Watson was born in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, to Pickens Butler and Emma (née Roe) Watson. His mother, Emma Watson, a very religious woman who adhered to prohibitions against drinking, smoking, and dancing, named Watson after a prominent Baptist minister in hopes that it would help him receive the call to preach the Gospel. In bringing him up, she subjected Watson to harsh religious training that later led him to develop a lifelong antipathy toward all forms of religion and to become an atheist. His alcoholic father left the family to live with two Indian women when Watson was 13 years old (a transgression which Watson never forgave). In an attempt to escape poverty, Watson’s mother sold their farm and brought Watson to Greenville, South Carolina, to provide him a better opportunity for success. Moving from an isolated, rural location to the large village of Greenville proved to be important for Watson by providing him the opportunity to experience a variety of different types of people, which he used to cultivate his theories on psychology. Watson understood that college was important to his success as an individual: "I know now that I can never amount to anything in the educational world unless I have better preparation at a real university."
Despite his poor academic performance and having been arrested twice during high school (first for fighting, then for discharging firearms within city limits), Watson was able to use his mother's connections to gain admission to Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Watson considered himself to be a poor student. Others called him a quiet kid, lazy, and insubordinate. Watson completed a few psychology courses at Furman, but did not excel. He struggled to make the transition from a rural to an urban area, which was expressed through his weak social skills.
A precocious student, he entered college at the age of 16, and left with a master's degree at the age of 21. Watson made his way through college with significant effort, succeeding in classes that other students simply failed. He held a few jobs on campus to pay for his college expenses. He continued to see himself as "unsocial" and made few friends. After graduating, he spent a year at "Batesburg Institute", the name he gave to a one-room school in Greenville. He was principal, janitor, and handyman for the entire school.
After petitioning the President of the University of Chicago, Watson entered the university. His successful petition to the president of the University of Chicago was central to his ascent in to the psychology world. He began studying philosophy under John Dewey on the recommendation of Furman professor, Gordon Moore. The combined influence of Dewey, James Rowland Angell, Henry Herbert Donaldson, and Jacques Loeb led Watson to develop a highly descriptive, objective approach to the analysis of behavior that he would later call "behaviorism."
In Watson’s college experience, he met professors and colleagues that would assist him on his journey to becoming a well-known psychologist. These peers played an important role in his success in developing psychology into a credible field of study and his understanding of behaviorism. To Watson, behaviorism was a declaration of faith. It was based on the idea that a methodology could transform psychology into a science. He wanted to make psychology more scientifically acceptable. Later, Watson became interested in the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), and eventually included a highly simplified version of Pavlov's principles in his popular works.
Watson earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1903. In his dissertation, "Animal Education: An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated with the Growth of its Nervous System", he described the relationship between brain myelination and learning ability in rats at different ages. Watson showed that the degree of myelination was largely related to wand learning. He discovered that the kinesthetic sense controlled the behavior of rats running in mazes. In 1908, Watson was offered and accepted a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University and was immediately promoted to chair of the psychology department.
In October 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.
Watson's affair had become front-page news, during divorce proceedings, in the Baltimore newspapers. Mary Ickes Watson, his wife, had feigned an illness during a dinner party involving the Rayner and Ickes families so that she could have access to Rayner's bedroom. She discovered love letters Watson had written to Rayner. She had hoped that by Watson knowing of this discovery, he would leave Rayner.
After the divorce was finalized, Watson and Rayner married in 1921. They remained together until her death in 1935.
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."
In 1913, 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. It was not until 1916 that Watson would recognize the more general significance of Pavlov's formulation and make it the subject of his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. The article is also notable for its strong defense of the objective scientific status of applied psychology, which at the time was considered to be much inferior to the established structuralist experimental psychology.
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. This outlook, combined with the complementary ideas of determinism, evolutionary continuism, and empiricism has contributed to what is now called radical behaviorism. It was this new outlook that Watson claimed would lead psychology into a new era. He claimed that before Wundt there was no psychology, and that after Wundt there was only confusion and anarchy. It was Watson's new behaviorism that would pave the way for further advancements in psychology.
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.
Meanwhile, Watson served as the President of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology in 1915.
Watson said that any existence of a mental life is false. Thus, he argued that mental activity could be observed. In his book, Behaviorism, Watson proved this by discussing his thoughts on what language really is, which leads to a discussion of what words really are, and finally to an explanation of what memory is. They are all manual devices used by humans that result in thinking. By using anecdotes that illustrate the behaviors and activities of mammals, Watson outlines his behaviorist views on these topics.
Watson called language a "manipulative habit." He called it this because when we speak language, the sound originates in our larynx, which is a body instrument that we manipulate every time we talk in order to hear our "voice." As we change our throat shape and tongue position, different sounds are made. Watson says when a baby first cries, or first says "da" or "ma," that it is learning language. Watson also uses an experiment that he and his wife conducted, where they conditioned a baby to say "da-da" when he wanted his bottle. Although the baby was conditioned and was a success for a short while, the conditioning was eventually lost. Watson does say, however, that as the child got older, he would imitate Watson as a result of Watson imitating him. By three years old, the child needed no help developing his vocabulary because he was learning from others. Thus, language is imitative.
