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J.B. Watson (1878–1958)


John B. Watson was born Jan. 9, 1878, in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. He is remembered for codifying and publicizing behaviorism. In his epoch-making article, “Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It” (1913), he asserted that psychology should restrict itself to the objective, experimental study of the relations between environmental events and human behavior.

Watson received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago (1903), where he then taught. In 1908 he became professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University and immediately established a laboratory for research in comparative, or animal, psychology. He articulated his first statements on behaviorist psychology in the epoch-making article “Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It” (1913), claiming that psychology is the science of human behavior, which, like animal behavior, should be studied under exacting laboratory conditions.

Watson was a very famous man in his day—something many students never realize, as he usually gets only a few short paragraphs in introductory psychology textbooks. In fact, at the end of his career in psychology he was an esteemed professor at the world-renowned Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. At one time, he was recognized as an authority on caring for babies, much as Dr. Spock and Dr. Brazelton would later become. He was married, a father, and respected in his field.

All of that ended when he was fired over his affair with a beautiful and intelligent graduate student, Rosalie Raynor. Mary Watson, his wronged wife, insisted that the affair stop, as did Watson’s employers. But neither Watson nor Raynor wanted the affair to end (in fact, they married in 1921, while his divorce from Mary Watson was still pending), and finally Johns Hopkins insisted that he resign. The subsequent divorce from Mary was front page news at the time.

Watson, however, began a second successful career in advertising, working for the J. Walter Thompson agency, eventually becoming a vice-president. Ironically, his ad campaigns for Maxwell House coffee and Ponds cold cream probably influenced many more people (at the time) than did his academic writing. It’s also plain that he made much more money as an ad executive than he ever did as a professor! A happy ending? Perhaps not. Rosalie Raynor died in 1935, aged only 35 years, and Watson lived alone on their farm until his own death in 1958. By that point he had become embittered and reclusive, and had burned his vast collection of letters and personal papers, effectively putting an end to an important chapter in the history of psychology.

Cicarelli, S.K., & White, J.N. (2015). PSYCHOLOGY, AN EXPLORATION (3rd ed): PEARSON

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