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John Watson and Behaviorism: Theory, Lesson & Quiz

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Gary Gilles

Gary has a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology and has been teaching and developing courses in higher education since 1988.

John B. Watson was a pioneering figure in the development of the psychological school of behaviorism. His life and work have significantly shaped behaviorism as we know it. Learn how the discipline of behaviorism started and how it has profoundly changed the way we live our lives in the modern era.

John Watson's Life

John B. Watson, American Psychologist
John Broadus Watson (1879-1958) was an American psychologist who is considered the father of the psychological school of behaviorism. He was raised in South Carolina by a mother with strict religious standards and an alcoholic father who abandoned John and his mother when John was only 13 years old. Watson struggled academically and was arrested twice during high school. Yet, despite these troubles and his own admission that he was a poor student, Watson entered Furman College at age 16 and emerged with a Master's degree five years later. He eventually completed a doctorate in Psychology at the University of Chicago in 1903 and went on to teach at John Hopkins University in 1908.

The Roots of Behaviorism

By the time Watson began teaching at Johns Hopkins, the official discipline of psychology was barely 30 years old, having started in Europe in 1879. Watson was one of the early American psychologists to break with Freudian notions that our unconscious mind was behind most of our behavior. These ideas were quickly gaining acceptance among psychologists in Europe and later in the United States. Watson made his most memorable declaration against Freud's theory at a lecture he delivered in 1913 at Columbia University titled, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. This lecture established Watson as a pioneer of a new school of thought that would later become known as behaviorism.

Behaviorism, according to Watson, was the science of observable behavior. Only behavior that could be observed, recorded and measured was of any real value for the study of humans or animals. Watson's thinking was significantly influenced by the earlier classical conditioning experiments of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov and his now infamous dogs.

Watson's behaviorism rejected the concept of the unconscious and the internal mental state of a person because it was not observable and was subject to the psychologist's subjective interpretation. For example, Freud would ask his patients to tell him their dreams. He then would interpret the dreams and analyze what these dreams were indicating in the person's life. Watson found this emphasis on introspection and subjective interpretation to be very unscientific and unhelpful in understanding behavior.

The Core of Watson's Work

Watson is best known for taking his theory of behaviorism and applying it to the development of children. He believed strongly that a child's environment is the factor that shapes behaviors over their genetic makeup or natural temperament. Watson is famous for saying that he could take a 'dozen healthy infants…and train any one of them to become any type of specialist he might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief.' In other words, he believed that you can expose the child to certain environmental forces and, over time, condition that child to become any type of person you want. As you might imagine, this was radical thinking and a type of behavioral control that many people were not comfortable with at that time.

The Little Albert Experiment

Little Albert experiment with John Watson and Rosalie Rayner
In his most famous and controversial experiment, Watson put his theory regarding conditioning to the test. The experiment became known as the 'Little Albert' experiment. It involved an 11-month-old boy who was allowed to play with various animals, such as rats and rabbits, that he was not initially afraid of. But with repeated exposure, Watson and his assistant and wife, Rosalie Rayner, began pairing the animal contact with a loud clanging noise. When he touched an animal, the frightening noise sounded. Over time, they conditioned 'Little Albert' to be afraid of the animals. Watson believed that this proved that emotions could become conditioned responses.

Unfortunately, Watson did not remove the conditioning he instilled in 'Little Albert' and many wondered how the experiment affected the boy as he grew up. Many years later it was discovered that 'Little Albert' died at the age of six from hydrocephalus, a condition where fluid builds up inside the skull. In looking back, psychologists today view Watson's experiment as unethical because of the fear he instilled in the child in conducting the experiment and his lack of effort to undo the conditioned fear. Ethical guidelines in place today would never permit such an experiment to be performed.

The Influence of Watson's Work

Watson eventually left the field of psychology to work in advertising but he left a deep impression on many who would read his writings. A young psychologist named B.F. Skinner is the most notable behaviorist to follow in Watson's footsteps. Skinner further developed some of Watson's ideas and went on to become the most well-known psychologist of the second half of the 20th century.

If you look around, you can see many examples of behaviorism in day-to-day life. For example, as drivers we've been conditioned to obey the traffic rules. Our conditioning, through driver's education courses, issuing of tickets and public service announcements make us keenly aware of the possible consequences if we violate the traffic laws. So, in order to avoid the negative consequence, we obey the rules of the road.

Another example of behaviorism is when employees get a bonus for meeting their sales quota. The bonus reinforces the employee's good performance making it more likely the salesperson will continue trying to perform well in order to earn another bonus. It is a motivational technique used by many companies to get the most from their workforce.

Finally, animal trainers almost exclusively use behavioral techniques to teach dogs and other animals unusual tricks. They do this by teaching a particular act, like rolling over, and then immediately giving them a treat to reward or reinforce the behavior. Each time they follow the trick with a treat, the behavior is more likely to be repeated.

There are many more examples of behaviorism at work in everyday life. If you are look for them you will see them virtually everywhere.

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