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Research Methods (9th edition)

John B. Watson (1878-1957) declared his famous behaviorist manifesto during an invited address at Columbia University in 1912. For some 3 decades, American psychology had been dominated by Wundt’s experimental psychology and Titchener’s structuralism. Although employing empirical laboratory research, the structuralists used subjective procedures that depended upon participants’ reports of their private conscious experiences (introspection). By about 1900-1910, some psychologists, such as Cattell and Thorndike, were speaking out for more objective methods in psychology. Watson, a young critic of subjective psychology, had a rapidly growing academic reputation for his research on animal behavior.

Watson’s behaviorist’s manifesto declared that psychology must become an objective science. He argued that observable behavior, and not subjective consciousness, was the proper content of psychology; objective observation and measurement, and not introspection, must become psychology’s methodologies. He maintained that Psychology should be the science of behavior and not the study of consciousness. His soon-to-be-famous article, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It, was published in the Psychological Review in 1913. Many psychologists agreed and, indeed, had thought this for years, but Watson was to become the great popularizer of objectivism. In 1915, Watson was elected president of the American Psychological Association.

Watson adopted Thorndike’s concept of connectionism (association) as the basic element in learning, and accepted Pavlov’s classical conditioning model as the essential manner in which those connections were made. In Watson’s thinking, stimulus-response (S-R) connections define almost all of human functioning. These connections are subject to the nature of the organisms’ environment. Therefore, by objectively applying S-R psychology to human functioning--that is, carefully controlling the environment--one can create any outcome desired for any individual. Human behavior, whether academic, artistic, commercial, neurotic, normal, or social, is mostly learned behavior. Watson’s extreme environmentalism later led him to declare:

…there is no real evidence for the inheritance of traits … Give me a dozen healthy infants, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee (to train them) to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief.  (Watson, 1924, pp. 103-104)

This was an exhilarating, egalitarian, positive, and thoroughly democratic view. It was eagerly accepted by Americans as the new, optimistic, uniquely American philosophy-of-life. Watson soon had thousands of admirers and became a highly popular celebrity.

Watson’s research was carried out mainly on animals, both in the laboratory and in natural environments. In 1914, he published Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. The book was highly influential, particularly for younger psychologists, and gave considerable impetus to the continuing development of animal psychology. It continued to define psychology as an objective science of behavior, and to argue against such subjective concepts and procedures as consciousness and introspection. 

In his book, Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919), Watson continued to define behaviorism and to argue that the principles derived from the study of animals could be applied to human functioning. Watson was truly a functionalist and believed that psychology must be applied to practical issues of human life. By this time, Watson was chairperson of the Psychology Department at Johns Hopkins, had been elected president of the APA, and had written several influential books. He had become a famous psychologist.

One of Watson’s best-known studies was the conditioning of fear in a child, Albert. What Watson demonstrated was that a fear could be learned (conditioned) according to Pavlovian principles of conditioning. Watson believed this was a prototype of acquired fears and that he had discovered how this important and debilitating experience (fear) is developed by humans. Unfortunately, when he was ready to try to remove the fear through deconditioning, little Albert had already left the area, and was not available. 

It was his graduate student, Mary Cover Jones (1924), who then carried out the classical research on deconditioning a child’s fears. In this case, the child was afraid of rabbits. Jones discovered that out of several systematic approaches, the one that worked was a gradual exposure of the rabbit to the child. This was a graduated desensitization procedure. It was a precursor to behavior therapy, which developed some 35 years later. It was a classic study, and the earliest laboratory demonstration of successful desensitization of a fear response.

Already famous, Watson soon became notorious because of his highly publicized divorce on the grounds of a reported affair with one of his graduate students (whom he later married). His conduct was considered to be so immoral that Johns Hopkins University dismissed him from his academic position of twelve years, despite his academic success and eminence. Watson then entered the advertising industry, where he soon rose to high executive positions and soaring incomes, far above those of his academic critics.

Although no longer associated with universities, he continued his writing. Behaviorism, published in 1925, outlined Watson’s proposals for improving human society by applying modern psychology. This was quickly followed in 1928 by Psychological Care of the Infant and Child--Watson’s prescriptions for child rearing in the behaviorist’s manner. This book became highly popular and influenced countless parents. Given his emphasis on objectivity, extreme environmentalism, and classical conditioning, Watson’s child-rearing advice was for prescriptive, objective, and at the same time, kindly treatment of children. He advised parents to be kind, be firm, be objective and not emotional, and to always recognize a child’s good behavior: Watson wrote:

Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug or kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task…(Watson, 1928, pp. 81-82).

Watson proclaimed his approach to all child rearing and willingly gave his advice  to all parents, even though he had no child development research program. He had some data about some childhood behavior (specifically the conditioning of fear reactions), but no overall study of the subject of child development. In this respect, we might compare Watson with Freud, who spun out his ideas about child development and had enormous impact on society, despite never having had a single child to study as his client.

Watson enjoyed a large popular following. His appeal seems to have been based on his enthusiastic heralding of a new society, based on science instead of superstition and myth--a society in which any person, regardless of his or her station in life or genetic ancestry, could potentially reach any goal. This suggested a true democracy and a humanitarian future, all within our reach, if we act with reason and objectivity. A generation later, B. F. Skinner, deeply influenced by Watson, would enlarge on the new society in his famous book Walden Two.

Watson had an enormous impact on the field of Psychology:

  1. He was a major force in the functionalist movement that came to define American psychology. He pushed the field toward a sharper focus on the organism-environment interaction--the study of the function of organisms in their environments. Like Witmer, he viewed psychology as a profession with unique potential for application of psychological science to help solve real-world problems.
  2. Watson advanced the psychological study of animals (comparative psychology), not only in laboratory experimentation, but also in naturalistic observational studies.
  3. Watson is known as “the Father of Behaviorism.” He followed the path created by Darwin and continued by Thorndike and Pavlov. 
  4. Watson not only reinforced the concepts of conditioning, but was the great popularizer of behaviorism as the scientific alternative to earlier mentalistic, subjective approaches. His work stimulated the growth of behaviorism and its later applied offshoots in education, psychology, and medicine. Behaviorism dominated psychology from about 1930-1980 and its influence is still strong. It produced a huge body of significant research and widely adopted applied innovations, such as programmed learning, behavior modification, and cognitive-behavior therapy.

Watson’s greatest weakness was inseparable from his strength. That is, his success in popularizing behaviorism was at the cost of going far beyond his data, making sweeping claims about the power of conditioning in everyday life, without proper empirical support and without considering other factors, such as physiological and sensory processes. His advice on child rearing, for example, seems to have been more based on his own sad upbringing than on any overall research program in child development. 

In a famous debate in 1925, William McDougall (1871-1938) and Watson argued their opposing positions. McDougall criticized Watson for denying, not only consciousness, but also sensory and perceptual experiences. Also, McDougall argued that Watson’s reduction of all human behavior to S-R connections and the deterministic control of the environment and past learning allowed no room for freedom of choice or free will. We can see in this famous debate, the anticipation of Skinner’s book, nearly 50 years later (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971). 

Had Watson maintained that classical conditioning was one important type of learning that seemed to describe and explain some human and animal behavior, he would have been on solid ground. But Watson, in his popular stand, came very close to saying it is the only significant basis for human learning.

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