Watson, John


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John Broadus Watson (1878 – 1958) was born near Greenville, South Carolina, USA, to a poor family. Watson's was a very strongly religious environment, his ancestors being farmers and devout believers: God and the devil were much in evidence in Watson's early life. However, Watson showed signs of revolt, missing Sunday school whenever possible.
At the age of 15, Watson was admitted to Furman University, a Baptist institution in Greenville. This was a somewhat unexpected twist to the story since little indicated an inclination to the academic life. Rather, he might have been expected to stay on the family farm. Watson studied a range of subjects including Latin, Greek, philosophy and science, among others.
In 1895 the Furman clergyman and philosopher, Gordon Moore, taught a course on psychology, which Watson attended and which attracted him to the subject.
In 1900 Watson enrolled at the University of Chicago as a postgraduate student. At first he studied philosophy but became somewhat disillusioned with it, switching to the study of animal behaviour for his doctoral thesis. Watson studied the way in which rats learned their way through mazes, and he measured such things as speed and number of errors. Watson was led to reason that human behaviour might be explained in a similar way to that of rats running mazes, in terms of simple processes such as reflexes. To Watson unobservable mental terms did not help explanation and only confused things. Early in his career, Watson was led to ask whether one could suggest the heresy that behaviour can be explained in rat and human without the notion of consciousness? After earning his doctorate, Watson gained a teaching position at the University of Chicago. During the summer vacation, he carried out ethological-style research on the behaviour of birds, partly as a means of earning some much-needed extra money.
In 1907 Watson moved from Chicago to take up a post of Professor of Psychology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In 1913 he made public his view that psychology should (a) be an objective science, (b) include only observable behaviour and physiology, (c) avoid mental terms and consciousness and (d) recognize a continuity between human and non-human species. He rapidly achieved national and international fame for his revolutionary proclamation of behaviourism.
Alas, Watson's illustrious academic career was terminated in 1920 after the scandal of an affair with a student at Johns Hopkins University. Watson moved into advertising and popular writing. He died in 1958.