John Watson

Born in Greenville, S Carolina, Watson was a student of both Angell and Loeb but was greatly influenced by the writings of Pavlov. Applying the principles of classical conditioning to all learning, Watson became the focal point of behaviorism.

From white rats in mazes to “Little Albert,” Watson emphasized S-R conditioning. Ignoring high mental processes altogether, Watson explained all behavior in terms of stimulus-response.

Although he initially allowed for three innate emotions (fear, rage and love), Watson generally denied the influence of heredity on behavior. He initially maintained that some instincts are present, changed to their appearing only in infants, and finally rejected instincts completely. Watson also rejected Thorndike’s law of effect (too subjective), and proposed that thinking was nothing more than subvocalized speech.

Watson’s emphasis on S-R connections has not lasted as long as his insistence on observable behavior. Describing the mind as a mystery box, Watson directed psychology’s attention away from speculative theories to experimental observations.

Watson differentiated between overt learned behavior (talking, etc.), and overt unlearned behavior (digestion, etc.). He characterized thinking as covert learned behavior; covert because it was subvocalized, learned because it was speech. Last, reflexes represented covert and unlearned behavior.

In an attempt to apply behaviorism to practical problems, Watson proposed “experimental ethics,” a classical conditioning rehabilitation program for inmates. Assuming that personality was nothing more than a collection of habits, Watson’s program aimed to change habitual antisocial behaviors.

In 1920, Watson achieved fame of a different sort. Sued by his wife for divorce (he had been having an affair with his lab assistant, Rosalie Raynor), Watson was forced to resign from Johns Hopkins. He turned to commercial advertising and pioneered the area of marketing research.

Here’s a video lecture on Pavlov and Watson.


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