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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.

What was the status of introspectionism around 1900?

Psychologists felt that introspect­ionism had failed. Their field had lost its original identity as the "science of conscious­ness."

In 1905, William McDougall wrote a textbook defining psychology as "the study of behavior." By contrast, structuralism and functionalism were aimed at explaining mental contents, not behavior.

The time was right for this new conception of psychology. John B. Watson, who coined the term behaviorism, became a booster for the new perspective. Watson agreed with McDougall that psychology should be defined as the study of behavior and took a position even more extreme than McDougall.

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)

sketch of Watson
John B. 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 should adhere to scientific method, Watson said, studying only things that could be observed and measured. That would allow scientists to control human behavior as never before.

Watson made a famous claim about the potential power of behaviorism in a best-selling book titled Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It (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)

What did Watson declare in 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, 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.

Watson 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 introspection. As Watson later recalled:

"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." (Watson, 1936, p.276)

How did Watson feel about doing introspective experiments?

An associate at Chicago recalled that Watson "used to have trouble making consistent introspective reports." Instead, Watson turned to animal research.

However, Watson found that even animal research required introspect­ionism. Descrip­tions of the animal's conscious­ness were used in writing up animal research.

This struck Watson as absurd and unnecessary. How could a human know what was in the head of a non-human animal? 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?

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 references to conscious­ness or introspection.

Angell cautioned him against pursuing this controversial idea. However, others were coming to the same conclusion.

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

Today's scholars say Watson did not invent behaviorism. He just gave it a name and publicized it.

Behavioral studies (such as running rats through a maze and reporting their times as they improved) were performed more than 20 years before Watson coined the term behaviorism. However, Watson was successful in promoting behaviorism as a powerful new approach.

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 find himself thrust into a prominent position in psychology?

As an animal researcher, Watson was aware of a major plus for behaviorism: it opened psychology to organisms with no language to describe their inner thoughts.

Earnest Hilgard (1979, p.3) argued it is wrong to say Watson tried 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, and people with limited language ability such as infants. All were groups unable to provide reliable introspective reports of mental activity; now they could be included in psychology research.

How did Watson seek to broaden psychology?


Epstein, R. (1987) Part XV: Afterword: Some concluding remarks. 27. In the yellow wood. In Modgil, S. & Modgil, C.M. (Eds.) B.F. Skinner: Consensus and controversy. New York: Falmer Press, 1987.

Hilgard, E. R. (1979) Consciousness in contemporary psychology. Annual Reviews, 31, 1-26.

Watson, J. B. (1913) Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Retrieved from .

Watson, J. B. (1936). John Broadus Watson. In C. Murchison (Ed). A history of psychology in autobiography. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, pp. 271-281.

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