Watson was raised in Greenville, South Carolina and attended Furman University. He was a precocious student, entering college at age 16 and leaving with a masters degree at age 21. He spent a year as a principal for grade school, then entered the University of Chicago to study philosophy with John Dewey on the recommendation of Furman professor, Gordon Moore, who had spent a sabbatical year there. Watson claimed he did not understand what Dewey was talking about. He sought out a different advisor and settled on functionalist psychologist James Rowland Angell and physiologist Henry Donaldson. He had considered working on the physiology of the dog's brain with Jacques Loeb, who at that time was one of the most famous biologists in the U.S. and a major proponent of the view that life and the behavior of living organisms could be explained entirely by chemistry and physics without recourse to a supposed "vital force." Accordingly, Loeb taught that all behavior was dictated by instinct and learned responses to stimuli.
The combined influence of Dewey, Angell, Donaldson, and Loeb led Watson to develop a highly descriptive, objective approach to the analysis of behavior that he would later call "behaviorism." Watson's behaviorism is typically considered a historical descendent of British empiricism, and particularly the views of John Locke. However, Watson said nothing substantive about these things. His philosophy of science is more accurately traced to the history of experimental physiology through the influence of Loeb. The reflex studies of Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov (1829-1905) and Vladimir Bekhterev (1857-1927) were particularly influential. Later, Watson became interested in the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), and eventually included a highly simplified version of Pavlov's principles in his popular works.
Watson graduated from the University of Chicago in 1903. His dissertation "Animal Education": An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated with the Growth of its Nervous System," is the first modern scientific book on rat behavior. It has been described as a "classic of developmental psychobiology" by historian of psychology, Donald Dewsbury. "Animal Education" described the relationship between brain myelinization and learning ability in rats at different ages. Watson showed that the degree of myelinization was largely unrelated to learning ability. Watson stayed at the University of Chicago for several years doing research on the relationship between sensory input and learning and bird behavior.
In 1913, Watson published what is sometimes considered his most important work, the article "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It"--sometimes called "The Behaviorist Manifesto." In this article, Watson outlined the major features of his new philosophy of psychology, called "behaviorism." The first paragraph of the article concisely described Watson's behaviorist position:
Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist's total scheme of investigation.
The "manifesto" is notable for its lack of reference to specific principles of behavior. In 1913, Watson viewed Ivan Pavlov's conditioned reflex as being primarily a physiological mechanism controlling glandular secretions. He had already rejected Edward L. Thorndike's "Law of Effect," a precursor to B. F. Skinner's principle of reinforcement, due to what Watson believed were unnecessary subjective elements. It was not until 1916 that Watson would recognize the more general significance of Pavlov's formulation and make it the subject of his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. The lack of a specific mechanism of behavior caused Watson's colleagues to dismiss "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It" as philosophical speculation without much foundation. The article only became well-known to psychologists generally after it started to be widely cited in introductory psychology textbooks in the 1950s. The article is also notable for its strong defense of the objective scientific status of applied psychology, which at the time was considered to be much inferior to the established structuralist experimental psychology.
Watson's theory of thinking as consisting of "subvocal speech" was also introduced in the article. However, its addition was more of an afterthought as it appeared in a series of extended footnotes, not in the body of the article itself. Watson seems to have added the footnote because another article on subvocal speech by Anna Wyczoikowska was to appear in the same issue of the "Psychological Review." The theory of thinking as subvocal speech was not original to Watson. About 15 years earlier, H. S. Curtis had attempted to measure movements of the larynx during thinking.
With his behaviorism, Watson put the emphasis on external behavior of people and their reactions on given situations, rather than the internal, mental state of those people. In his opinion, the analysis of behaviors and reactions was the only objective method to get insight in the human actions. This outlook, combined with the complimentary ideas of determinism, evolutionary continuism, and empiricism has contributed to what is now called radical behaviorism.
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 beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years. [Behaviourism (1930), p. 82]''
The last sentence is usually left out, making Watson's position appear more radical than it actually was. Watson had, in fact, done extensive ethological studies of the instinctive behavior of animals early in his career, particularly sea birds. Nevertheless, Watson strongly sided with nurture in the nature versus nurture discussion.
Although he wrote extensively on childrearing in many popular magazines and in a book, "Psychological Care of Infant and Child" (1928), he later regretted having written in the area saying that "he did not know enough" to do a good job. Watson's advice to treat children with respect, but with relative emotional detachment, has been strongly criticized. But this perspective was not unique to Watson. It is also associated with psychoanalytic thinkers who worried that too much emotional attachment in childhood would lead to overly dependent adults. (Watson's borrowing from Sigmund Freud and other early psychoanalysts remains an unexamined aspect of his behaviorism.) Not commonly mentioned by modern critics, is that Watson warned strongly against the use of spanking and other corporal punishment.
In October 1920, Watson was asked to leave his faculty position at Johns Hopkins University because of the publicity surrounding the affair he was having with his graduate student assistant Rosalie Rayner and because of his refusal to send her abroad until things have quieted down. At the time, Watson was married to Mary Ickes (sister of Harold L. Ickes, who would later become Secretary of the Interior to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt).
Watson's affair had become front-page news during divorce proceedings, and Baltimore newspapers published excerpts from some of Watson's love letters to Rayner. Mary had feigned illness during a dinner party involving the Rayner and Ickes families so that she could have unfettered access to Rayner's bedroom.
Watson and Rayner later married.
Thanks to contacts provided by an academic colleague, Watson subsequently began working for U.S. advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. He learned the advertising business' many facets at ground level, including a stint working as a shoe salesman in an upscale department store. Despite this modest start, in less than two years Watson had risen to a vice-presidency at Thompson. His executive's salary, plus bonuses from various successful ad campaigns, resulted in an income many times higher than his academic salary. Watson headed a number of high-profile advertising campaigns, particularly for Ponds cold cream and other personal-care products. He has been widely but erroneously credited with re-introducing the "testimonial" advertisement after the tool had fallen out of favor (due to its association with ineffective and dangerous patent medicines). However, testimonial advertisements had been in use for years before Watson entered advertising. Watson stated that he was not making original contributions, but was just doing what was normal practice in advertising.
A large body of rumors circulate about Watson's dismissal from Johns Hopkins University, particularly that Watson was fired for conducting research on the human sexual response with Rosalie Rayner. No evidence for these rumors has publicly surfaced. The stories can be directly traced to fanciful, highly anachronistic stories about Watson included by the late University of Michigan psychologist James McConnell in several editions of his "Understanding Human Behavior" textbook, and his "Worms and Things" newsletter.
Watson stopped writing for popular audiences in 1936, and retired from advertising at about age 65. He is credited with creating the "coffee break" during an ad campaign for Maxwell House coffee. Rosalie Rayner had died in 1935 at age 36. He lived on a farm with a female companion for the last years of his life. Rumored to be a heavy drinker, Watson actually gave up alcohol on the advice of his physician and enjoyed good health well into old age. He died in 1958 at age 80, shortly after receiving a citation from the American Psychological Association for his contributions to psychology. Historian John Burnham interviewed Watson late in life, and reported him to be a man of (still) strong opinions and some bitterness towards his detractors. Except for a set of reprints of his academic works, Watson burned his very large collection of letters and personal papers, thus depriving historians of a valuable resource for understanding the early history of behaviorism and of Watson himself.
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