John B. Watson

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Watson, John B.

Born : 1878
Died : 1958
Nationality : American
Occupation : psychologist


Pavlov, Ivan Petrovich
Skinner, B. F. (Ethics)


Ethics in Advertising and Science
Rights of Human Research Participants

John Broadus Watson was one of the most controversial leading figures in American psychology. A pioneer in behaviorism, Watson wrote accessible books promoting the behaviorist agenda that garnered considerable public attention. The cornerstone of behaviorist psychology was the view that behavior should be studied as a product of objectively observable external events instead of appealing to internal processes of the mind. Watson quickly became disillusioned with the technique of introspection (or looking inward) that was in vogue in academic psychology around the turn of the 20th century. This experience prompted him to conduct research using animal subjects.

In 1903, Watson accepted a teaching position at the University of Chicago and five years later moved on to Johns Hopkins University where he was appointed as a full professor. The next 12 years at Johns Hopkins were the most academically productive of his life and projected him into the limelight as an iconoclast in the field.

A year after Watson arrived at Hopkins, the man who had hired him, J. Mark Baldwin, was arrested in a police raid on a Baltimore brothel and was forced to resign. Watson took up the reins as chairman of the psychology department and also acquired Baldwin's role as editor of the influential journal Psychological Review. At the age of 31, he had become one of the most eminent figures in academic psychology.

Watson enjoyed a dazzlingly successful career at Hopkins. He was academically productive and was exceptionally popular with students. A year after his arrival, the students dedicated their yearbook to him. In 1919, he was voted the handsomest professor by the senior class.

Watson's behaviorist agenda that had been many years in the making was published in a well-known paper in Psychological Review in 1913. Watson's first book, Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (1914), created a stir, particularly among younger psychologists, who saw Watson as dusting off the cobwebs of armchair philosophizing and pointing the way toward a more objective discipline in which progress seemed possible. The psychological establishment that was under attack rejected Watson's revolutionary approach to the field. Despite the controversy, he was still elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1915.

Although his first book focused on animal research, Watson believed that the objective science of behavior demonstrated in animal experiments could also be applied to human subjects. After his military service in World War I, he began research on infants. According to Watson, infants come into the world with only three basic emotions that are triggered by predictable situations. Fear is produced by loud noises. Anger is elicited by interfering with an infant's freedom of mobility. Love is produced by stroking of the skin, rocking, and petting. He believed that although the behavior of newborn infants was dominated by inbuilt (or unconditioned) reflexes, these responses could be altered through Pavlovian conditioning allowing personality differences to emerge.

A typical demonstration of Watson's theory of behavioral development is provided by the case of Little Albert, an 11-month-old baby who was conditioned to fear a white rat in an experiment that would be considered extremely unethical if it were conducted today. In the initial test, Albert showed no fear of the rat whatever. During conditioning trials, a loud noise was produced while the rat was present. Before long, the mere sight of the rat was enough to make Albert burst into tears. Moreover, the fear...
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