John B. Watson (Psychologist Biography)

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John B Watson

Who Was John B. Watson? 

John B. Watson was an American psychologist, researcher and author who played a crucial role in the development of behaviorism. In a 2002 report, the Review of General Psychology ranked Watson as the 17th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

He emphasized the need for psychologists to focus on environmental events and behavior that can be observed and measured. Watson’s research directly contributed to behaviorism becoming the dominant psychological school of thought in the United States from the 1920s to the 1930s. 

John B. Watson's Early Life

John Broadus Watson was born on January 9, 1878 in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. His parents were Pickens Butler Watson and Emma Kesiah Watson. Watson’s older siblings were Edward, Thomas Stradley, and Mary Alice. His parents would have two more children after he was born.

Pickens and Emma Watson lost most of their wealth during the American Civil War. As a result, Watson and his siblings lived a simple life on the family farm. Watson’s grandfather, James Madison Watson, helped to establish one of several Baptist churches in the area. Most of his family members were devout fundamental baptists and did not smoke, drink, or dance.

Watson's mother, Emma, was a beautiful, strong, intelligent woman who was known for her devotion to her children and her religion. In fact, she named Watson after John Albert Broadus—an influential Baptist pastor in nearby Greenville who rose to national prominence. As a young boy, Watson was called “Broadus” rather than “John” or “John B.” Emma hoped that Watson would grow up and become a Baptist minister.

Religious Background

As an influential figure in the local church, Emma was determined to keep her children physically and morally clean. As a result, Watson was subjected to strict religious training. When he was still very young, Watson’s nurse told him that if he ever went out walking at night, the devil would snatch him away to hell. His mother approved of the story because it helped to keep him under control, but it caused Watson to develop an intense fear of darkness that stayed with him for the rest of his life. 

Watson’s father, Pickens, was a good-looking man who was impulsive, lazy and irresponsible. He did not share any of his family’s strict religious beliefs or moral standards. Pickens was well-known in the community as an alcoholic and a womanizer. After Watson was born, he would sometimes leave his family for weeks to spend time in the backwoods with his two Cherokee “wives.”

Despite his many shortcomings as a father, Pickens made time to teach Watson the hands-on skills that were needed to keep the farm running. Watson started attending school at age six and was milking cows and using tools by age nine. By the time he was twelve years old, Watson was a pretty decent carpenter. These skills would serve him very well as an adult when he was working on his various construction projects.


When Watson was thirteen years old, his father left the family for good. Watson was deeply hurt and never forgave his father for abandoning them. This caused Watson to become more dependent on his mother and the two grew much closer. At school, he became more violent and rebellious and would often get low grades.

Soon after Pickens left,  Emma sold the farm to keep her family out of poverty and moved to nearby Greenville. She believed Greenville would offer Watson better opportunities and schooling than was possible in the rural town of Travelers Rest. During high school, Watson was arrested twice—once for fighting and once for firing a gun within city limits. However, Watson soon settled down after he realized that doing well in college was important if he wanted to become a successful man.

Educational Background

Watson entered Furman University in 1894 when he was sixteen years old. Furman was a Southern Baptist school that generally produced Baptist ministers. Watson was able to gain admission due to his mother’s influence and connections. He also managed to convince university officials that he had changed his rebellious ways.

While at Furman, Watson began to put more effort into his studies. But although he was improving academically, none of his grades were distinguished. After two years, he managed to get a job as an assistant at the university’s chemistry lab to help pay for his school expenses. He was also a member of the Kappa Alpha fraternity, however his poor social skills contributed to him making few friends in college.

When Watson was seventeen years old, he met Gordon Moore at Furman University. Moore was a stern clergy member and psychology professor who took the young Watson under his wing. During Watson’s senior year at Furman, Moore gave him a failing grade for his final paper, which caused Watson to stay at the institution for a fifth year. When 21 year old Watson completed the additional year of studies, he was awarded a master’s degree from the university rather than a bachelor’s degree.

Moore’s liberal religious views eventually led to him being fired from Furman University. When reflecting on his time at Furman, a 72 year old Watson claimed that Moore was an inspiration to him and that the only sermon he listened to at Furman was one delivered by Moore because “there wasn’t much religion in it.”

After graduating from Furman University, Watson chose to stay at home to help care for his sick mother. He began teaching children at a one-room school that he called the Batesburg Institute. Although he assumed the role of principal, he also served as the school’s handyman and janitor. His mother passed away in late 1900.

Discovering Psychology

A few weeks after his mother died, Watson determined that he needed to continue his education. He wanted to study philosophy and two preferred options were Princeton University and the University of Chicago. When he discovered that he needed to be able to read Greek and Latin to get admission to Princeton’s philosophy program, he focused on getting into the University of Chicago. A letter of recommendation from Furman professor Gordon Moore and a petition from Watson himself to the University of Chicago’s president saw him admitted in 1900 to study philosophy under the supervision of John Dewey.

