Watson and Behaviorism

At the turn of the century, introspection was withering on the vine as an experimental method. By 1898 only 2.3% of psychology research articles made any mention of introspection. In 1905, William McDougall wrote a textbook defining psychology as "the study of behavior." By 1910, both structuralism (the descendent of Wundt's method) and functionalism (James's method) were widely regarded as obsolete methods for investigating psychology. Psychologists felt that their field had lost its original identity as the "science of consciousness." The time was right for a new conception of psychology, and John B. Watson, who coined the term behaviorism, provided a new identity. Watson agreed with McDougall that psychology should be defined as "the study of behavior," but Watson took a more extreme position.

How common was introspectionism in psychology journals, by the turn of the century? How did Watson's position differ from McDougall's?

McDougall...had no particular complaints against the old subject matter [mind and consciousness], but he thought that behavior, too, deserved attention... In 1913 Watson went a step further. Psychology should study behavior, he said, and mind, the traditional subject matter, is now forbidden. (Epstein, 1987, p.333)

        John Watson

In 1913 Watson declared he was a new type of psychologist: a behaviorist. Watson said the behaviorist would completely eliminate introspection from psychology. Psychologists could adhere to scientific method, studying only things that could be observed and measured. That, Watson suggested, would allow scientists to control human behavior as never before. Watson made a famous claim about the potential power of behaviorism:

What did Watson declare in 1913?

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own special 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, beggerman and thief. (Watson, 1913)

Watson was a bit of a rebel from childhood on. He fought frequently as a teenager. He referred to his hometown church baptism, performed during his adolescence, as an "inoculation that did not take." Seeking to escape the confines of a small-town upbringing, Watson pursued higher education at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

At Furman University, Watson continued his rebellious ways. One of his professors (Meyer) threatened to "flunk the first student who handed in an exam upside-down" Watson, an honor student, took the dare. He handed in his final exam upside-down. Meyer flunked him, delaying Watson's graduation by an entire year.

What were some examples of Watson's rebellious ways?

However, Meyer also helped Watson. Meyer told Watson about new and exciting developments in psychology at the University of Chicago, where Meyer had recently spent a year. Watson decided that was just what he needed. He wrote to the president of the University of Chicago, declaring he would "never amount to anything" unless he got financial support to further his education. Apparently this tactic worked, because Watson obtained a fellowship.

At the University of Chicago, Watson studied physiology, then he became interested in animal research. Functionalism was in full flower at the University of Chicago. But Watson never felt comfortable with introspective research. As Watson later recalled:

How did Watson feel about doing introspective experiments?

"I never wanted to use human subjects. I hated to serve as a subject. I didn't like the stuffy, artificial instructions given to subjects. I was always uncomfortable and acted unnaturally." (in Boring, 1936)

An associate at Chicago recalled that Watson "used to have trouble making consistent introspective reports." Instead, Watson turned to animal research. Yet even there he found introspectionism. Descriptions of consciousness were used in animal research at the time. To Watson, this seemed absurd and unnecessary. How could a human know what was going on in the head of a non-human animal? The very idea of "animal consciousness" seemed dubious. Besides, an observer could speculate about animal consciousness only after observing the animal's behavior. Why not just describe the behavior and leave it at that?

What idea did Watson present to Angell? What was Watson's contribution to psychology?

Soon Watson questioned the need for discussing consciousness at all, in animals or humans. He suggested to his mentor James Rowland Angell that there could be a discipline of psychology without consciousness or introspection. Angell cautioned him against pursuing this controversial idea. However, others were coming to the same conclusion. In fact, today's scholars say Watson did not really invent behaviorism, he just gave it a name and publicized it. "Behavioral" studies such as running rats through mazes were being performed over 20 years before Watson wrote Psychology as the Behaviorist Sees It in 1913. Watson, however, was the person who gave behaviorism a name and presented it to the world.

How did Watson find himself thrust into a prominent position in psychology?

Watson's opportunity to advance his ideas came when J. M. Baldwin hired him at Johns Hopkins University. Baldwin had just founded the prestigious journal Psychological Review and was its first editor. Barely two weeks after Watson arrived, Baldwin was caught in a scandalous situation so embarrassing that he immediately left town for Mexico. He handed over the editorship of his new journal to his bright young student, Watson. Suddenly Watson had a way to publicize his views.

How did Watson seek to broaden psychology?

As an animal researcher, Watson was aware of a major plus for behaviorism: it opened psychology to organisms that had no language to describe their inner thoughts. Hilgard (1980) says it is wrong to think Watson was trying to narrow the scope of psychology. "Watson was not trying to narrow psychology; instead he was trying to broaden it." With behavioral methods, psychology could be applied to animals, mental patients, retarded people, or infants—all groups that were unable to provide reliable introspective reports of mental activity.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey