The following text is © 1997 Robert Wozniak. All hyperlinked text links to footnotes located at the bottom of the document.

John Broadus Watson and Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist

Robert H. Wozniak
Bryn Mawr College

John B. Watson (1878-1958) was born near Greenville, South Carolina in 1878.[1] The son of a ne'er-do-well father, against whom he harbored life-long resentment, and a devoutly religious mother, was Watson spent much of his boyhood in the relative isolation and poverty of rural South Carolina. [2] In 1894, at the age of 16, he entered Furman University, from which he graduated five years later with a basic introduction to psychology and an M.A. degree. After a year as principal of a small private school, Watson obtained admission to the University of Chicago.

When he arrived at Chicago in 1900, Watson found himself in a unique intellectual environment. At the turn of the century, Chicago was the center of a new, quintessentially American orientation to psychology. John Dewey (1859-1952) had arrived from the University of Michigan in 1894. Together with George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and Addison W. Moore (1866-1930), whom he had brought to Chicago as assistant professors of philosophy, and James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), whom he had chosen to direct the laboratory of psychology, Dewey was forging a distinctively functional approach to psychological theory and research.

Functionalism in the Chicago style involved three related questions: How does X function? What is the function of X? And of what is X a function? The focus, in other words, was on process, on use value, and on dependent relations to antecedent conditions. As Angell described the movement:

was "Functional psychology...involves the...effort to discern and portray the typical operations of consciousness under actual life conditions, as over against the attempt to analyze and describe its elementary and complex contents...It is...synonymous with descriptions and theories of mental action as distinct from the material of mental constitution... The most essential quarrel which the functionalist has with structuralism in its thoroughgoing and consistent form...touches the feasibility and worth of the effort to get at mental process as it is under the conditions of actual experience rather than as it appears to a merely post mortem analysis...The functional wont to take his cue from the basal conception of the evolutionary movement, i.e., that for the most part organic structures and functions possess their present characteristics by virtue of the efficiency with which they fit into the extant conditions of life broadly designated the environment."[3]

This was the Chicago of John Watson's formative years. He took philosophy with Dewey, Moore, James Hayden Tufts (1862-1942), and Edward Scribner Ames (1870-1958). He worked under Angell in experimental psychology and he was spent many a pleasant Sunday in the laboratory with Mead watching the behavior of rats and monkeys. [4] At Angell's suggestion, Watson chose neurology under Henry Herbert Donaldson (1857-1938) as one of his two minor fields. It was in this context that he met Jacques Loeb (1859-1924), a biologist who not only made a number of independent contributions to objective psychology but also was exerted a critical influence on the direction of Watson's nascent objectivism. [5]

was Loeb, who had come to Chicago from Germany in 1892, [6] was then working on the general mechanisms by which animal behavior is controlled. Attacking the widespread belief that the explanation of animal movement must be sought in internal principles of central nervous system function, Loeb conceived of animal behavior as a response of the whole organism. Through an understanding of response mechanisms, Loeb argued, scientists could learn to govern organic behavior much as engineers control the behavior of inorganic materials, and to achieve this understanding, he thought it necessary to focus on the reactions of many different types of organisms. In these views, one can see the extent of Loeb's impact on Watson. As Pauly has indicated, was "...on every issue Watson sided with Loeb. Watson emphasized external and peripheral factors at the expense of internal and central ones; he sought broad generalizations across individuals and species; his approach was holistic and dynamic...his goals were [those of] experimental control and engineering." [7]

From 1903 to 1908, Watson remained at Chicago as an assistant and then an instructor in experimental psychology. It was during this period that he first began to formulate his later point of view: was "More and more the thought presented itself: Can't I find out by watching...[animal] behavior everything that the other students are finding out by using [human] O[bserver]s?" [8] When James Mark Baldwin, then head of the Philosophy Department at Johns Hopkins, was made Watson an academic offer that was too good to resist, [9] Watson, then barely 30 years of age, moved to Baltimore as a Full Professor. was At Hopkins Watson had the opportunity to discuss his emerging views with Baldwin, [10] Knight Dunlap (1875-1949), and Adolf Meyer (1866-1950), among others. Although Dunlap and Meyer were especially important during this period in helping Watson to sharpen his argument, [11] it was through scientific collaboration and a deepening friendship with Harvard's Robert M. Yerkes (1876-1956) that Watson's behaviorism finally matured.

