John Watson and Behaviorism: Theory & Experiment

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  • 0:01 John Watson's Life
  • 0:50 The Roots of Behaviorism
  • 2:28 The Core of Watson's Work
  • 3:13 The Little Albert Experiment
  • 4:31 The Influence of Watson's Work
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gary Gilles

Gary has a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology and has been teaching and developing courses in higher education since 1988.

John B. Watson was a pioneering figure in the development of the psychological school of behaviorism. Learn how the discipline of behaviorism started and how it has profoundly changed the way we live our lives in the modern era.

John Watson's Life

John B. Watson, American Psychologist

John Broadus Watson, who lived from 1879 to 1958, was an American psychologist who is considered the father of the psychological school of behaviorism. He was raised in South Carolina by a mother with strict religious standards and an alcoholic father who abandoned John and his mother when John was only 13 years old. Watson struggled academically and was arrested twice during high school. Yet despite these troubles and his own admission that he was a poor student, Watson entered Furman College at age 16 and emerged with a Master's degree five years later. He eventually completed a doctorate in Psychology at the University of Chicago in 1903 and went on to teach at John Hopkins University in 1908.

The Roots of Behaviorism

By the time Watson began teaching at Johns Hopkins, the official discipline of psychology was barely 30 years old, having started in Europe in 1879. Watson was one of the early American psychologists to break the Freudian notions that our unconscious mind was behind most of our behavior. These ideas were quickly gaining acceptance among psychologists in Europe and later in the United States. Watson made his most memorable declaration against Freud's theory at a lecture he delivered in 1913 at Columbia University titled 'Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.' This lecture established Watson as a pioneer of a new school of thought that would later become known as behaviorism.

Behaviorism, according to Watson, was the science of observable behavior. Only behavior that could be observed, recorded and measured was of any real value for the study of humans or animals. Watson's thinking was significantly influenced by the earlier classical conditioning experiments of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov and his now infamous dogs.

Watson's behaviorism rejected the concept of the unconscious and the internal mental state of a person because it was not observable and was subject to the psychologist's subjective interpretation. For example, Freud would ask his patients to tell him their dreams. He would then interpret the dreams and analyze what these dreams were indicating in the person's life. Watson found this emphasis on introspection and subjective interpretation to be very unscientific and unhelpful in understanding behavior.

The Core of Watson's Work

Watson is best known for taking his theory of behaviorism and applying it to child development. He believed strongly that a child's environment is the factor that shapes behaviors over their genetic makeup or natural temperament. Watson is famous for saying that he could take a 'dozen healthy infants... and train any one of them to become any type of specialist he might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief.' In other words, he believed that you can expose the child to certain environmental forces and, over time, condition that child to become any type of person you want. As you might imagine, this was radical thinking and a type of behavioral control that many people were not comfortable with at that time.

The Little Albert Experiment

Little Albert experiment with John Watson and Rosalie Rayner

In his most famous and controversial experiment, Watson put his theory on conditioning to the test. The experiment became known as the 'Little Albert' experiment. It involved an 11-month-old boy who was allowed to play with various animals, such as rats and rabbits, that he was not initially afraid of. But with repeated exposure, Watson and his assistant and wife, Rosalie Rayner, began pairing the animal contact with a loud clanging noise. When he touched an animal, the frightening noise sounded. Over time, they conditioned 'Little Albert' to be afraid of the animals. Watson believed that this proved that emotions could become conditioned responses.

Unfortunately, Watson did not remove the conditioning he instilled in 'Little Albert' and many wondered how the experiment affected the boy as he grew up. Many years later it was discovered that 'Little Albert' died at the age of six from hydrocephalus, a condition where fluid builds up inside the skull. In looking back, psychologists today view Watson's experiment as unethical because of the fear he instilled in the child in conducting the experiment and his lack of effort to undo the conditioned fear. Ethical guidelines in place today would never permit such an experiment to be performed.

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