John B. Watson in Popular Psychology

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1878, John Broadus Watson eventually became one of the most influential figures in American psychology, despite a relatively short academic career and very little significant research. His influence comes as a result of an idea, most fully expressed in his 1913 paper, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.”

In this paper, Watson argued that the proper subject matter of psychology is overt, observable behavior, whereas mental and emotional phenomena, which cannot be directly and objectively observed, should form no part of the new science. Indeed, he suggested that psychologists’ preoccupation with consciousness might prevent psychology from truly becoming a science. Instead, the behaviorist should concern himself only with stimulus-response connections. Watson believed that human behavior was entirely predictable, given sufficient knowledge of the individual’s history of stimuli and responses. He famously expressed this by claiming that, given full charge of a dozen healthy infants, he could provide the learning experiences necessary to produce any sort of person desired—doctor, lawyer, even criminal.

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His most famous experiment was his demonstration that emotional experiences could be produced through classical conditioning (also known as respondent conditioning, see Pavlov, Ivan). This demonstration involved a baby (forever known in the psychological literature as Little Albert), a loud noise, and a white rat. Albert enjoyed playing with the laboratory rat, looking at it and touching it with obvious pleasure, which made it the ideal object for Watson to turn into a source of fear. A series of trials was conducted in which, as Albert reached for the rat, a large metal bar behind him was struck with a hammer, producing a loud noise, which startled and frightened him. Soon, he began to show a fear response at the sight of the rat, demonstrating that emotional states could be produced as conditioned responses.

Watson’s career at Johns Hopkins University, where he edited the Psychological Review and founded the Journal of Experimental Psychology, lasted only from 1908 to 1920. The reason for this was an ill-advised affair with his graduate assistant on the Little Albert study, which resulted in a highly publicized, scandalous divorce (after which he married the graduate student), followed by an administration request for his resignation. Watson went on to great success in the advertising world, where he has been credited with, among other things, inventing the concept of the “coffee break” in a series of magazine ads. He also continued to write books and articles for popular magazines, but he never taught or published in academic journals again. Behaviorism went on to become a dominant perspective in American psychology through much of the twentieth century, largely due to the efforts of B. F. Skinner, who refined and expanded on Watson’s ideas to such a degree that his name is now far more widely associated with behaviorism than Watson’s.


  1. Buckley, K. W. Mechanical Man: John B. Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism. New York: Guilford, 1989;
  2. Watson, J. B. “Psychology as the Behaviorist Sees It.” Psychological Review, 20 (1913): 158–177.