Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Introduction to:

"Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it."
John B. Watson (1913)

Christopher D. Green, York University

Originally posted 1997
Last revised April 2009
©1997, 2001 by Christopher D. Green

1. John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) is widely regarded as having been the founder of the school of behaviorism, which dominated much of North American psychology between 1920 and 1960. The central tenets of behaviorism -- (1) that scientific psychology must focus on the relationship between environmental contingencies and behavior, rather than on the presumed contents of consciousness, and (2) that the principles governing behavior of humans and other animals are essentially identical -- can be found in the works of many thinkers even centuries earlier (see O'Donnell, 1985 for a fine analysis of the events in the decades immediately preceding Watson's arrival). The article presented here, however, "Psychology as the behaviorist views it," was the first manifesto of the behaviorist movement, and thus ranks as one of the most influential psychological papers of all time.

2. Watson was born to a large, poor, rural family in South Carolina. His upbringing was Baptist fundamentalist, but his father was known as a drinker and brawler. The young Watson himself came into conflict with the law, being arrested twice for violent behavior. He managed to gain admission to Furman College, though he described himself as lazy and academically inferior, and graduated in 1899. A connection between one of Watson's professors at Furman, Gordon B. Moore, and the University of Chicago, seems to have smoothed the way for his entry to Chicago's graduate school. In 1901, Watson decided to major in psychology, under the supervision of James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), a leading functionalist, and minor in both philosophy under John Dewey (1959-1952) and neurology under Henry Herbert Donaldson (1857-1938). During his tenure at Chicago, Watson also took neurology courses from the famous German biologist Jacques Loeb (1859-1924). Angell apparently discouraged Watson's association with Loeb, but Watson's attraction to animal studies was unstoppable. His dissertation, accepted in 1903, described the neurological and psychological development of the white rat.

3. In 1905 Watson travelled to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to learn vivisectional techniques, and returned to Chicago as an instructor in 1906. The following year, 1907, he was offerred the post of associate professor at Johns Hopkins by James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934), the famous developmental-psychological theorist, and founding editor of the pretigious journal, Psychological Review. Watson hesitated, but when Baldwin offerred him a full professorship and an extra $1000 salary, he took the offer. Hopkins not only offerred security, but close proximity to the two men whom Watson considered the best animal researchers in America: Herbert Spencer Jennings, (1868-1947), who was already at Hopkins, and Robert M Yerkes (1876-1956), who was at Harvard. Within weeks of Watson's arrival, Baldwin was forced from his chair by a scandal, leaving Watson in charge of both the department and the journal.

4. He made no bones about his intention to use his editorial control of Psychological Review to force animal psychology upon traditional psycohlogists (see O'Donnell, 1985, p. 191) and, within five years, published "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It," in which he essentially turns human psychologists' criticisms of animal psychology against themselves, and proclaims the traditional methods of animal psychology to be the true methods of scientific psychology per se. The following year, 1914, he published the book, Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, and in 1915 he became President of the American Psychological Association. The following year he extended behaviorism to the study of mental illness (1916). Soon after came most important book of his career, Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919).

5. Watson was influenced by the Nobel Prize-winning (1904) work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) on conditioned reflexes, which was first brought to the attention of American scholars in a paper by Yerkes and Morgulis (1909). In his most famous experiment, Pavlov was able to cause dogs to salivate at the sound of a tone[1] by first pairing the sound with the presentation of food. After several repetitions of this procedure, the dog salivated to the sound of the tone alone. This phenomenon is known as a "conditioned reflex." Pavlov was also able to show that the response generalizes to tones of different pitch that have never previously been paired with the food. Soon after, Watson began adopting and adapting Pavlov's "reflexological" terminology to human behavior. In 1920 he published his most famous conditioning experiment; the "Little Albert" study in which he produced, in a small child, conditioned fear of a white rat by repeatedly pairing it with the loud "clang" of a metal bar. This conditioned fear was then shown to generalize to other furry objects, including a Santa mask and Watson's own hair (Watson & Rayner, 1920). In another well-known article (Watson, 1920), he argued that thinking -- a mental activity that seems to involve no overt behavior -- is nothing more than subvocal speaking.

6. Although Watson's academic star burned brightly, it was destined to be short-lived. Like his predecessor, Baldwin, he was forced to resign his chair at Hopkins because of a sex scandal, Watson's involving his assistant, Rayner. He continued to publish books on psychology -- Behaviorism (1924) and The Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928) -- but by the 1930s his main career interest had shifted to the advertising business, and he ended his scholarly pursuits.


O'Donnell, J. M. (1985). The origins of behaviorism: American psychology, 1870-1920.New York: New York University Press.

Thomas, R. K. (1997). Correcting some Pavlovian regarding "Pavlov's bell" and Pavlov's "mugging." American Journal of Psychology, 110, 115-125.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Watson, J. B. (1914). Behavior: An introduction to comparative psychology. New York: Holt.

Watson, J. B. (1916). Behavior and the concept of mental disease. Journal of Philosophy, 13, 589-597.

Watson, J. B. (1919). Psychology from the standpoint of a behaviorist. Philadelphia: Lippencott.

Watson, J. B. (1920). Is thinking merely the action of language mechanisms? British Journal of Psychology, 11, 87-104.

Watson, J. B. (1924). Behaviorism. New York: Norton.

Watson, J. B. (1928). The psychological care of infant and child; with the assistance of Rosalie Watson. London: Allen.

Watson, J. B. & McDougall, W. (1929). The battle of behaviorism. New York : W.W. Norton,

Watson, J. B. & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional responses. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14,

Yerkes, R. M. & Morgulis, S. (1909). The method of Pavlov in animal psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 6, 257-273.


[1] The popular story that he used bells as conditioned stimuli has frequently been called into question by recent historians of psychology. Roger Thomas (1997) has recently demonstrated that Pavlov did indeed use bells, among other things.