It didn't take long for Watson to realize that a career in philosophy wasn’t for him. In addition to his philosophy courses, he decided to take classes on experimental psychology, neurology, physiology and animal behavior. He soon became interested in designing experiments to study animals in the laboratory. Watson earned his PhD in experimental psychology in 1903.

Watson stayed at the University of Chicago after receiving his doctoral degree because the institution was considered an intellectual hotbed. He accepted a teaching position at Johns Hopkins University in 1908 and was promoted to the chair of the psychology department soon after.

Watson’s Theory of Behaviorism

Watson first published his theory of behaviorism in 1913 in an article entitled Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. In that article—sometimes called the “Behaviorist Manifesto”—Watson argued against the study of consciousness and other unobservable phenomena which had been the focus of psychology up to that time. In Watson’s view, psychology’s concern with such matters prevented it from being recognized as a legitimate science. The focus of the field, he insisted, should not be on unseen internal states that have to be inferred, but on external, observable behavior that can be directly measured. As such, he saw no value in studying covert events such as thoughts, perceptions, and sensations.

Watson’s goal was for psychology to be seen as a “purely objective experimental branch of natural science” with the goal of predicting and controlling behavior. Instead of a science of the mind, Watson pushed for psychology to become a science of behavior. He also argued that the methods being used in psychology (eg., introspection) were far too subjective and unscientific. He advocated for behavior to be studied using strictly objective methods under stringent laboratory conditions.

John B. Watson on Nature vs. Nurture

In the popular nature versus nurture debate, Watson took a firm, radical stance on the side of the environment. He rejected instinctive and genetic theories of human functioning and came to view all behavior as learned responses to environmental stimuli. Watson favored the classical conditioning theory of Ivan Pavlov and it became the cornerstone of his approach. He believed all overt behaviors could be adequately explained in terms of stimulus-response relationships, without the need to consider internal mental processes.

Watson further contended that many behaviors thought to be inherited are actually shaped by early childhood experiences. For example, he did not consider musical and athletic abilities to be inherited but reasoned that they developed through parental encouragement and reinforcement.

John B. Watson's Most Famous Quote 

Watson believed that infants came into the world as blank slates and could be trained to become whatever one wanted them to become, regardless of their genetic make-up. So convinced was he of this that he boldly asserted:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

Watson’s View of Emotions

Watson saw emotions as nothing more than physiological reactions to environmental stimuli. According to this view, when an individual encounters specific stimuli, certain physiological changes are triggered and these changes are associated with overt bodily responses. For example, Watson noted that among infants, fear is associated with catching one’s breath, closing one’s eyes, and crying. In his writings on emotions, Watson gave no consideration to an individual’s perception of the stimuli, internal sensations, or subjective feeling states. These unobservable events were not considered important.

Watson believed that humans are born with just three basic emotions—fear, rage, and love. All other emotions were said to develop from these three. Watson suggested that the basic emotions are unlearned and are elicited by specific stimuli. In infants, fear is triggered by loud noises and a sudden loss of physical support , rage is produced by restrictions in movement, and love is evoked by stroking, rocking, or patting the infant. Watson believed that through the process of conditioning these emotions could later become associated with stimuli that did not elicit them originally.

The Little Albert Experiment

In order to demonstrate how emotions could become attached to stimuli that did not originally produce them, Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Raynor, undertook one of the most famous (and controversial) studies in the history of psychology. The subject of the experiment was an 11-month old infant named Albert.

At the beginning of the experiment, a white rat was placed near to Albert, who seemed attracted to it. He displayed no fear in relation to the animal. As he began reaching toward the rat, however, Watson struck a metal bar behind him with a hammer. The loud, sudden noise startled little Albert, causing him to jump and fall forward. As he reached for the rat a second time, the bar was struck again and he began to tremble. When this occurred a third time, Albert started crying.

child scared of a mouse

By the seventh pairing of the white rat with the loud noise, Albert displayed fear in the presence of the rat, even when the noise was absent. Upon seeing the rat, he immediately began to cry and crawl away rapidly. A month later, Albert’s fear was still present. The researchers also found that his fear had been generalized to other white, furry animals and objects, including a rabbit, a dog, a fur coat, and a Santa Claus mask.

How Does John B. Watson's Contributions to Psychology Influence Current Practices?

Of course, a study of this nature would hardly be approved by an ethics committee today. Nevertheless, it clearly demonstrates how individuals can be conditioned to produce emotional responses to previously neutral stimuli. Watson concluded that this is the mechanism by which all adult emotions develop.

Watson and Raynor intended to reverse Albert’s fear but did not get the opportunity to do so as he was removed from the hospital where he had been staying. Under Watson’s supervision, another graduate student, Mary Cover Jones, later demonstrated how a child’s fear could be eliminated successfully using counterconditioning techniques.

Watson’s Thoughts on Child-Rearing

In a book released in 1928, The Psychological Care of the Infant and Child, Watson dispensed his views on the subject of child-rearing. Despite his emphasis on the importance of nurture in human development, his approach to parenting was anything but nurturing. Watson believed children should be treated as young adults and he advised parents against hugging and kissing their children or placing them in their laps. He suggested instead that they shake hands with their children or give them a pat on the head in recognition of their achievements.

child playing the piano

Watson had no tolerance for sentimentality in the parent-child relationship and went as far as saying that a mother’s love is “a dangerous instrument which may inflict a never healing wound” on a child. He cautioned parents that if they were overly affectionate, their children would fail to become responsible, independent, or successful in life.

