John B Watson Biography, Theories and Books: The Father of Behaviorism

John B Watson, often thought to be the Father of Behaviorism, sparked a heated debate in the field of parenting that still continues to this very day.

In this detailed research-based article you'll get:

Intro: Nurture Explains It all

- Decide What You Want, Shape Your Children and Voila!

It all started with the age-old "Nature vs. Nurture" question:

  • Are children a product of their environments or their genes?
  • Can the way they are raised override their biological "wiring" or hereditary factors?

John B Watson conducting the lab experiment "Little Albert Experiement". Well, Watson voted in favor of the "nurture" side, however, many experts argue that his parenting approach is anything BUT nurturing.

His philosophy that children can be whatever, or whomever, their parents want them to be, created a lot of controversy at the time it was introduced.

Watson famously claimed that he could take twelve infants, chosen randomly, and train them to become "any type of specialist [he] might select" regardless of their "talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of [their] ancestors."

John B Watson took his research on animals and tried to translate it directly to children, stating that children were no different than laboratory rats. They can be trained, conditioned, and programmed to fit the mold their parents have envisioned.

In other words, children are completely a product of their environment.

To Get Independent Adults You Must Treat Your Children as If They Are Independent Adults

Old photo of Victorian children.Watson also advocated a strict, authoritarian parenting style, with lots of rules and little affection.

His premise was that too much affection would give children unrealistic expectations of the 'real world' and make them dependant rather than self-sufficient.

Basically, he was the opposite of attachment parenting, actually encouraging detachment as the ideal form of parenting.

Even though they seemed somewhat extreme, his child-rearing practices quickly became the accepted method of the times, and had such an influence on parenting perspectives that many of his principles are still alive and well today.

Like any popular parenting method, Watson received a lot of criticism. But, his supporters were as strong as his adversaries.

And even though his career was short, his ideas had a powerful impact on the field of parenting.

Here is a biography on his life:

The John B Watson Biography

Portrait of a young John Broadus WatsonJohn B Watson was born January 9, 1878 in Greenville, South Carolina.

His father abused alcohol and left the family when Watson was only 12.

As a result, Watson became very rebellious against his mother and engaged in what he would classify as 'deviant' behavior for a period of time.

At age 16, he entered Fruman University and graduated five years later with a Master's Degree.

Watson Enters the Field of Psychology

He then began studying Psychology at the University of Chicago and earned his Ph.D. in 1903.

Going from Animal Behavior to Children Behavior

Watson worked for a short period of time as an instructor at the University of Chicago before accepting a position at John Hopkins University in 1908. It was here that he began running experiments on animals to study behavior control.

Eventually, he expanded his research to study the behavior of young children.

Watson 'Gives Birth' to Behaviorism

In 1913, Watson delivered a lecture entitled 'Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It', which later became his "defining moment".

The Quest to Make 'Subjective' Psychology More 'Objective' and Scientific

It was this speech that introduced the idea of removing consciousness and abstract concepts from psychology and creating a more "scientific" branch called Behaviorism.

Watson presented some interesting views that he believed would bring credibility to the field of Psychology.

His revolutionary ideas, skyrocketed his fame and had many people re-evaluating their long held beliefs.

His popularity and recognition among his colleagues helped him become President of the American Psychological Association in 1915.

In 1919, he published his now famous work, 'Psychology From the Standpoint of a Behaviorist', which reiterated many of the same points that were included in his 1913 lecture.

Going Mainstream Applying Behaviorism to Parenting

An older John B Watson photo.Although he was forced to resign his position at John Hopkins in 1920 due to a scandal, he continued to publish work in the areas of parenting and psychology.

In 1925, he wrote 'Behaviorism', a book geared toward the average reader.

And, in 1928, he published 'Psychological Care of Infant and Child', which focused on how to apply Behaviorism to parenting.

Watson Goes Corporate: Introduces Behaviorism to the Advertising World

After leaving his teaching post, John B Watson began a career in advertising, claiming that he could use his behaviorist principles to his advantage in this field.

He was quite successful, eventually becoming the vice president of the company.

Watson Dies Lonely and Burns His Unpublished Work
... Did He Regret His Theories?

Despite his controversial beliefs, Watson was given the APA award in 1957 for his contributions to the field of Psychology.

Unfortunately, in the end, Watson paid a high price for his Behaviorist parenting approach.

John B Watson died a lonely recluse on his farm in Connecticut on September 25, 1958.

