A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Watson launches behaviorist school of psychology

As a doctoral student and professor of psychology, John Watson studied the behavior of animals. He especially was interested in stimulus-response reactions to various situations, such as rats going through a maze. He took the notion of conditioned reflexes developed by Ivan Pavlov and applied it to the study of behavior.

Watson first presented his ideas at psychological meetings between 1908 and 1912, and by 1912 was using the term "behaviorist." The following year he published an article, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," that introduced this distinct new branch of psychology. It has often been called "the behaviorist manifesto."

"Psychology as the behaviorist views it," Watson wrote, "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 on the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness."

These ideas may not have been startlingly original, but they were stated with startling flair. At a time when science and anything scientific seemed to win automatic approval, Watson's replacement of intangibles like consciousness and mental states with objectivity and hard data captivated many. In 1915, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association.

In 1916, he began observing infant humans; until then he had drawn comparisons between animals and humans, but hadn't experimented with them. World War I interrupted his work but by 1918 he was back at it. His most famous experiment was conducted in the winter of 1919 and 1920 with a baby known as Albert B. Watson and his assistant gave Albert a white lab rat; he was unafraid and tried to touch the rat. He was afraid, however, when they clanged metal with a hammer just behind his head, and he cried. A few months later, when Albert was 11 months old, they again gave him the rat, but this time just as he touched it, the metal clang sounded behind his head. That made him cry. This was repeated several times over a few weeks. Before long just the sight of the rat made Albert cry and try to crawl away. In fact, any furry item -- a stuffed toy, a fur coat, even a Santa Claus mask -- made Albert cry and be afraid. The experiment successfully showed the behaviorist idea of association in a higher order animal. Such an experiment would not be permitted with current ethical standards, especially since the researchers never "deconditioned" Albert.

Behaviorism came to be widely accepted among psychologists and the general public, becoming the dominant view from the 1920s through the 1960s. It was an especially strong rebuttal to the views pushed by the eugenics movement, which claimed that heredity was the primary force determining a person's potential and behavior. Behaviorism, with its promise of the possibility of change, and even improvement, fit in well with the American Dream. It was egalitarian -- its principles worked for everyone.

Watson's own rather extreme version of behaviorism has been refined over the years. In the 1950s and 1960s, B.F. Skinner pursued behaviorism with the view of improving the human condition, for example, and others since have applied behaviorism as a tool in an array of psychological approaches.

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