had a difficult childhood, wanted to be a good father and applied his methods to his four children, John, Mary, James, and William. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out as planned. John complained throughout his entire life about intolerable headaches and died early in his 50s. Mary developed a drinking problem and attempted suicide, like her brother James. William took his own life at age 40.
Watson allegedly admitted that he regretted writing about child-rearing as he realized he didn’t know enough about it to do so. Towards the end of his life, he became reclusive and prior to his death in 1958, he burned all of his recent papers.
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- John B. Watson – Wikipedia
- Behaviorism – Wikipedia
- The Little Albert experiment – Youtube
- John B. Watson’s Advice on Child Rearing: Some Historical Context – Overview from the Behavioral Development Bulletin
- The Long Dark Night of Behaviorism – Find out what happened to Watson’s descendants at RoboThink
- Training for Sleep Training – The sad history of sleep training from PaperPinecone
Watson was convinced that the kind of nurturing we receive can determine our life path, claiming that he could turn an infant into any man he wishes. In his own family though, depression and bad habits were passed on from generation to generation.
Does this happen due to genetic predispositions or is it the effect of a child’s unfortunate upbringing? Can one really understand a person when just observing their behavior? Discuss with your students and share your favourite answers with us!
To fuel your discussion, go through our video on Sapolsky’s theory of behavioral biology. For more practical examples that you can try yourself, check out how Behaviorism developed into Operant Conditioning.