Some people say he regretted writing about parenting because he "did not know enough" about the subject.

And, the fact that he burned all of his unpublished work before he died may indicate that, in the end, he was questioning his own theories.

Watson's Academic Legacy Was not Reflected in His Personal Life: Actual Parenting Was not His Cup of Tea

Watson may have been considered an expert in parenting, but he did not have a good relationship with his own children.

He had two children from his first marriage and two from his second marriage, all of whom were raised with a strict authoritarian parenting style.

One of his sons committed suicide, and his daughter also made several attempts to take her own life.

It is reported that another son was aimless, lacking direction or purpose, and died from stomach issues at a young age.

Many people in the field of parenting believe that these problems stemmed from Watson's detached and cold treatment of his children.

Although the "extremes" associated with Behaviorism began dying out in the 1950s, many of the principles have found their way into modern parenting theories.

Whether it is the behaviorist inspired views of parenting experts such as Richard Ferber and James Dobson, or the more subtle approach of Fitzhugh Dodson, the idea that parents need to control their children is still alive and well in the Western world.

Here is a John B Watson biography on video:

Watson's Famous Theories and Contributions

Although Watson's career was short-lived, his contributions to the field of psychology and parenting have survived for nearly a century.

In fact, remnants of many of his ideas can still be seen in parenting books, education, and behavior modification techniques.

His major contributions include:

  • Behaviorism
  • Expansion of the Stimulus-Response Theory
  • Detached Parenting

Behaviorism: The Factual Evidenced Based Version of Psychology

John B Watson thought that the field of psychology was too subjective, and therefore, did not earn the same level of respect as other sciences.

His goal was to create a new school of psychology that was based on empirical evidence and actual facts - and he called this Behaviorism.

Although much of his theory was rooted in the research and findings of Ivan Pavlov (Conditioned Reflex Theory), John B Watson is generally known as the Father of Behaviorism because he applied his ideas to human subjects and recommended that parents use these principles with their children.

Up to this point in time, most of the research in this field had been limited to animal studies.

Emotions and other Subjective 'Stuff' that Cannot be Measured Is not Science ... Let's Throw It all out the Window

John B Watson experimenting with an infant's ability to hold on.Basically, he said that Psychology - or at least the Behaviorism branch - should be the science of observable behavior and that states of consciousness, emotions, personal perceptions, or introspection should be disregarded.

These things were too difficult to verify and, therefore, could not be considered reliable evidence.

Watson's version of Behaviorism stated that:

  • Psychology should be objective, not subjective

  • Theories should be based on observable behavior

  • Behavior can be predicted and controlled - any individual can be molded to fit a desired result

  • Since consciousness is not a factor, there is no distinction between animals and people - what works on animals will also work on human subjects.

  • Instinct, emotions, and hereditary factors (Nature) play no role in child development, but everyone is a product of their environment (Nurture).

Watson's Rejection of Emotional Validity Unleashed Academic Fury

Many psychologists took offence to Watson's theory.

They argued that what Watson claimed was "unscientific" was actually the very thing that set their field apart from others.

People are not laboratory rats, and ignoring the mind, emotions, or consciences of individuals is an incomplete approach to understanding human functioning and development.

Academics Fight Back Pinpointing Holes in Watson's Theory

Although many studies seemed to prove Watson's findings, there are those who argued that there were too many "holes" in theory:

  •  Why do two children raised in the same environment have completely different personalities?

  • Why do some criminals come from homes with law-abiding parents who have a great respect for authority?

  • And, if physical and mental illness is merely a result of conditioning, why do so many children raised according to Behaviorist principles struggle with stress and depression - including Watson's own children?

Through the years, some of the extreme ideas have been toned down a little, but more softly modified version of Behaviorism leftovers can still be seen in the use of rewards and incentives, punishments and disciplines, earned approval, and parenting approaches that encourage strict rules or rigid expectations.

Stimulus-Response Theory: Controlling and Molding Desired Behavior Patterns

Stimulus-Response Theory was first introduced by Pavlov, however, his research was limited to animals, specifically dogs.

John B Watson is often associated with stimulus-response theory because he expanded on this idea and applied the concept to human beings.

Remember, he didn't see a significant difference between animals and people so he assumed that what worked for a rat would also work for a child.

The basic idea is that a certain stimulus will cause a specific response. When this stimulus-response pattern is repeated several times, eventually a habit - or a behavior - will develop.