Yerkes and Watson shared a passion for the study of animal behavior. In 1909, Yerkes came to Hopkins as a visiting scientist and he and Watson made use of the visit to develop a new apparatus and method for the study of visual discriminations in animals. [12] The Yerkes-Watson discrimination method served for many years as the standard behavioral technique in American laboratories of comparative psychology. In 1910, in an attempt to effect an alliance between psychology, physiology, zoology, and anatomy, Yerkes and Watson collaborated again, this time to found the Journal of Animal Behavior.


In the meantime, Watson's frustration with mainstream psychology was reaching the boiling point. His fundamental arguments for behaviorism were in place, but as is evident from a letter written to Yerkes in February 1910, a lingering sense of professional insecurity kept Watson from launching his attack for another three years:

"...I would remodel psychology as we now have it...and reconstruct our attitude with reference to the whole matter of consciousness. I don't believe the [human] psychologist is studying consciousness any more than we are and I am willing to say that consciousness is merely a tool, a fundamental assumption with which the chemist works, the physiologist and every one else who observes. All of our sensory work, memory work, attention, etc. are part of definite modes of behavior. I have thought of writing...just what I think of the work being done in human experimental psychology. It lacks an all embracing scheme in which all the smaller pieces may find their place. It has no big problems. Every little piece of work which comes out is an unrelated unit. This might all be changed if we would take a simpler, behavior view of life and make adjustment the key note. But I fear to do it now because my place here is not ready for it. My thesis developed as I long to develop it would certainly separate me from the psychologists -- Titchener would cast me off and I fear Angell would do likewise." [14]

In 1913, the attack was launched. In one of the most famous lectures[15] in the history of psychology, Watson called for a radical revisioning of the scope and method of psychological research. Introspection was to be abandoned in favor of the study of behavior. Behavior was to be evaluated in its own right, independent of its relationship to any consciousness that might exist. The concept of "consciousness" was to be rejected as an interpretive standard and eschewed as an explanatory device. As an objective, natural science, psychology was to make no sharp distinction between human and animal behavior; and its goal was to develop principles by which behavior could be predicted and controlled.

Published in the Psychological Review shortly after its delivery and incorporated within the first chapter of Watson's 1914 Behavior: A Textbook of Comparative Psychology,[16] this lecture would eventually come to be known as the "behaviorist manifesto." Contrary to what is sometimes said, however, initial reactions to Watson's clarion call to arms were both few in number and relatively mild. In a superbly detailed analysis of published references to behaviorism appearing between 1913 and 1920, Samelson[17] has effectively challenged the notion that with this lecture Watson triggered a revolution. Although the literature contains scattered references to Watson and his ideas over the six or seven years succeeding his lecture, few, if any, of Watson's contemporaries were converted to behaviorism. [18] Indeed, as Watson complained in a letter written in 1919 to Paul T. Young, "my type of psychology is not popular [among psychologists]..." [19]

By 1919, however, this state of affairs had begun to change. One critical factor in this change was the involvement of American psychologists in the World War I military effort. These events have been described in detail by others[20] and no such discussion will be attempted here. Suffice it to say, however, that the war produced a definite movement on the part of American psychology away from laboratory analyses of consciousness toward the development of objective methods of assessing human aptitude and predicting human performance (in the army and on the job). As Yerkes concluded somewhat grandly in 1919, "Two years ago mental engineering was the dream of a few visionaries. Today it is a branch of technology, which, although created by the war, is evidently to be perpetuated and fostered by education and industry." [21] Foremost among those visionaries, of course, was none other than John B. Watson.

A second critical factor in changing attitudes toward behaviorism was the appearance, in 1919, of Watson's Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. [22] This was the first textbook to extend behavioristic analysis to human psychological function. In the first two chapters, Watson introduces students to his vision of psychology as an independent natural science. Emphasizing the importance of prediction and control of behavior and the necessity of a stimulus-response analysis, Watson lays the foundation for his later treatment by outlining the major categories of behavior (explicit and implicit, hereditary and acquired), arguing for a clear distinction between the molecular approach of physiology and behaviorism's molar concern with adjustments of the whole organism to complex situations, and providing an extended introduction to objective methodology.

