J. B. Watson

J. B. Watson via Wikipedia

J. B. Watson (John Broadus, 1878-1958 ) was an American psychologist who developed the work of the influential Russian, Ivan Pavlov. He established the school of Behaviorism.

Watson’s work has been criticized by depth psychologists, writers and theologians, alike. But his defenders might say he was reacting to the introspective (and arguably unscientific) psychoanalysis of his time.

Watson believed that given the right conditions, a person could become almost anything. That is, Watson emphasized observable environmental factors and (apparently) related behavior.

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.¹

This bias dominated American psychology into the 1950s. But the rise of genetics and other, philosophical and theologically-based approaches threw Watson’s ideas into question.

Still, there are two points to keep in mind:

  • Nurture (as opposed to nature or, for that matter, spirit)  remains an important factor in human development
  • Watson was being scientific by admitting that he was extrapolating from observation

In other words, Watson wasn’t completely wrong. However, many say he overlooks the importance of inherited traits, the mind, free will, grace, not to mention animal and human rights.

The literary lion Aldous Huxley spoke out against Watson and his followers.

For practical or theoretical reasons, dictators, Organization Men and certain scientists are anxious to reduce the maddening diversity of men’s natures to some kind of manageable uniformity. In the first flush of his Behaviouristic fervour, J. B. Watson roundly declared that he could find “no support for hereditary patterns of behaviour, nor for special abilities (music, art, etc.) which are supposed to run in families.” And even today we find a distinguished psychologist, Professor B.F. Skinner of Harvard, insisting that, “as scientific explanation becomes more and more comprehensive, the contribution which may be claimed by the individual himself appears to approach zero. Man’s vaunted creative powers, his achievements in art, science and morals, his capacity to choose and our right to hold him responsible for the consequences of his choice – none of these is conspicuous in the new scientific self-portrait.²

SimonTheLabRat-EmergingFromCan by Michael Pereckas via Flickr

Watson’s academic career came to a stop when scandal broke out over his having an affair with his student, Rosalie Rayner. Not surprisingly, he moved to and excelled in advertising.

Watson has been lampooned for raising his kids on a strict, authoritarian schedule, apparently devoid of affection as if they were lab rats. And he did a controlled experiment on at least one human being, a particularly notorious page in his career.³

To add to his notoriety, his son William committed suicide at age 40. But as any responsible scientist will say, this tragic event cannot be directly attributed to upbringing. The two variables of William’s unusual upbringing and his suicide are a correlation, and not necessarily causal.4

Watson destroyed a significant amount of personal notes and letters before his own death, making historical reconstruction of this provocative psychologist somewhat difficult.

¹ John B. Watson, Behaviorism (revised) University of Chicago Press, 1930, p. 82

² Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, 1958, cited by Brad in “The Long Dark Night of Behaviorism” at Psych 101 REVISITED » http://robothink.blogspot.com/2005/09/long-dark-night-of-behaviorism.html

³ See the “Little Albert” experiment – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Watson#.22Little_Albert.22_experiment_.281920.29

4 We often hear in the news that something is “linked” to something else, especially in psychology and psychiatry. However, if researchers (or reporters) do not say “may be linked,” chances are they’re directly or indirectly misleading the public. This is especially pernicious because the laity, who are not experts, often assume that these grandiose scientific statements carry some kind of absolute authority. And this can exacerbate psychological suffering for those at the butt end of what arguably is a fancy kind of abuse and bullying.


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