Dr John Watson

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

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

September 18,2015  |

child psychologists

Childcare courses emerge early 20th century with the first child psychologists

As the science of Psychology developed in the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of maternal instinct took a backseat. Childcare was not left to chance any longer. There were now all these experts in childcare like child psychologists who would explain matters. The very concept of methodologically explaining how to care for babies and children was unknown. Books and childcare courses came into existence.

Emergence of Childcare courses and Child psychologists

“The key to childcare is a good character.”

said John Watson (1878 – 1958), not John H. Watson known as Dr. Watson the fictional character in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but John B. Watson, one of the first great American child psychologists.  He was a great believer of this idea. To produce a fine character very strict discipline was needed, and as early as possible. He believed, in childcare nothing is instinctual.

Watson established the psychological school of Behaviorism back in 1913 when he published the article Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It called The Behaviorist Manifesto. With 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.

Watson is one the child psychologists that stands on the side of Nurture in the Nature-Nurture debate. 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.” (Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, 1928)

With this in mind, Watson influenced child psychologists but also childcare literature substantially in this first part of the twentieth century and childcare courses emerged. Watson wrote extensively on child-rearing in many popular magazines and his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928). To Watson, behaviorism was based on the idea that a methodology could transform psychology into a science. He knew better than others how to bring forth ‘people of great character’ and tried to make a science of it. In his words

“It is quite easy to start habits of day time continence when the child is from 3-5 weeks old by putting the chamber pot to the child each time it is aroused for feeding. It is quite surprising how quickly the conditional response is established if your routine is unremitting and your patience holds out.”

Watson was among the child psychologists that believed that sentimentality kept mothers of sticking to the routine and the childcare courses. Mothers needed to remain detached and never show any kind of warmth or sympathy let alone favoritism.

“There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead, when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.” (Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, 1928)

In the 1920s, Watson allotted fathers half an hour with their children:

“It keeps the children used to male society. They have a chance to ply him with questions.”

Watson researched many topics in his career, but child-rearing became his most prized interest. His book Psychological Care of Infant and Child was extremely popular and many critics were surprised to see his contemporaries come to accept his views. The book of the first child psychologists sold 100,000 copies of these childcare courses after just a few months of release. Although Watson wrote extensively on child rearing, he later regretted, saying that to do a good job,

“he did not know enough”

First appearance of separation anxiety

There was also Truby King, another celebrity amongst child psychologists. His theories were originally aimed at reducing the infant death rate. Hygiene, breast feeding and strict schedules were the pillars of his evangile. Both the Schools for Mothers, set up by volunteers from 1908 onwards, and the childcare courses of the Mothercraft Training Society Truby King founded, set out to teach mothers to take care of their infants.

Truby King had a lasting influence on all children who were born between 1915 and 1950 in England and America. Together with Sir James Spencer, regarded as one of the best child psychologists, who set up the first mother-baby unit in 1927 and Susan Isaacs who wrote her first book in 1929 all messages in the childcare courses were always based on the mother child bond and were directed at getting the relation tighter. The mother was encouraged to be with children who have a desperate need to be understood by them. To be separated from the mother had now a deep psychological and physical effect on the child.

Childcare courses evolve into Child Science

In 1923 The Mothercraft Manual by Mabel Liddiard based on the same principles of childcare courses was a popular book. It has run twelve editions, and still available today. Liddiard, one of the first female child psychologists, believed in the existence and the importance of a natural, maternal instinct in women but it was

“no adequate basis on which to build a home and raise a family.”

She needed to be trained through childcare courses and thought precise rules of how to be a mother if

“she was to give her best.”

The Manual aimed to help mothers carry out these duties and provided also with daily schedules for living that included precise times of waking, feeding, bathing and even playing.

These times child rearing was not light pass time. No, it was about ‘training’ and ‘doing a good job’. After all they needed to become properly disciplined and hardworking adults. The Watsonian fashion told women to commit and to see their motherhood as serious business.

In these folly twenties, it was amongst the same women that would now have taken on further education that there was a return of domesticity. Further education in some colleges would now include classes on homemaking and childcare courses. At Vassar college, a historically sister institution of the Ivy League colleges and at the time one of the most reputed women-only college, there would be a series of courses like Husband and Wife, Motherhood, The Family as an Economic Unit. Women could learn to be gracious and intelligent at the same time. The head of one of the colleges would have said in his speech:

“One of the chief ends of a college for women is to fit them to become the makers of homes … whatever else a woman may be, the highest purpose of her life always has been … to strengthen and beautify and sanctify the home.” (according to The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic and Political Roles 1920-1970, writen by William Chafe, p. 104)

And in magazines we would read similar voices. William Chafe has made a study of the magazines of this period and there are many allusions of motherhood and how ‘natural’ it is. These magazines declared,

“Liberated women had thrown away the essence of femininity without putting anything else in its place.”

According to the journalists of this time,

“a woman’s career was to make a good marriage, to be deeply fundamentally, wholly feminine. Women, who demanded recognition for themselves were violating their own true nature”,


“once she accepted that big biologic fact that man was intended to be selfish and woman self-sacrificing the way to fulfillment was clear. Only if a woman rejected her natural identity would she have cause to experience dissatisfaction and despair”,

would be the explanation to grief and frustration.

Outsourcing babycare to child psychologists

But slowly the climate changed and it became possible for a woman to be an independent mind, to choose a career or a passion and pursue it on top of marriage and the responsibility of children. There were far less practical problems for these women at the time. They were helped at home with servants and nannies and it was still customary not to be with the child whatever the age around the clock. White upper class ladies did not spend that much time with their children as often recommended today. Both parents would never have thought that the mother (versus the caretaker) would need to spend more time with her children. This came later.

child psychologists

April 7,2015  |