Introducing the Basics

John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner

What was unusual about Watson’s personal life?

Watson had an unusually dramatic and difficult life. Born into poverty with an alcoholic, womanizing, and violent father who abandoned the family when Watson was only twelve, Watson seemed more likely to enter a life of crime than to become a pioneer in the field of psychology. He was, in fact, arrested twice before he managed to convince the president of a South Carolina college to admit him as a freshman at the age of sixteen.

The brash confidence displayed by his appeal to the college president was characteristic of the ambition and audacity that would later propel his career. He excelled academically and quickly progressed from student to graduate student to assistantship to professor at the University of Chicago and then, by age thirty, to chairman of the psychology department at Johns Hopkins University. At age thirty-seven he was made president of the American Psychological Association.

Unfortunately, he remained a compulsive womanizer and during a particularly indiscreet extramarital affair, his wife found evidence of his dalliance and showed it to the president of the university, who promptly demanded his resignation. In 1920 such scandal could ruin one’s reputation and it ended Watson’s career as an academic psychologist. Ever resilient, however, he eventually obtained a position at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, applying his psychological expertise to advertising campaigns on a wealth of household products. He married the woman with whom he had been having an affair and had two children with her. Unfortunately, she died quite young, which was, by many accounts, a devastating loss for him.

We can speculate about the relationship between Watson’s painful childhood and his choice of psychological theories. Is it entirely a coincidence that an emotionally troubled child would grow up to shun exploration of the mind? Nonetheless, whatever personal appeal behaviorism might have had for Watson, its dominance in American academic psychology cannot be attributed to the psychological conflicts of a single individual.


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