The Echoes of the Mind (10-4) John Watson

John Watson

The time seems to have come when psychology must discard all reference to consciousness; when it need no longer delude itself into thinking that it is making mental states the object the observation. ~ John Watson

American psychologist John Watson (1878–1958) is generally credited with founding behaviorism. Watson believed that human behavior was a product of conditioning. Watson rejected the idea of human instincts.

In this relatively simple list of human responses there is none corresponding to what is called an “instinct” by present-day psychologists and biologists. There are then for us no instincts – we no longer need the term in psychology. Everything we have been in the habit of calling an “instinct” today is a result largely of training – belonging to man’s learned behavior. ~ John Watson

Regarding the mind-body problem, Watson shifted from his initial position of epiphenomenalism – mental events are byproducts of bodily stimulus, not causing behaviors – to a matterism that denied mentation altogether.

Mental processes, consciousness, souls, and ghosts are all of a piece, and are altogether unfit for scientific use. Psychology must discard all reference to consciousness. ~ John Watson

Watson was not bothered by ethics. In his infamous Albert experiment that began in 1920, Watson induced fear into a 9-month-old infant via conditioning. A rat, to which the infant was first fascinated by, quickly became an object of fear under Watson’s tutelage.

The goal of psychological study is the ascertaining of such data and laws that, given the stimulus, psychology can predict what the response will be. ~ John Watson

Watson’s academic career was cut short by a scandal over an extramarital affair. Having shown psychological manipulation to be a forte, Watson had a successful 2nd career as an advertising executive. But Watson did not abandon psychology as an enterprise. He wrote The Psychological Care of the Infant and Child (1928). His unsound advice was to treat children as small adults:

Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed at the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.

Watson’s relationship with his own 2 sons was destructive to their emotional well-being. His son James said that Watson was “unable to express and cope with any feelings of emotion on his own, and determined unwittingly to deprive, I think, my brother and me of any emotional foundation.”

Lamentably, Watson’s influence was considerable. He effectively shifted psychology’s goal from explaining consciousness to behavioral prediction and control. In doing so, he constricted psychology to the study of overt behavior.

The behaviorist advances the view that what the psychologists have hitherto called thought is in short nothing but talking to ourselves. ~ John Watson