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John B. Watson: life and work of the behavioral psychologist

John B. Watson: life and work of the behavioral psychologist

January 25, 2022

John B. Watson , along with Iván Pávlov, was one of the important characters of the classical conditioning and it was key for the later development of Operant Conditioning that became famous thanks to B.F. Skinner. Both classical conditioning and operant or Instrumental conditioning are part of the behaviorism, one of the most outstanding currents of psychology.

Although classical conditioning was born thanks to the experiments of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who was interested in salivary reflexes in dogs, Watson introduced it to the United States where it had a great impact on the American educational system.

Biography of John Broadus Watson

John Broadus Watson was born in Greenville (South Carolina, United States) in 1878 and died in New York in 1958.


He studied at the University of Chicago and graduated in 1903. He wrote many scientific articles, one of the first called "Animal Education: an experimental study on the psychic development of a white rat, in correlation with the growth of his nervous system." In this article describes the relationship between brain myelination and learning ability in rodents .

Watson worked at John Hopkins University for 14 years, and there he did a lot of experiments on learning birds. In 1920 he left his job at the University because of rumors about a relationship with his assistant Rosalie Reyner, with whom he made his famous experiment with "little Albert". He went on to work as a psychologist at the Thompson company, and became interested in the field of advertising .


One of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century

As professor of Psychology at John Hopkins University (United States) between 1908 and 1920, Watson He was considered one of the most influential and decisive figures of the last century . His work is studied today in all faculties of psychology around the globe, and is one of the bases of learning and treatment of some psychopathologies such as phobias. Therefore, its conclusions can not be absent in any book of introduction to psychology.

Although his academic career was short, his legacy has been hotly debated for almost a century. Watson helped define the study of behavior and psychology as a science , and emphasized the importance of learning and the influence of context on the development of human beings.

Watson popularized Behaviorism

He was a radical behaviorist, an anti-mentalist, and, as such, he criticized Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, since he claimed that the study of consciousness and introspection had no place in psychology as a science. Psychology according to Watson, it only made sense through observable and measurable behavior , and for that reason, his experiments were carried out in the laboratory, where he could manipulate the environment and control the behavior of his subjects.


The goal of behaviorism is to make psychology a natural science, and therefore, must have some methods that allow observing, measuring and predicting variables. John B. Watson will always be remembered as the person who coined and popularized behaviorism thanks to his publications and research.

Classical conditioning

Watson's contributions to behaviorism they are due to their classical conditioning experiments , a type of learning that involves automatic or reflex responses, and that is characterized by the creation of a connection between a new stimulus and an already existing reflex. That is to say, it is a type of learning according to which a neutral stimulus, which does not provoke a response, becomes able to provoke it thanks to the associative connection of this stimulus with the stimulus that normally provokes this response.

John Watson was inspired by the research of the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, but also he thought that classical conditioning also explained learning in humans . Watson was clear that emotions were also learned through conditioned association, so that differences in behavior between humans were the cause of the different experiences that each one lived.

If you want to know more about the classic conditioning and the experiments of Ivan Pavlov, we invite you to read our article: "Classical conditioning and its most important experiments"

The experiment with the "little Albert"

To test your hypothesis that emotions could be learned by conditioned association, Watson used an 11-month-old boy named Albert as an experimental subject . It must be mentioned that this study could not be carried out at the moment because it does not comply with scientific ethics.

Albert was taken to the laboratory where he was presented with a white rat. When the boy approached to touch her, Watson hit a metal bar with a hammer. As a result of the strong blow, the baby was upset and the result of fear began to cry. Watson repeated this process half a dozen times, and observed that, after different trials, little Albert was scared simply by the fact that he saw the white rat . Albert had learned that every time the rat appeared, the hammer would hit the metal board. That is, he anticipated the strong blow.

Here we leave you a video so you can visualize the experiment:

According to the scientist, this happened by classical conditioning. The Unconditioned Stimulus (EI) is a stimulus that automatically causes a response from the organism. In Watson's experiment, he would refer to the blow with the hammer. The Unconditioned response (RI), that is, the response that occurs due to the presence of IS, would be the feeling of fear. The white rat would be the Neutral Stimulus (EN), because it does not produce any response in the body.

Now, when the EN (white rat) appears several times along with the IS (hammer blow) that causes an RI (fear), the EN (white rat) becomes a Conditioned Stimulus (EC) Then, the presence of the EC (that is, the white rat) causes a Conditioned response (RC) The Conditioned response It is equal to the RI (feeling of fear).

Classical conditioning and phobias

East it is the most frequent mechanism of phobias acquisition , a strong irrational fear suffered by some people as a consequence of associating negative experiences to the presence of something (flying in an airplane, spiders, clowns, among many others).


Behaviorism: Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner (January 2022).


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