John B. Watson: Founder of Behaviorism

John Broadus Watson was born on January 9th, 1878, in South Carolina. Watson’s father left the family when he was just thirteen years old, forcing Watson to grow up on a farm in poverty and isolation. Watson claimed he was a poor and unruly student as a child, and that he seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps of a life ruled by recklessness and violence. At the age of sixteen, however, Watson enrolled at Furman University.

Watson would graduate five years later and move on to the University of Chicago to earn a doctorate degree in psychology and philosophy. By 1903, Watson had dropped philosophy and received his Ph.D. in psychology. In 1908, he began teaching at Johns Hopkins University as a professor of experimental and comparative psychology.

By this time, Watson was already beginning to form ideas on what would later become a completely new branch of psychology: behaviorism. Inspired by the work of Ivan Pavlov, Watson began studying physiology, biology, animal behavior, and the behavior of children. Watson believed that children operated on the same principles that animals did, though they were simply more complicated beings. Watson concluded that every animal was a very complex machine that responded to situations based on its “wiring,” the nerve pathways that had been conditioned through experience.

In 1913, Watson gave a lecture at Columbia University called “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.” This lecture called for an extreme revision of the methods of research in psychology, abandoning introspection for the study of behavior and calling for behavior to be evaluated separately from consciousness. He called for psychology to not make distinctions between animal and human behavior and for it to be an objective, natural science where one could develop principles by which behavior could not only be predicted, but also controlled. In addition, Watson dismissed the idea that a significant factor in behavior was heredity and disagreed with the structural ideas of Sigmund Freud. This lecture was later published as an article in the Psychological Review that same year and would become known as the “behaviorist manifesto.” 

Watson worked at Johns Hopkins University until 1920, when he was asked to resign because of an affair he was having with his research associate. By 1924, with his wealth of knowledge in human behavior and psychology, Watson went into advertising and became vice president at one of the largest advertising agencies in the United States, J. Walter Thompson.

Watson spent the last five years of his life living as a recluse on a farm in Connecticut, and his already troubled relationship with his children grew worse. Shortly before dying, Watson burned many of his letters and unpublished papers. He died on September 25th, 1958.