Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


Doctor, lawyer, artist, thief? A baby's future can be easily dictated, contended John B. Watson, the father of behaviorism.
Opening photo:
Watson and a research assistant test the grasping reflex of a days-old infant.
Photo courtesy Ferdinand Hamburger Jr. Archives
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Scholarship

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It's All in the Upbringing
By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

Little Albert B., a healthy, stolid 9-month-old baby, was shown a live rat, a rabbit, a dog, and a monkey. He showed no fear.

But he cried when a researcher struck a hammer against a steel bar. Hopkins psychology professor John B. Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, then made a clanging sound each time the boy touched the rat.

After seven such pairings, Albert B. cried and avoided the animal--even when there was no loud noise. In fact, days later, he showed fear when he saw the rat, the rabbit, the dog, and a sealskin coat. He also had a "negative" response to a bearded Santa Claus mask and the hair on Watson's head.

As the months went on, young Albert didn't cry consistently at the sight of the white rat. So the researchers let the animal crawl against the child's chest. Watson and Rayner reported: "He first began to fret and then covered his eyes with both hands."

Thus describes one of the classic experiments in psychology, often cited in oversimplified form in Psych I textbooks to prove how conditioning can modify human emotional behavior. The 1920 study became part of social science folklore and clinched Watson's fame as the father of behaviorism.

Seven years earlier, Watson had prodded the traditionalists in his field with a "behaviorist's manifesto" given at a New York lecture series. He was crusading for an objective, scientific approach to the study of psychology.

Watson and his contemporaries came of age as the Industrial Revolution and other social upheavals were laying waste to the moral vestiges of the Victorian era, creating a vacuum in the new social order. At the turn of the 20th century, with Sigmund Freud leading his own vanguard in psychoanalysis, psychology was a fledgling field trying to find its niche. Often paired with philosophy in university departments, psychology focused on the subjective study of "introspection," research based on patients' reported feelings.

When Watson promoted his new ideal--and coined the term behaviorism--he rejected the idea of consciousness. He labeled Freud's views voodooism. Initially, he even delegated control of mental processes to the humble larynx. According to Watson, scientists could best study the human mind by noting what humans do. And he meant "to gain experimental control over the whole range of emotional reactions."

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select--doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors," he wrote in 1924. "I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years."

Watson's research, and later his advocacy of behaviorism, would leave a mixed legacy: part historical footnote, his views were dismissed within decades as too narrow by cognitive psychologists who used a less mechanistic approach to study the mind. Yet his aggressive push for objectivity within psychology (along with other advocates) helped solidify and legitimize the field. His research on human conditioning also lay the groundwork for the radical behaviorist movement led by Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner in the 1940s and 1950s. Watson's writings popularized psychology in the public mind.

In tribute to Watson's influence, the American Psychological Association honored him late in his life, noting that his "work has been one of the vital determinants of the form and substance of modern psychology. He initiated a revolution in psychological thought, and his writings have been the point of departure for continuing lines of fruitful research."

That was in 1957, the year before Watson died at age 80. He traveled to New York for the ceremony, but at the last minute sent his son in his stead, returning home to his Connecticut estate and the farmhouse he built with his own hands. He had left academics behind decades before.

Far from being a dry scholar of note, Watson lived a life that would draw the interest of a Shakespearean playwright.

The Albert B. study, written at the height of Watson's academic career, proved to be his last published work in the academy. In 1920, Watson, 42, then a Hopkins professor of experimental and comparative psychology, would be forced to resign from the university after having a scandal-laced affair with his graduate student and Albert B. colleague, young Rosalie.

John Broadus Watson, born in the rural farm country of Greenville, South Carolina, was named for a local preacher. He grew up to reject religion as an outdated form of social control, believing his behaviorist approach would prove more efficient.

"I shall never be satisfied until I have a laboratory in which I can bring up children from birth to three or four years of age under constant observation," he wrote in a June 1920 letter to Johns Hopkins University President Frank J. Goodnow.

By the time Watson got to Hopkins in 1908, the 29-year-old was a wunderkind and a rabble rouser. He had just earned a PhD in psychology at the University of Chicago. Two years after arriving at Hopkins, he became head of the university's small Psychology Department, which he had lobbied to spin off from Philosophy. He took on editorship of the Psychological Review. (Hopkins had already established its own pioneering legacy in psychology, launching the major by hiring the field's founder in America, G. Stanley Hall.) Then at 36, Watson became president of the American Psychological Association--the youngest in its history.

During his 12 years at Hopkins, Watson was wooed by Harvard, Columbia, and other prominent universities, a situation he used to leverage Goodnow into granting him a number of requests, including a leave of absence to work on studies for the War Department in World War I; the conversion of what is now Merrick Barn for his animal experiments; and generous salary increases.

His work was empirical and his views challenging, yet some colleagues even then criticized Watson's rigidity and messianic approach. Famed neuropathologist Adolf Meyer, a leader in the establishment of American psychiatry, worked with Watson. Yet Meyer, who ran a clinic and lab in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, complained that Watson's views were "hopelessly narrow" and that he harbored an "exclusive pioneer tone," according to Mechanical Man, John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism, a biography by Kerry W. Buckley.

Watson shrugged off critics, often working past the point of exhaustion in his campus lab. At first, he focused his studies on animal behavior. He published research on the trial-and-error learning process in animals (and later studied the same in infants), research he hoped could make human learning more efficient and easier to control.

