Child psychologists, Psychology

On Dr John Watson -Psychology’s Bad Boy and Founder of Behaviorism- and the Impact of Controversial Child Rearing Beliefs

Dr John Watson

Dr John Watson was an influential American psychologist, and editor of the Psychological Review from 1910 to 1915. In a 1913 article titled “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”, he presented the foundations of his philosophy, which he termed “behaviorism”. He described psychology as

“a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior.”

Child Rearing Beliefs of dr John Watson

Dr John Watson believed that nothing is instinctual, but that children develop through interaction with their environments, over which parents have complete control. He was one of the first to stand on the “new” side of the nature-nurture debate, namely the nurture side.

Children, he thought, are born with only three emotions which are not learned– fear, rage, and love. He believed that children naturally feared only two things, sudden noise and the loss of physical support, and that all other fears were the result of environmental conditioning. He believe that rage was a natural response to being physically restrained and that love was a conditioned response to being touched.

Although he wrote parenting columns for several magazines, he later said that he regretted having done so, as he did not feel that he knew “enough” to claim to be an expert on the subject of parenting. Despite the skeptical criticism of his interest in child psychology by some of his contemporaries in the field, the book quickly sold 100,000 copies.

In terms of the goal of controlling behavior, he viewed humans, and their conditioned responses, in much the same way as he viewed the animals upon which he conducted his experiments.

“The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute.”

Charisma and Connections

Although Dr John Watson’s early academic performance was poor, his charisma and good looks, combined with his mother’s connections, made it possible for him to be admitted to Furman University. Making few friends while working his way through college, upon graduating he took a position in a one-room school in Greenville, South Carolina as both custodian and principal. While there, he wrote a successful appeal directly to the president of the University of Chicago for admittance into the PhD program.

There, he made many valuable connections, including James Rowland Angell and Jacques Loeb and became interested in the word of Ivan Pavlov. He graduated with a PhD in 1903. In 1908, almost immediately after accepting a position at Johns Hopkins University, he was promoted to chair of the psychology department.

Dr John Watson Ethics and Controversy

Dr John Watson is perhaps most well-known for his ethically controversial “Little Albert” experiment. In the experiment, a nine-month old baby was exposed to furry animals while demonstrating no fear. The baby was then exposed to the same animals while simultaneously having the fear response triggered by a loud sound. The results of the experiment showed that the baby formed an association between the sound and the furry animals. After such “conditioning” the baby then demonstrated fear when exposed to the same animals even when no accompanying sounds were present.

One of the points made by critics was that it was wrong to instill a phobia in a child, especially without removing it afterwards through a process of desensitization. Another ethical consideration was the use of a child too young to give informed consent. Further, the baby’s mother was thought to have been a wet-nurse at the hospital where the experiment was conducted, and was therefore in a position to be socially and financially coerced into giving permission for her child to be used in this way.

In 1920, Dr John Watson was asked to leave Johns Hopkins University as the result of a scandalous affair with Rosalie Rayner, his young assistant, who was also one of his students. His wife later used evidence of the affair to obtain a divorce, after which he married Ms. Rayner. Together, they wrote “Psychological Care of Infant and Child” which was published in 1928.

Dr John Watson: Advertising and Sexuality

Unable to find regular work in the academic world due to the scandal, through connections, he began working at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. He achieved great success in the advertising field as the result of using his knowledge of psychology to persuade consumers to buy products such as cigarettes and toothpaste, based on sex appeal. He worked in advertising until his retirement at age 65.

There are mixed reviews regarding the value of Dr John Watson’s contributions to psychology. For example, according to a survey published in the 2002 issue of the Review of General Psychology, he was ranked at #17 of the most cited psychologists of the century. However, his granddaughter, actress Mariette Hartley, has claimed to have suffered psychological damage as a result of having been raised according to his theories.

Impact of Dr John Watson on Motherhood Today

Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism and  recognized for the first time the importance of nurture in the nature versus nurture discussion. Through his behaviorist approach, Watson conducted research on child rearing, and indeed influenced our views on motherhood today. One of his (in)famous quotes on infants is

“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.”

In his book, he warned against the inevitable dangers of a mother providing too much love and affection. Watson explained that love, along with everything else as the behaviorist saw the world, is conditioned. Dr John Watson believed that parents can shape a child’s behavior and development simply by a scheming control of all stimulus-response associations. Dr John Watson’s advice  has later been strongly criticized.

But … Dr John Watson’s views -controversially radical or not- garnered a lot of attention and were accepted as valuable in his time. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Dr John Watson as the 17th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.  This clearly shows how influential his beliefs still are. But many believe today that his experiments, as well as some of the uses to which he put the knowledge gained from them, were morally questionable at best.

Fortunately, as parents, we have the opportunity to use that knowledge to protect ourselves and our children from those who seek to profit by misusing it.

Dr John Watson
Waiting to see Doctor, December 1914
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