This introduction is followed, in Chapters 3 through 5, by a lengthy description of the anatomical structures and physiological functioning of the receptors, the central nervous system, and the effectors (muscles and glands). In line with his distinction between behaviorism and physiology, Watson's approach is generally non-reductive. Thus, for example, in discussing emotion, he suggests that "It is perfectly possible for a student of behavior entirely ignorant of the sympathetic nervous system and of the glands and smooth muscles, or even of the central nervous system as a whole, to write a thoroughly comprehensive and accurate study of the emotions..." [23]

Despite such claims, however, Watson devotes 143 pages (almost 35%) of his text to the study of the glands, muscles, and nervous system. Although this is justified on analytic grounds-to understand behavior as the integration of reflexes, we must understand reflexes, to understand principles of stimulation, we must understand the receptors and their stimuli-one suspects that Watson's emphasis on anatomy and physiology had at least as much to do with his desire to place psychology well within the aura of natural science as it did with any real connection between his physiological and behavioral analyses.


Given his heavy emphasis on anatomy and physiology, it is also not surprising to find Watson complaining that "a good many psychologists have misunderstood the behaviorist's position. They insist that he is only observing the individual movements of the muscles and exactly the same way the physiologist is interested in them...[while] The behaviorist is interested in integrations and total activities of the individual." [25] Unfortunately, then as now, the medium is sometimes the more powerful message.

Chapters 6 to 9 contain the heart of Watson's analysis.

The first two chapters in this section deal respectively with emotions and instincts as hereditary modes of response; the later two chapters deal with explicit and implicit habits. In the chapter on the emotions, Watson defines emotion in terms of visceral and glandular reactions and describes the original and fundamental emotions as seen in infants. Adopting an approach to be found in virtually all later behaviorist texts of the twenties , he then distinguishes between two aspects of acquired change in emotional reaction. On the one hand, through the stimulus substitution mechanism of the conditioned reflex, emotional reactions come to be elicited by new stimuli. On the other hand, through trial-and-error and integrative mechanisms of habit formation, emotional reactions in whole or in part become coordinated with other instinctive and habitual reactions to form new habit complexes. Employing this analysis, Watson then discusses methods for breaking-up and controlling poorly adjusted emotional reactions.

In the chapter on instincts, Watson defines instinct in terms of serial movements, principally of the striped muscles, unfolding under appropriate stimulation. He describes his own data on early appearing (instinctive) reaction patterns in infants and argues that much of what has been thought to be instinctive in adult humans consists of integrated instinct-habit or emotion-instinct-habit complexes. He then puts forward a theory of value in terms of positive and negative reaction tendencies with positive reaction tendencies linked to sex and negative tendencies to defense and avoidance, and concludes with a discussion of ways of breaking up and retraining poorly adjusted habits.

Watson's two chapters on habit contain some of his most influential and provocative contributions. The first deals first with explicit, the second with implicit (especially language) habits. Describing the results of his own studies of infants' explicit reactions in situations to which they are misadjusted, Watson analyzes the derivation of habits from instinctive reactions. Misadjustment evokes "restless seeking or avoiding movements," [26] instinctive in infants, acquired in adults. When such movements fail, splitting and partial reactions appear and "some of these part reactions fall together in such a way as to facilitate succeeding movements." [27] Facilitation eventually leads to habit fixation.

Watson then prepares the reader for the analysis of implicit language habits to follow in the succeeding chapter by introducing the critical concept of response-produced stimuli. When a series of responses is learned in an invariable way to a series of stimuli, the first stimulus in the chain can eventually come to call out the whole ordered response. This occurs as the kinesthetic impulse arising from each link in the response chain comes to elicit the next link as a substitute for the normal stimulus. "We see," he points out, "the final perfection of...[this] process in thought where...a substituted word process...can initiate general bodily movements exactly as do the visual or auditory stimuli for which they stand." [28]

Chapter 9 is that for which Watson is perhaps best known. He argues that "early word habits are formed in much the same way as are other explicit habits"[29] and that children eventually "make the transition from overt to whispered and then to implicit language...which [becomes] abbreviated, short-circuited and economized." [30] These and other implicit responses (e.g., tracing with eyes, hands and fingers) serve as substitutes for other stimuli and constitute that which we generally mean by "thinking." He then analyzes the situations that elicit thinking (when an explicit adjustment is not readily at hand), the nature of thinking (trial and error), and the nature of the word as a stimulus. Although his discussion of the word as stimulus is sketchy at best, Watson's analysis (the same word response can both occur to different physical stimuli and elicit different responses) lay the groundwork for Weiss's[31] later and more sophisticated discussion of the abstracting and generalizing function of language.

