John Broadus Watson Biography (1878-1958)


Watson was an important leader of the behaviorist school of psychology who laid out its basic principles, publicized it, and influenced many people to enter the field of psychology.

Watson was born on January 9, 1878, in Greenville, South Carolina. His mother, Emma Kesiah Watson, was a devout Christian, and his father, Pickens ButlerWatson, abused alcohol and abandoned his family when Watson was 12. In high school, Watson was an indifferent student, and he was arrested twice. He received his Master's degree from Furman College in 1900 and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1903 when he was 25. A year later he married Mary Amelia Ickes, one of his students. They had two children, Mary and John. BecauseWatson was a womanizer, this consequently ruined the marriage.

After he graduated from the University of Chicago, Watson stayed on to teachand to study the behavior of rats. In 1908, he moved to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he soon became department chair when the man whohired him was caught in a bordello during a police raid. At Johns Hopkins, Watson set up a laboratory to run psychological experiments, and he continued his studies of animal behavior. He also began to study the behavior of small children.

In 1913, Watson published a famous article, "Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It," in Psychological Review. His article distinguished behaviorismfrom other schools of psychology and codified its main beliefs. Behavioristsstudied observable animal and human behaviors, not states of consciousness which were difficult to verify. Behaviorists were objective, instead of relyingon subjective descriptions of an individual's mental states. Behaviorists also tried to predict and control animal and human behaviors. Watson's articlewas a described as lucid and eloquent manifesto for behaviorism. In 1914, hepublished a major work, Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. He became president of the American Psychological Association in 1915.

With a student collaborator, Rosalie Rayner, Watson conducted one of his best-known experiments on Albert B., an eleven-month-old child. Watson and Raynerconditioned the child to fear rats and other furry animals. They placed a white rat by Albert B., and when he reached for it, they scared him with a loudnoise. They repeated this sequence of actions several times, which conditioned Albert to cry every time he saw the rat. Albert also began to associate the scary noise with any furry thing, including dogs, rabbits, fur coats, and cotton balls. Based on this experiment and others like it, Watson claimed in 1924 that he could take a child at random and, by controlling the environment,he could condition the child to grow up to be a doctor, artist, or thief. Later in his life, Watson would be less optimistic about the powers of behaviorism.

Watson's womanizing caught up with him in 1920. His wife, Mary, found a loveletter from Rosalie Rayner in one of his pockets, and she later obtained a number of his love letters to Rayner. Mary had suffered Watson's love affairs before, so she confronted her husband, telling him to stop seeing Rayner. Watson refused. Mary filed for divorce with irrefutable evidence of his philandering. In the resulting scandal, Watson had to resign his position at Johns Hopkins, an action that left him bitter.

Watson landed on his feet, however. He moved to New York City, became a vicepresident in the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, and made a huge salary that enabled him to live on a country estate. He also married Rosalie Rayner, and they had two sons, William and James. He continued to publish, and in1925 he published a popular book, Behaviorism, and in 1928, he published Psychological Care of Infant and Child.

In 1935, Rosalie died at the age of 35. One of his sons said that Watson never recovered from her death. In that same year, he left J. Walter Thompson foranother company, where he worked until he retired in 1946. In 1957, Watson received the gold medal from the American Psychological Association for his contributions to psychology. He died in New York City on September 25, 1958, atthe age of 80.

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