John Watson

Category : History, People, Psychology

Author: Carmen Hendershott, Librarian, The New School

John Watson (1878-1958) is remembered today as the flamboyant founder and promoter of behaviorist psychology. Born in 1878, he had a childhood of severe economic uncertainty but overcame obstacles to gain acceptance into graduate study at the University of Chicago in 1900, where he pioneered the use of animals in psychological research and contributed to key changes in the discipline. In 1892, the American Psychological Association was founded, and this professionalization coincided with a gradual transition in academia from psychology’s role as a branch of philosophy to a new status as a division of science; the University of Chicago was an epicenter of this transition.

Watson completed his doctorate in 1903 on the relationship between behavior and the nervous system in the white rat under his mentor James Rowland Angell. He took a job in 1908 at Johns Hopkins University in a unified philosophy/psychology department under James Mark Baldwin. The following year, he succeeded his boss as chair of the department and edited the journal that Baldwin had co-founded, Psychological Review. Expanding his activities, he founded the Journal of Animal Behavior with Harvard’s Robert Yerkes and did summer research in 1907 on instinctual behavior in terns on the Tortugas Islands. In 1913, he wrote a flagship article, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Sees It,” for Psychological Review, in which he enunciated the mission of behaviorism as behavior prediction and control. A textbook Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (1914) developed more fully the views set forth in the article. Behaviorism was part of the vanguard effort to remove psychology from the introspective approach that dominated it under the umbrella of philosophy and to move it toward biological, experimental, and practical approaches compatible with science.

As his career flourished, Watson was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1915. During World War I, he demonstrated the utility of psychology in military applications and developed corporate alliances that increased financial support for applied psychological research. In 1919, he published a second textbook, Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, that expanded ideas in the first. He also moved away from research with animals and started doing research with young children. In a particularly famous experiment, he conditioned a 9-month-old infant (Little Albert) to fear a white rat by coupling the sight of the rat with a loud noise. During that experiment, he fell in love with his research assistant, Rosalie Rayner, despite being married with children. When the affair came to light, a messy divorce ensued, and he was fired from his position at Johns Hopkins. He never again held a full-time position in any university. (He ended up marrying Rayner in 1920.)

Ever resourceful, Watson reinvented himself as a corporate wunderkind who could help the advertising sector ramp up consumption. He joined the New York-based J. Walter Thompson Company where he used testimonials, demographic analysis, and radio advertising to sell products and was made a vice-president in the company by 1924. He also tirelessly promoted behaviorism, writing for popular magazines (Harper’s, Nation, New Republic, Saturday Review of Literature, McCall’s); publishing books – Behaviorism in 1924, and, with his wife, The Psychological Care of Infant and Child in 1928; and teaching courses on behaviorism at the New School for Social Research in 1922-1923 through Fall 1924. After a hiatus in 1925, he followed up these courses with one in Spring 1926 on “Modern Viewpoints in Psychology” in which speakers presented various subfields of the discipline, and another in Fall 1926 on “Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis.” He stopped teaching at The New School because of a charge of sexual misconduct.

In 1935, Watson’s wife died suddenly of pneumonia. That same year, he left his job at J. Walter Thompson to take a job as vice-president at the William Esty Agency, where he remained until he retired in 1945. He then lived in relative seclusion in rural Connecticut, and did not even attend an event to honor him for his contributions to modern psychology held in 1957 by the American Psychological Association. He burned his personal and research papers shortly before his death at a New York City medical facility in September 1958.



Kerry W. Buckley, Mechanical Man: John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism (New York: The Guilford Press, 1989).
Course Catalogs, The New School for Social Research

Peter Rutkoff and William B. Scott, New School: A History of the New School for Social Research (New York: The Free Press, 1986).