John B. Watson

behaviorism by achi rapperzzz

John B. Watson (1878 – 1958) was an American psychologist who established the psychological school of behaviorism. Through his behaviorist approach, Watson conducted research on animal behavior, child rearing, and advertising. In 1920 Johns Hopkins University asked Watson to leave his faculty position because of publicity surrounding the affair he was having with his graduate student-assistant Rosalie Rayner.

In addition, he and Rayner conducted the controversial ‘Little Albert’ experiment. After his divorce was finalized, Watson and Rayner married in 1921. They remained together until her death in 1935. In his post academic career, Watson worked for many years for J. Walter Thompson, a leading American advertising agency. He is credited with popularizing the ‘coffee break’ during an ad campaign for Maxwell House coffee.

The goal of the ‘Little Albert’ experiment was to show how principles of, at the time recently discovered, classical conditioning could be applied to condition fear of a white rat into Albert, an 11-month-old boy. Watson and Rayner conditioned him by clanging an iron rod when a white rat was presented. First, they presented to the boy a white rat and observed that he was not afraid of the rodent. Second, they presented him with a white rat and then clanged an irod rod. Albert responded by crying. This second presentation was repeated serveral times. Finally, Watson and Rayner presented the white rat by itself and the boy showed fear. This study demostrated how emotions could become conditioned responses. An ethical problem of this study is that Watson and Rayner did not uncondition ‘Little Albert.’

In 1913, Watson published the article ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’ — sometimes called ‘The Behaviorist Manifesto.’ In this article, Watson outlined the major features of his new philosophy of psychology, called ‘behaviorism.’ The first paragraph of the article concisely described Watson’s behaviorist position:

‘Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist’s total scheme of investigation.’

Watson viewed Ivan Pavlov’s conditioned reflex as primarily a physiological mechanism controlling glandular secretions. He had already rejected Edward L. Thorndike’s ‘Law of Effect’ (a precursor to B. F. Skinner’s principle of reinforcement) due to what Watson believed were unnecessary subjective elements.

With his ‘behaviorism,’ Watson put the emphasis on external behavior of people and their reactions on given situations, rather than the internal, mental state of those people. In his opinion, the analysis of behaviors and reactions was the only objective method to get insight in the human actions. Watson’s behaviorism rejected the studying of consciousness. He was convinced that it could not be studied, and that past attempts to do so have only been hindering the advancement of psychological theories. He felt that introspection was faulty at best and awarded researchers nothing but more issues. He pushed for psychology to no longer be considered the science of the ‘mind.’ Instead, he stated that psychology should focus on the ‘behavior’ of the individual, not their consciousness.

‘Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.’

The quotation often appears with the last sentence omitted, making Watson’s position appear more radical than it actually was. Watson had, in fact, done extensive ethological studies of the instinctive behavior of animals early in his career, particularly sea birds. Nevertheless, Watson strongly sided with nurture in the nature versus nurture discussion.

The 20th century marked the formation of qualitative distinctions between children and adults. Watson wrote the book ‘Psychological Care of Infant and Child’ in 1928, with help from his mistress, turned wife, Rosalie Rayner. Critics then determined that the ideas mainly stemmed from Watson’s beliefs because Rosalie later entitled a self-penned article ‘I am a Mother of Behaviorist Sons.’ In his book, Watson explained that behaviorists were starting to believe psychological care and analysis was required for infants and children. All of Watson’s exclamations were due to his belief that children should be treated as a young adult. In his book, he warns against the inevitable dangers of a mother providing too much love and affection. Watson explains that love, along with everything else as the behaviorist saw the world, is conditioned. Watson supports his warnings by mentioning invalidism, saying that society does not overly comfort children as they become young adults in the real world, so parents should not set up these unrealistic expectations.

He deemed his slogan to be not more babies but better brought up babies. Watson argued for the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate, claiming that the world would benefit from extinguishing pregnancies for twenty years while enough data was gathered to ensure an efficient child-rearing process. Further emphasizing nurture, Watson said that nothing is instinctual; rather everything is built into a child through the interaction with their environment. Parents therefore hold complete responsibility since they choose what environment to allow their child to develop in. The experiment with Little Albert inspired Watson’s emphasis on environmental factors. Little Albert did not fear the rat and white rabbit until he was conditioned to do so. From this experiment, Watson concluded that parents can shape a child’s behavior and development simply by a scheming control of all stimulus-response associations.

Watson’s advice to treat children with respect, but with relative emotional detachment, has been strongly criticized.  As was his description of a happy child, who only cries when in physical pain, can occupy himself through his problem-solving abilities, and strays from asking questions. Behavior analysis of child development as a field is largely thought to have begun with the writings of Watson.

Critics were wary of Watson’s new interest and success in child psychology. They worried that his personal indiscretions and difficult upbringings could have affected his views in his book. He was raised on a poor farm in South Carolina and had various family troubles, including abandonment by his father. Furthermore, he only shifted his focus to child-rearing when he was fired from Johns Hopkins.

After his dismissal Watson began working for U.S. advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. He learned the advertising business’ many facets at ground level, including a stint working as a shoe salesman in an upscale department store. Despite this modest start, in less than two years Watson had risen to a vice-presidency at Thompson. His executive’s salary, plus bonuses from various successful ad campaigns, resulted in an income many times higher than his academic salary. Watson headed a number of high-profile advertising campaigns, particularly for Ponds cold cream and other personal-care products.

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