A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

John Watson
1878 - 1958

John Watson was born in South Carolina in 1878 and grew up on a farm. His father left the family when John was about 13. Watson claimed to have been unruly and a poor student as a youngster, and by all accounts he seemed destined to follow his father's model of violence and recklessness. But he had ambition, a certain courage, and considerable skill at self-promotion: He entered Furman University at age 16. He received a masters degree after five years and went on to the University of Chicago to pursue a doctorate in psychology and philosophy. Along the way, he dropped the philosophy and received his PhD in psychology in 1903. Five years later, Johns Hopkins University appointed him professor of experimental and comparative psychology.

By then Watson had already formed ideas that would become a whole branch of psychology: behaviorism. He studied the biology, physiology, and behavior of animals, inspired by the recent work of Ivan Pavlov. He began studying the behavior of children, as well, concluding that humans were simply more complicated than animals but operated on the same principles. All animals, he believed, were extremely complex machines that responded to situations according to their "wiring," or nerve pathways that were conditioned by experience. In 1913, he published an article outlining his ideas and essentially establishing a new school of psychology. It was new because Watson disagreed with Freud and found the latter's views on human behavior philosophical to the point of mysticism. He also dismissed heredity as a significant factor in shaping human behavior.

Watson's research on animals and children was interrupted by World War I. He served as a psychologist, but came away with a distaste for the military. He remained at Johns Hopkins until 1920 when his academic career came to an abrupt end. He had an affair with a research associate, he and his wife divorced, and the university asked him to resign. He took his knowledge of psychology and human behavior where it would be used -- the advertising industry. By 1924, he was vice president at J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest ad agencies in the United States.

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