The conclusion of Watson's Psychology consists of two chapters that apply the foregoing analysis to complex reactions ("functions," personality) of the whole organism. In a discussion of the organism at work, Watson employs the concept of "function." A "function" is an "organized, [well-established], habit system... always ready to act under appropriate stimulation...[for example] talking, walking, swimming, addition." [32] Reviewing available data on motor and thinking skills, he focuses much of his analysis on factors influencing the efficiency and acquisition of various explicit and implicit functions.

Finally, defining personality in terms of the total mass of organized habits, instincts, emotions, their combinations, plasticity (capability of new habit formation or altering of old habits), and retention (readiness of established habits to function after disuse), Watson argues that healthy personality consists of clean-cut and definite habit systems, and instincts and emotions that have yielded to social control. Psychopathology, on the other hand, is habit distortion-failure to eliminate old, unworkable habits and the emotions connected with them as situations change. The proof of this, for Watson, lies in the possibility of "cure." Through re-training, "the individual is made over from a reaction standpoint and takes his normal place in society."


It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this text for the spread of behaviorism. Not only did Watson succeed in presenting a reasonably coherent, developmental, stimulus-response treatment of phenomena ranging from basic emotional and instinctive reactions in infancy to thinking, personality, and psychopathology in adults, he provided an overarching structure (hereditary/acquired, explicit/implicit, stimulus substitution/habit formation, theoretical analysis/behavioral application) that served as a prototype for many later behaviorist accounts. Even more to the point, Watson wrote a very successful textbook. Although we do not know with certainty how many copies of the Psychology s were sold between 1919 and 1929, the first edition apparently merited several reprintings. [34] In 1924, when a second, revised edition was published, Lippincott took the unusual step of issuing two versions, [35] a text for students and a trade book apparently designed for the general public; and, in 1929, the book appeared still once again in a third edition, revised and reset.

For the most part behaviorism grew not by conversion of the well-established but by acculturation of the young. [36] There seems little doubt that Watson's popular introductory text-built as it was around a futuristic vision of the amelioration of human maladjustment through principles of behavioral prediction and control-played a key role in this acculturation process. What student in 1919, contemplating a career in psychology, could have resisted the invitation implied in Watson's closing words to join those who were learning how to make individuals "over from a reaction standpoint" so that they might take their "normal place in society."

It is not surprising that by the mid-1930s, behaviorism, methodological and/or theoretical, had become the dominant orientation within psychology. For John B. Watson, however, the transformation of psychology had come too late. A New York City advertising executive, [37] Watson had been lost to the field that he loved for reasons that had nothing to do with the revolutionary psychology that he had preached.


1. Biographical details are drawn primarily from two sources: 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; and Buckley, K.W. (1989). Mechanical Man. John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism. New York: The Guilford Press. [Back to text]

2. In 1890, at the age of 12, Watson moved with his family to Greenville. See Buckley (1989), pp. 5-9 for an interesting discussion of the importance of this move for Watson's development. [Back to text]

3. Angell, J.R. (1907). The province of functional psychology. Psychological Review, 14, pp. 61-91. (pp. 61-68). [Back to text]

4. Watson (1936), p. 274. [Back to text]

5. See Pauly, P.J. (1981). The Loeb-Jennings debate and the science of animal behavior. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 17, pp. 504-515, especially p. 512, for an excellent analysis of this influence. [Back to text]

6. with an intervening year at Bryn Mawr College, where he taught comparative psychology. [Back to text]

7. Pauly (1981), p. 512. The context of this discussion is an analysis of the debate between Loeb and Herbert Spencer Jennings (1868-1947) regarding the nature of invertebrate behavior. [Back to text]

8. Watson (1936), p. 276. [Back to text]

9. Ibid., p. 275. [Back to text]

10. Until 1909 when Baldwin was forced to resign after his arrest in a Baltimore bordello became a matter of public comment [See: Baldwin, J.M. (1926). Between two wars, 1861-1921, being memories, opinions and letters received. Boston: The Stratford Company. 2 volumes.] [Back to text]

11. See Watson (1936), pp. 276-277. [Back to text]

12. Yerkes, R.M. & Watson, J.B. (1911). Methods of studying vision in animals. Boston: Holt. [Behavior Monographs, Number 2]. [Back to text]

