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John Broadus WatsonJohn Broadus Watson

psychologist who argued that psychologists should devote themselves exclusively to studying the behavior, rather than the mind or mental activity, of organisms

John Broadus Watson was born into a poor family in Greenville, South Carolina, on January 9, 1878. His father was an abusive alcoholic who frequently cheated on his mother and was often in trouble with the law, and for a time John was in danger of following in his father's footsteps. That danger subsided when his father left the house and never came back; John was about 13 years old at the time.

Accepted into Furman University at the age of 16, Watson received his Master's Degree from there in 1900. He received his Doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of Chicago in 1903, making him the youngest person ever to earn a PhD from Chicago at that time. He spent the next five years at Chicago, first as an assistant and then as a teacher.

In 1904, Watson married Mary Amelia Ickes, with whom he had one daughter and one son. Although he had managed to avoid following in his father's criminal footsteps, Watson did pick up his father's womanizing habits. His many affairs with students led to much gossip on the University of Chicago campus and to his marriage being jeopardized. University officials were prepared to fire Watson, but he chose to leave Chicago rather than risk further damage and became a professor of experimental and comparative psychology at Johns Hopkins University, in 1908. Soon after his arrival at Johns Hopkins he was also named director of the university's psychological laboratory.

For his doctoral dissertation, Watson studied the relation between behavior in a white rat and the growth of its nervous system. He continued that research while at Johns Hopkins, and in so doing eventually came up with an entirely new field of psychology. After studying the biology, physiology, and behavior of various animals, as well as the behavior of human children, Watson concluded that, while humans are more complicated than other animals, they operate on the same principles. He further determined that all animals are extremely complex machines that respond to situations according to their "wiring" -- nerve pathways that have been conditioned by experience. He also dismissed heredity as a significant factor in shaping human behavior. In 1913, he published his findings in an article entitled "Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It," and the field of behavioral psychology was born. He went on to publish two major books on the subject -- Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (1914) and Pscyhology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919). In his articles and books, Watson argued that psychologists should devote themselves exclusively to studying the behavior, rather than the mind or mental activity, of organisms, and that the task of psychology was to predict and control human behavior. Watson's most famous experiment in behavioral psychology was performed in 1920, on an 11-month-old child called Little Albert. During the experiment, Watson conditioned the child to fear a variety of furry animals, in addition to his initial fears of loud noises and rats.

Watson's career at Johns Hopkins was abruptly cut short in 1920, after his wife learned that he had been having an affair with one of his research associates, Rosalie Rayner, and sued him for divorce. The scandal was too much for Johns Hopkins, and Watson was asked to resign. He and Rosalie subsequently married, moved to New York City, and eventually had two sons.

With his psychology career at an end, Watson decided to try the advertising business, and by 1924 had become vice president at J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest ad agencies in the country. In 1935 he became an advertising executive at the William Esty Company, from which he retired in 1946. Although he no longer practiced psychology, Watson continued to publish major books and articles on the subject, including: Behaviorism (1925), Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928), and a revision of Behaviorism (1930). Watson's life took a dramatic downturn in 1935, when Rosalie died at the age of 35. He soon began drinking heavily and became a workaholic, and his relationship with his children was all but destroyed. One son committed suicide in 1954, and, in 1958, Watson became so depressed that he burned all of his unpublished works.

John Broadus Watson died in New York City on September 25, 1958.

A Science Odyssey

Johns Hopkins University

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This page was last updated on December 23, 2016.

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