Application of Watson’s Theory

Watson was instrumental in advancing the school of behaviorism and his work has had an enduring impact on the field of psychology. His legacy can be seen in the current emphasis on experimentation and other objective research methods among modern psychologists. He also helped to establish learning as a key area for research and application. Although his extreme stance on the nature vs. nurture debate has been rejected, the importance he placed on experience and the environment during development continues to resonate within the field today.

Watson was the first to demonstrate that many of our emotional reactions are learned, particularly through the process of classical conditioning. If such reactions are learned, they can also be unlearned, as he and Mary Cover Jones later demonstrated. Psychologists today have applied this knowledge to their work with clients who are experiencing phobias and other negative emotions. Through counterconditioning techniques such as systematic desensitization, the anxiety experienced in the presence of the feared object is replaced with more positive emotions. In cases where positive emotions are associated with unwanted behaviors (eg., smoking), counterconditioning may also be employed. In aversion therapy, for example, the unwanted response is repeatedly associated with something unpleasant, eventually resulting in an avoidance of that behavior.

The type of learning demonstrated by Watson has also been applied by advertisers to enhance people’s view of their products and services. For example, advertisers for a car company may include an attractive female in commercials geared toward males. The idea is that the positive emotions naturally triggered by an attractive female will come to be associated with the car, prompting viewers to perceive the car itself in a positive light.

Criticisms of Watson’s Theory

Despite the profound impact Watson has had on the field of psychology, much of his work has been heavily criticized. Among the most common criticisms are the following:

Watson’s work with Little Albert, though significant, was ethically questionable on several grounds: (1) It is still not clear whether Watson and Raynor obtained informed consent from Albert’s mother, (2) The infant was exposed to severe stress at a very tender age, (3)The researchers did not extinguish the fear they had conditioned, and (4) There was no follow-up after the study to ensure the well-being of the child. There is also some evidence to suggest that Albert was not entirely healthy to begin with, which would limit the extent to which the results of the study can be generalized.

Watson’s overemphasis on observable behavior caused him to neglect the many internal processes that play a key role in human functioning. His view of human behavior has therefore been called mechanical and one-dimensional.

Watson’s position on the nature vs nurture controversy was quite extreme. He accounted for variations in human behavior solely on the basis of environmental factors, totally rejecting the influence of hereditary and instinctive factors. We now know that both nature and nurture play a role in shaping behavior.

Watson’s views regarding child-rearing were unscientific and according to some critics, bordered on dangerous. Watson later regretted writing his book on child-rearing, admitting that he did not know enough on the subject and that his views were not adequately supported by existing data.

John B. Watson's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

Watson wrote several books based on his research. Some of his more well-known works include:

  • Behavior: An introduction to comparative psychology, 1914
  • Psychology from the standpoint of a behaviorist, 1919
  • Conditioned Emotional Reactions, 1920
  • Behaviorism, 1924
  • Psychological Care of Infant and Child, 1928

Watson was elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1915. In 1957 he received the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions from the APA.

Personal Life

John Watson married Mary Ickes in 1901 while he was pursuing his graduate studies. Mary was a student in one of his classes at the University of Chicago and had developed a crush on him. The couple had a son and a daughter who were named John and Mary respectively. However the couple divorced years later due to Watson’s ongoing affair with his research assistant Rosalie Rayner at Johns Hopkins University.

Watson’s affair made front page news as his wife Mary and his lover Rayner both had political connections. After Mary found love letters from Watson in Rayner’s bedroom, excerpts from the letters were published in the Baltimore newspapers. The affair became such a distraction that the university asked Watson to choose between his job or his lover. After his divorce from Mary was finalized, he left Johns Hopkins and married Rayner in 1920. At the time, Watson was 42 years old and Rayner was 21.

Watson’s affair with Rayner brought a sudden end to his academic career. He eventually went into the advertising industry. Watson and Rayner had two boys together. Their names were William and James. Sadly, Rayner passed away in 1935 at the age of 36.

Watson was often criticized by family members for raising his children according to his behaviorist principles. Of his four children, three of them (Mary, William, and James) attempted suicide. William eventuallly died of suicide in 1954 after a second attempt. Later in his life, Watson burned a very large portion of his personal papers and letters. This act robbed later scholars of the opportunity to better understand the early history of behaviorism and the type of person Watson was.

When Did John B. Watson Die? 

Despite his old age, Watson was still strong willed and opinionated. He was also still bitter about the criticism he had received from his detractors. In 1957, Watson was awarded the American Psychological Association’s highest honor for his contributions to the field of psychology. He died on September 25, 1958 at the age of 80.


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Practical Psychology. (2020, April). John B. Watson (Psychologist Biography). Retrieved from

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