Watson goes on to claim that, "words are but substitutes for objects and situations". In his earlier baby experiment, the baby learned to say "da" when he wanted a bottle, or "mama" when he wanted his mom, or "shoe-da" when he pointed to his father’s shoe. Watson then argues that "we watch our chances and build upon these", meaning human babies have to form their language by applying sounds they have already formed. This, Watson says, is why babies point to an object but call it a different word. Lastly, Watson explains how a child learns to read words: a mom points at each word and reads in a patterned manner, and eventually, because the child recognizes the word with the sound, he or she learns to read it back.
This, according to Watson, is the start of memory. All of the ideas previously mentioned are what Watson says make up our memory, and that we carry the memory we develop throughout our lives. Watson tells the tale of Mr. Addison Sims and his friend in order to illustrate these ideas. A friend of Mr. Sims' sees Mr. Sims on a street sidewalk and exclaims: "Upon my life! Addison Sims of Seattle! I haven’t seen you since the World’s Fair in Chicago. Do you remember the gay parties we used to have in the old Windermere Hotel?...". Even after all of this, Mr. Sims cannot remember the man's name, although they were old friends who used to encounter many of the same people, places, and experiences together. Watson argued that if the two men were to do some of their old shared activities and go to some of the old same places (the stimuli), then the response (or memory) would occur.
Watson was interested in the conditioning of emotions. Of course behaviorism putting an emphasis on people's external behaviors, emotions were considered as mere physical responses. Watson thought that, at birth, there are three unlearned emotional reactions: Fear, rage and love.
Fear: According to Watson, there are only two stimuli evoking fear that are unconditioned: A sudden noise and the loss of support (physical support). But because older children are afraid of many things (Different animals, strange people etc...) it must be that those fear provoking stimuli are learned. Watson stated that fear can be observed by the following reaction with infants: Crying, breathing rapidly, closing their eyes or jumping suddenly.
Rage: Rage is an innate response to the body movement of the child being constrained. If a very young child is held in a way that she cannot move at all then she will begin to scream and stiffen her body. Later this reaction is applied to different situations. Children get angry when they are forced to take a bath or clean their room. These situations provoke rage because they are associated with physical restraint.
Love: Watson said that love was an automatic response from infants when they were stroked lightly, tickled or patted. The infant then responds with smiles and laughs and other affectionate responses. According to Watson, infants do not love specific people but they are conditioned to do so. Because the mother's face is progressively associated with the patting and stroking it becomes the conditioned stimulus eliciting the affection towards her. Affectionate feelings for other people later generate the same response because they are somehow associated with the mother.
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. [p. 82]
The quotation often appears without context and with the last sentence omitted, making Watson's position appear more radical than it actually was. In Watson's book Behaviorism, the sentence is provided in the context of an extended argument against eugenics. That Watson did not hold a radical environmentalist position may be seen in his earlier writing in which his "starting point" for a science of behavior was "...the observable fact that organisms, man and animal alike, do adjust themselves to their environment by means of hereditary and habit equipments." Nevertheless, Watson recognized the importance of nurture in the nature versus nurture discussion which was often neglected by his eugenic contemporaries.
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 the 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. Writer Suzanne Houk, Psychological Care of Infant and Child: A Reflection of its Author and his Times, critiques Watson’s views, analyzing his hope for a businesslike and casual relationship between a mother and her child. Watson disapproved of thumb sucking, masturbation, homosexuality, and encouraged parents to be honest with their children about sex. Watson's reasoning for this was that, "all of the weaknesses, reserves, fears, cautions, and inferiorities of our parents are stamped into us with sledge hammer blows". Watson inferred that emotional disabilities were a result of personal treatment, not inherited.
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. Laura E. Berk, author of Infants and Children: Prenatal Through Middle Childhood, examined the roots of the beliefs Watson came to honor. Berk says that 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.
Although he wrote extensively on child-rearing in many popular magazines and in a book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928), Watson later regretted having written in the area, saying that "he did not know enough" to do a good job. Watson's advice to treat children with respect, but with relative emotional detachment, has been strongly criticized. J.M. O’Donnell wrote The Origins of Behaviorism, where he deemed Watson’s views as radical calculations. O’Donnell’s discontent stemmed partly from Watsons’ description of a happy child, including that the child only cry when in physical pain, can occupy himself through his problem-solving abilities, and that the child stray from asking questions. Behavior analysis of child development as a field is largely thought to have begun with the writings of Watson.
Other critics were more wary of Watson’s new interest and success in child psychology. R. Dale Nance worried that Watson’s 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. Suzanne Houk shared similar concerns. She mentions in her article that Watson only shifted his focus to child-rearing when he was fired from Johns Hopkins University due to his affair with Rosalie Rayner.
Watson researched many topics in his career, but child-rearing became his most prized interest. His book was extremely popular and many critics were surprised to see his contemporaries come to accept his views. The book sold 100,000 copies after just a few months of release.