13. Published in 7 volumes from 1911 to 1917. [Back to text]

14. Watson to Yerkes, February 6, 1910, Yerkes papers, Yale University, cited in Buckley (1989), p. 72. [Back to text]

15. Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, pp. 158-177. [Back to text]

16. Watson, J.B. (1914). Behavior: A textbook of comparative psychology. New York: Henry Holt & Co. [Back to text]

17. Samelson, F. (1981). Struggle for scientific authority: The reception of Watson's behaviorism, 1913-1920. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 17, pp. 399-425. [Back to text]

18. Other forms of objectivism, however, some of which even eventually began to refer to themselves as "behaviourism" were developing. See Wozniak, R.H. (1994). Behaviourism: The early years. In R.H. Wozniak (Ed): Response, Reaction, and Reflex: The Early Elaboration of Theoretical and Methodological Behaviourism. London: Routledge/Theommes. [Back to text]

19. cited in Samelson, F. (1985). Organizing for the kingdom of behavior: Academic battles and organizational policies in the twenties. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 21, pp. 33-47. [Back to text]

20. Kevles, D.J. (1968). Testing the army's intelligence: Psychologists and the military in World War I. Journal of American History, 55, pp. 565-581; Camfield, T. (1969). Psychologists at War: The History of American Psychology and the First World War. (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin); Samelson, F. (1977). World War I intelligence testing and the development of psychology. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 13, 274-282; Samelson, F. (1979). Putting psychology on the map: Ideology and intelligence testing. In A.R. Buss (Ed). Psychology in Social Context. New York: Irvington, pp. 103-168; Sokal, M.M. (Ed). (1987). Psychological Testing and American Society, 1890-1930. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press (various contributions); Von Mayrhauser, R.T. (1989). Making intelligence functional: Walter Dill Scott and applied psychological testing in World War I. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 25, 60-72; and Buckley (1989), see especially Chapter 6, pp. 99-111. [Back to text]

21. Yerkes, R.M. (1919). Report of the Psychology Committee of the National Research Council. Psychological Review, 26, pp. 83-149. (p. 149). [Back to text]

22. Watson, J.B. (1919). Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. [Back to text]

23. Ibid., p. 195. [Back to text]

24. It is worth pointing out, in this regard, that in 1919 stimulus-response psychology had few concrete scientific results to present. Watson's text, for all its preaching regarding the importance of research, is singularly weak in bringing relevant research findings to bear on theoretical issues. [Back to text]

25. Watson (1919), pp. 39-40. [Back to text]

26. Ibid., p. 270. [Back to text]

27. Ibid., p. 294. [Back to text]

28. Ibid., pp. 296-297. [Back to text]

29. Ibid., p. 318. [Back to text]

30. Ibid., pp. 322-323. [Back to text]

31. Weiss, A.P. (1925). A Theoretical Basis of Human Behavior. Columbus, OH: R.G. Adams & Co. [Back to text]

32. Watson (1919), p. 348. [Back to text]

33. Ibid., p. 420. [Back to text]

34. As judged both from a statement by Watson in the preface to the second edition in which he thanks his publishers "for long-continued patience in meeting his wishes as to reprintings..." and from the relative availability of the book in the out-of-print book market. [Back to text]

35. Differing apparently only in terms of the preface and binding cloth. [Back to text]

36. The leading "behaviorists" of the late 1920's and early 1930's, men such as F.H. Allport (1890-1978), J.F. Dashiell (1888-1975), W.S. Hunter (1889-1954), K.S. Lashley (1890-1958), E.R. Guthrie (1886-1959), E.C. Tolman (1886-1959), and C.L. Hull (1884-1952), were all an academic generation or more younger than Watson. Although A.P. Weiss (1879-1931) was Watson's contemporary in age, his 1916 Ph.D. placed him a generation or more behind Watson as well. [Back to text]

37. In 1920, Watson had been forced to resign from John Hopkins as a result of divorce proceedings in which the correspondent was a graduate student, later his second wife, Rosalie Rayner. See Watson (1936), pp. 279-281; Buckley (1989), pp. 123-133. In leaving Hopkins, Watson was leaving academic psychology for good. Although he continued into the 1930's to popularize behaviorism in books and articles for the general public, his technical contributions to psychology ceased with his resignation. [Back to text]