John B. Watson: Life and Work of the Behavioral Psychologist

John B. Watson, Along with Iván Pávlov, was one of the important personages of classical conditioning and was key for the further development of operant conditioning that became famous thanks to BF Skinner. Classical conditioning and operant or instrumental conditioning are part of behaviorism, one of the most important currents of psychology.

Although classical conditioning was born from the experiences of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who became interested in salivation reflexes in dogs, Watson introduced it to the United States where it had a major impact on the American education system.

John Broadus Watson biography

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

He studied at the University of Chicago and graduated in 1903. He wrote numerous scientific articles, one of the first entitled “Animal Education: An Experimental Study of 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 the ability to learn in rodents.

Watson worked at Johns Hopkins University for 14 years, where he conducted a number of bird learning experiments. In 1920, he quit his job at the University because of rumors about a romantic relationship with his assistant Rosalie Reyner, with whom he carried out his famous experiment with “little Albert”. Then he then worked 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 Johns 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 now studied in all psychology faculties around the world and is one of the foundations for learning and treating certain psychopathologies such as phobias. Therefore, his conclusions cannot be missed in any introductory psychology book.

Although his academic career was short, his legacy has been the subject of much debate for nearly a century. Watson help define the study of behavior and psychology as a science, And stressed the importance of learning and the influence of context on human development.

Watson popularized behavioralism

He was a radical behaviorist, antimentalist and, as such, criticized Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, arguing 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 therefore, his experiments were performed 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 it must have methods that allow it to observe, measure and predict variables. John B. Watson will always be remembered as the person who invented and popularized behavioralism through his publications and research.

Classic conditioning

Watson’s contributions to behaviorism they are due to his classic conditioning experiments, A type of learning that involves automatic responses or reflexes, and is characterized by the creation of a connection between a new stimulus and an existing reflex. That is, it is a type of learning whereby a neutral stimulus, which does not elicit a response, becomes capable of eliciting it through the associative connection of this stimulus with the stimulus which normally causes this response.

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

  • If you want to know more about classical conditioning and the experiences of Ivan Pavlov, we invite you to read our article: “Classic conditioning and its most important experiences”

The experience with “little Albert”

To test his hypothesis that emotions could be learned by conditioned association, Watson used an 11-month-old boy named Albert as an experimental subject. It should be mentioned that this study could not be conducted at this time for violation of scientific ethics.

Albert was taken to a lab where he was presented with a white rat. As the little one approached to touch her, Watson hit a metal bar with a hammer. As a result of the severe blow, the baby was disturbed and the result of fear began to cry. Watson repeated this process half a dozen times and observed that, after various rehearsals, little Albert got scared just seeing the white rat. Albert had learned that whenever the rat appeared, the hammer hit the metal table. In other words, he anticipated the hard blow.

Here is a video for you to see the experience:

However, when the A (white rat) repeatedly occurs with the EI (hammer blow) that causes RI (fear), the A (white rat) becomes a conditioned stimulus (CE). Then, the presence of EC (i.e. white rat) elicits a conditioned response (CR). The conditional response is equal to the RI (feeling of fear).

Classic conditioning and phobias

Is it is the most common mechanism of acquisition of phobias, A strong irrational fear that some people experience when associating negative experiences with the presence of something (flying with an airplane, spiders, clowns, among others).

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