He also used science to question issues of morality, making administrators nervous. He proposed studies on the impact of "sexual hygiene" education movies, and the effects of alcohol-- both positive and negative. (Under Prohibition, Watson needed a permit for 10 gallons of bonded rye whiskey, which he got. In July 1920, Hopkins administrators ordered him to halt such experiments, calling them "dangerous.")

With the help of graduate student Rosalie Rayner and others, he expanded his classical conditioning research to the study of babies. Watson tested his theories on how to condition children to express fear, love, or rage--emotions Watson conjectured were the basic elements of human nature. Among other techniques, he dropped (and caught) infants to generate fear and suggested that stimulation of the genital area would create feelings of love. In another chilling project, Watson boasted to Goodnow in summer 1920 that the National Research Council had approved a children's hospital he proposed that would include rooms for his infant psychology experiments. He planned to spend weekends working at the "Washington infant laboratory."

The ethics of Watson's techniques seemed to draw scant open criticism at the time--from either the university administration or psychologists in the field. (The Albert B. study, which was considered flawed and simplistic by later psychologists, today is criticized mostly on an ethical basis. Among other things: The baby was never deconditioned to lose his apparent fear of the rat.)

"Times were just different, people were trusted to behave themselves," says Stewart Hulse, Hopkins psychology professor emeritus. "It's only been in the last 20 to 30 years that issues of ethics in science have become profoundly part of the consciousness of scientists."

As it ended up, the Albert B. study for Watson would prove a strange ethical legacy of a different sort.

While in the midst of frightening Albert in the name of science, Watson fell in love with his assistant, the brown-haired, blue-eyed Rayner, a recent graduate of Vassar College. He stood on troublesome ground; Rayner was the granddaughter of William Solomon Rayner, a prominent Maryland businessman and Hopkins donor, and niece of the late U.S. Senator Isidor Rayner.

In the trailing scandal of a divorce suit filed by Watson's wife, Mary Ickes Watson, his academic ambitions were forever maimed. Under the guise of a social visit to the Rayner home, a suspicious Mary Watson had dug up more than 10 love letters in Rosalie's bedroom. In one note, J. B. Watson wrote, "Rosalie, every cell I have is yours, individually and collectively."

After the affair became sufficiently public and persistent to alarm Hopkins administrators, Watson jotted down a one-paragraph note of resignation on Goodnow's stationery. He left Baltimore, marrying Rayner a week after the finalization of his divorce, on New Year's Eve, 1921.

Ever ambitious, he ended up on Madison Avenue in New York--rising though the ranks of J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. As a highly paid psychologist and ad consultant, he made his mark promoting behavior manipulation in the rising consumer culture of the 20th century.

Still bitter about his fall from the ivory tower, Watson also became a self- promoter in the emerging market of pop psychology and self-help advice. He took his increasingly outrageous messages to the masses, penning articles in Harper's Magazine and other venues. He taught some classes at the New School for Social Research in New York (where he again was forced out after apparent sexual misconduct, according to Buckley). He published two books Behaviorism (1924) and The Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928) which solidified his concepts in the public consciousness.

Among other things, he predicted the demise of marriage: "Monogamy is passing I believe," he was quoted in the press. "The social mechanism has slipped its trolley. We are unfettered and unshackled and are romping and frolicking in our freedom."

At times, his view of the future depicted a terrifying dystopia. In the industrial world, where efficiency and science were godlike, Watson advocated the outlaw of religion, which he said excused "failure and weakness." Poets and artists would be retrained to be productive citizens. Physicians would recondition "conduct deviations" in children to eliminate "unsocial ways of behaving," biographer Buckley points out.

Watson's advocacy of behaviorism in child rearing was harsh and influenced more than one generation of parents afraid of coddling their children, a practice he called "mawkish and sentimental." He declared that infants should be brought up by a rotation of "parents" and nurses, saying that family life destroyed the child's individuality and independence. A bit of his advice on children from his 1928 book: "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."

"Watsonism has become gospel and catechism in the nurseries and drawing rooms of America," noted philosopher Mortimer Adler despaired in 1928.

(Though Watson-inspired behaviorism today is a stepchild in psychology, Hulse, of Hopkins, says "it has been absorbed into the times." The study of consciousness is hot, "but the techniques behaviorism fostered have become part of the common language. 'Time-out' is used by almost every parent.")

Watsonian behaviorism, however, created a troubled legacy in his own family. Physical affection was taboo. He used his children as study subjects. Later, he publicly regretted much of his child-rearing advice. (His granddaughter, actress Mariette Hartley, wrote a 1991 memoir, Breaking the Silence, about surviving her dysfunctional upbringing.)

In the end, even her grandmother had her doubts. In 1930, Rosalie Rayner Watson, who raised two sons in the behavioristic pattern, wrote an article "I Am the Mother of a Behaviorist's Sons," for Parents' Magazine. She died five years later from pneumonia.

"In some respects I bow to the great wisdom in the science of behaviorism, and in others I am rebellious," Watson's wife wrote. "I secretly wish that on the score of [the children's] affections, they will be a little weak when they grow up, that they will have a tear in their eyes for the poetry and drama of life and a throb for romance . . . . I like being merry and gay and having the giggles. The behaviorists think giggling is a sign of maladjustment."