Introducing the Basics

John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner

Who was John B.Watson?

John Watson (1878–1958) spearheaded the triumph of behaviorism in American psychology. Reacting against the emphasis on introspection promoted by both Wundt and James, he believed that the only object of psychological study should be observable behavior. He criticized the introspective approach as imprecise and dependent on unverifiable, and therefore unreliable, subjective judgments. Influenced by the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s work on associative conditioning, he reduced all of psychology to stimulus-response chains.

Having also spent the beginning of his career studying rats in mazes, Watson further broke down the division between animal and human research, stating that stimulus-response behavioral chains in animals did not meaningfully differ from those in humans. In other words, the only worthwhile subject of study in psychology was how animals or people behaved in response to carefully observed stimuli. Moreover, he felt, the purpose of such study was the prediction and control of behavior.

This viewpoint was articulated in a 1913 publication entitled “Psychology as the Behaviorist Sees It.” While behaviorism became less restrictive in later years, this celebration of observable behavior and disdain for subjective experience dominated American academic psychology until the middle of the twentieth century.


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