Watson’s emphasis on child development was becoming a new phenomenon and influenced some of his successors, but there were psychologists before him that delved into the field as well. G. Stanley Hall became very well known for his 1904 book Adolescence. G. Stanley Hall’s beliefs differed from behaviorist Watson, believing that heredity and genetically predetermined factors shaped most of one’s behavior, especially during childhood. His most famous concept, Storm and Stress Theory, normalized adolescents’ tendency to act out with conflicting mood swings. Whether Watson’s views were controversially radical or not, they garnered a lot of attention and were accepted as valuable in his time.
How much Rosalie Rayner agreed with her husband's child rearing ideas is an interesting question which is the subject of an article that discusses an essay that she wrote about the future of the family.
One might consider the experiment Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner carried out to be one of the most controversial in psychology in 1920. It has become immortalized in introductory psychology textbooks as the Little Albert experiment. The goal of the 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 "Little Albert", a 9-month-old boy. Watson and Rayner conditioned "Little Albert" 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 it. Second, they presented him with a white rat and then clanged an iron rod. "Little Albert" responded by crying. This second presentation was repeated several times. Finally, Watson and Rayner presented the white rat by itself and the boy showed fear. Later, in an attempt to see if the fear transferred to other objects, Watson presented Albert with a rabbit, a dog, and a fur coat. He cried at the sight of all of them. This study demonstrated how emotions could become conditioned responses. As the story of "Little Albert" has made the rounds, inaccuracies and inconsistencies have crept in, some of them even due to Watson himself. Analyses of Watson’s film footage of Albert suggest that the infant was mentally and developmentally disabled. An ethical problem of this study is that Watson and Rayner did not uncondition "Little Albert". In 2009, Beck and Levinson found records of a child, Douglas Merritte, who seemed to have been Little Albert. They found that he had died from congenital hydrocephalus at the age of 6. Thus, it cannot be concluded to what extent this study had an effect on "Little Albert"'s life. On 25 January 2012, Tom Bartlett of The Chronicle of Higher Education published a report that questions whether John Watson knew of cognitive abnormalities in Little Albert that would greatly skew the results of the experiment. In 2014, however, the journals that initially endorsed Beck and Fridlund's claims about Albert and Watson (the American Psychologist and History of Psychology) published articles debunking those claims
Because "Little Albert" was an orphan and was taken out of town, Watson did not have the time to decondition the child. This obviously has ethical implications, but Watson did put in place a method for deconditioning fears. He worked with a colleague, Mary Cover Jones, on a set of procedures aimed at eliminating the fears of another little boy, Peter. Peter seemed to fear white rats and rabbits. Watson and Jones put Peter in his highchair and gave him a nice afternoon snack. At the same time a white rabbit in a cage was put in a distance that did not seem to disturb the child. The next day the rabbit was put slightly closer until Peter showed signs of slight disturbance. This treatment was repeated days after days until Peter could serenely eat his snack with the rabbit being right next to him. Peter was even able to play with the rabbit afterwards. This form of behavior modification is a technique today called systematic desensitization.
The conditioning paradigm has certain limitations. Researchers have had a hard time conditioning infants that are just a few months old. This might be because they have not yet developed what Piaget calls "primary circular reactions". Because they cannot coordinate sensory motor actions they cannot learn to make different associations between their motoric behaviors and the environment. Another limitation concerns the kind of conditioned stimuli humans can learn. When researchers attempt to condition children to fear things such as curtains or wooden blocks they have had great difficulty. Humans may be "innately disposed to fear certain stimuli".
Thanks to contacts provided by an academic colleague, E. B. Titchener, Watson subsequently 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. In addition, he is credited with popularizing the "coffee break" during an ad campaign for Maxwell House coffee. He has been widely but erroneously credited with re-introducing the "testimonial" advertisement after the tool had fallen out of favor (due to its association with ineffective and dangerous patent medicines). However, testimonial advertisements had been in use for years before Watson entered advertising. An example of Watson's use of testimonials was with the campaign he developed for Pebeco toothpaste. The ad featured a seductively dressed woman, and coaxed women to smoke, as long as they used Pebeco toothpaste. The toothpaste was not a means to benefit health or hygiene, but as a way to heighten the sexual attraction of the consumer. They were not only buying toothpaste, they were purchasing sex appeal. Watson stated that he was not making original contributions, but was just doing what was normal practice in advertising. Watson stopped writing for popular audiences in 1936, and retired from advertising at about age 65.
Rosalie Rayner died in 1935 at age 36. Watson lived on their farm until his death in 1958 at age 80. He was buried at Willowbrook Cemetery, Westport, Connecticut. In 1957, shortly before his death, he received a Gold Medal from the American Psychological Association for his contributions to psychology.
Historian John Burnham interviewed Watson late in life, and portrayed him as a man of (still) strong opinions and some bitterness towards his detractors. Except for a set of reprints of his academic works, Watson burned his very large collection of letters and personal papers, thus depriving historians of a valuable resource for understanding the early history of behaviorism and of Watson himself.
Watson was the maternal grandfather of actress Mariette Hartley, who suffered with psychological issues she attributed to her being raised with her grandfather's theories.