Watson, John B. (1878–1958)

The details of John B. Watson's contributions to developmental and CHILD PSYCHOLOGY are largely unknown to modern psychologists, who see little of them beyond textbook summaries. Based on an objective, empirical foundation, the best early twentieth-century research in developmental physiology, and his own work with animals, Watson adopted a life-span developmental approach which emphasized combining observational research with laboratory work employing the precision of Pavlovian principles. Watson was one of the first psychologists to argue for the impressive cognitive competence of infants, question the prevailing prejudice of inevitable intellectual decline in old age, and, unlike other pioneering developmentalists such as G. STANLEY HALL, JEAN PIAGET, and ARNOLD GESELL, explicitly reject Ernst Haeckel's discredited recapitulation theory and its questionable behavioral implications.

The origins of Watson's developmental viewpoint can be traced to his earliest work with animals. His dissertation, Animal Education (1903), an analysis of the relationship between brain and behavior development in rats, suggested to Watson that infant humans, like infant rats, were not the passive, cognitively limited organisms that some of his contemporaries suggested. His extensive ethological and laboratory studies of seabirds (The Behavior of Noddy and Sooty Terns, 1908), monkeys (Notes on the Development of a Young Monkey, 1913), and other organisms convinced him of the importance of early experience to the development of adult behavior (a position which paralleled Freud's in some ways) as well as the impossibility of fully understanding learned behavior without also understanding unlearned capabilities.

After 1917, Watson's research shifted from animals to humans. Focusing on unlearned behavior and emotional development, his interests included reflexes, thinking, language acquisition, and handedness. Although he argued that there was little good evidence supporting inherited differences in intelligence and other tendencies based on race and similar factors, Watson never claimed that all behavior was learned. Watson is usually portrayed as a naïve environmentalist who claimed that if given a dozen healthy babies, he could turn them into anything he wanted. But he regarded the study of unlearned behavior in humans as basic to understanding learning and behavior development. A clever debater, his famous "dozen health infants" statement, which seems to assert complete environmentalism, was actually a rhetorical device for revealing the unscientific foundations of early twentieth-century hereditarianism. A Darwinian, Watson believed that the primacy of learning over complex instinctual behavior in humans was an inherited, adaptive characteristic in which complex functional behaviors were conditioned though Pavlovian processes from simple unlearned behaviors.

For Watson, emotional development also consisted of building complex behaviors through conditioning from simpler reactions–in this case, newborns' unlearned reactions of fear, rage, and love. The so-called Little Albert Experiment (where Watson conditioned an eleven-month-old infant to show fear at the sign of a white rat) suggested that new emotional reactions could be conditioned via Pavlovian associations. Research by M. C. Jones (1924a, 1924b), supervised by Watson, showed that emotional responses might be unconditioned using a technique now known as "systematic desensitization." While his theory as a whole was considered an oversimplification, the concept of emotional conditioning was accepted broadly and serves as the basis of modern therapies for anxiety disorders.

A good Progressive, Watson believed in applying scientific findings to social problems. Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919) and Behaviorism (1924, revised 1930) contained large sections on developmental topics. Articles on child behavior in Harpers, McCalls, and Cosmopolitan, as well as advice dispensed by radio, broadened his audience. Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928) is remembered primarily for suggesting that emotional attachment between children and parents breeds overdependency. However, Watson also warned of the negative effects of corporal punishment, allayed unfounded Victorian-era fears about MASTURBATION, and advocated an open approach about sexual issues–a view derived from extensive studies of the effectiveness of SEX EDUCATION in preventing venerealdisease.

Watson stopped publishing broadly in 1930. For over thirty years research on conditioning principles dominated behaviorism. Eventually, the successful application of Skinnerian behavioral principles to developmental disabilities in the 1950s reinvigorated a behavioral life-span approach to developmental psychology. The "behavior analysis of child development" has become a major component of modern behavior analysis.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Spock, Benjamin.


Bijou, S. W., and D. M. Baer. 1961. Child Development I: A Systematic and Empirical Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bijou, S. W., and D. M. Baer. 1965. Child Development II: The Universal Stage of Infancy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Buckley, K. W. 1989. Mechanical Man: John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism. New York: Guilford Press.

Jones, M. C. 1924a. "The Elimination of Children's Fears." Journalof Experimental Psychology 7: 383–390.

Jones, M. C. 1924b. "A Laboratory Study of Fear: The Case of Peter." Pedagogical Seminary 31: 308–315.

Todd, James T., and E. K. Morris, eds. 1994. Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Watson, John B. 1914. Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

Watson, John B. 1930. Behaviorism, rev. ed. New York: People's Institute.