According to Watson,

  • "The response that has most recently occurred after a particular stimulus is the response most likely to be associated with that stimulus." And, "the more frequently a stimulus and response occur in association with each other, the stronger that habit will become."

The Famous 'Little Albert Experiment'

John B Watson set out to prove this theory with a very famous study known as the Little Albert Experiment.

Albert was an 11-month old baby, and Watson claimed that he could condition a child this young to fear rats.

  •  Initially, baby Albert displayed no fear when shown a white rat.

  • But then, Watson paired the rat with a loud banging noise that made the child cry.

  • After repeatedly associating the rat with the frightening noise, Albert began to fear the rat, even when the noise was not present.

  • In fact, Watson was able to condition this fear so strongly that Albert was scared of anything that even resembled the white rat.

    Bunnies, beards, and even fur coats would cause the baby to cry and crawl away.

Here is a little video featuring John B Watson performing the Little Albert Experiment:


If You Repeat the Stimulus-Response Technique Long Enough, You Get What You Want ... Or Do You?

John B Watson stated that all behavior could be controlled by recreating this same stimulus-response environment. "Life's most complicated acts are but combinations of these simple stimulus-response patterns of behavior."

Every stimulus causes a response, and every response can be traced back to a particular stimulus. No part of human development is hereditary or instinctual.

Therefore, according to Watson, if you don't like a particular behavior that you see in your children, find out what stimulus is causing it and either eliminate that stimulus or change it to produce a more desirable behavior.

By giving the right stimuli, you can control and condition children to be whatever you want them to be.

Well, this concept worked with Pavlov's dogs and one child (yes, Albert was the only subject in the study), but how well the theory held up in the real world is still being debated.

Detached Parenting: Signs of Affection Corrupts and Should Be Avoided

The best way to describe Watson's approach to parenting is detached.

He says that parents should:

  • "treat [children] as though they were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. 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" (From Psychological Care of Infant and Child).

While these ideas may seem shocking to the Alfie Kohn and Dr. Sears supporters of today, Watson's theory became the accepted way of parenting.

The Effect: Mothers' Abandoned Their Natural Instincts to Follow the Voice of Authority

Whether mothers agreed with his ideals or not, many felt that they needed to listen to the experts.

And, Watson encouraged this idea by saying, "Parents today are incompetent. Most of them should be indicted for psychological murder."

That may not seem like a positive way to begin the parenting adventure, but for parents who wanted to raise their children to be independent, self-sufficient individuals, Watson seemed to provide the perfect framework.

Watson's "detached" theory of parenting was based on a few key principles:

  •  Attachment is to be avoided. Affection will cause children to become dependent, emotionally unstable, and insecure.

  • Children's needs, desires, and feelings are irrelevant. In fact, since true Behaviorism does not acknowledge states of consciousness, these things do not even exist.

  • Children should be treated as young adults and maturity is expected at all ages.

  • Children should be quiet and left alone as much as possible. Too much attention will "spoil" children, which is dangerous to their development.

  • Children are completely a product of their environment. Individuality, personality, and free-will have no place.

  • Parents should control the environment and behavior of their children by using Stimulus-Response practices.

  • Strict schedules should be followed. Children should be awakened at a certain time, fed at a certain time, and put on the potty at a certain time (and kept there until they produce). Their play time should be structured and their social life should be closely monitored so as not to encourage deviant behavior.

Articles and Books by John B Watson

John B. Watson wrote many books and articles outlining his theories and beliefs on Behaviorism, parenting, and psychology.

Although several of his publications were very scientific, he did write a couple of books geared toward the average reader that are helpful in understanding the history, principles, and practical application of the behaviorist approach to parenting.

Psychological Care of Infant and Child

Psychological Care of Infant and Child was written like a handbook, telling parents how to apply Behaviorism to child-rearing practices.

Although many people agree that some of the ideas are extreme, the reader should keep in mind that this book was written in 1928, a time when family roles and societal expectations were much different than they are today.

The most common initial response today would probably be that Watson's techniques were much too harsh - having you shake your head in disbelief.

In Disguise Watson's Ideas Are Still Thriving Today

However, it can also be a great eye-opener because if you take the overall message of controlling your kids - you may ask yourself "Am I actually in some way shake or form using versions of Watson's ideas?"

I am probably going to provoke many people but taken to the extreme, if you are using controlling means (rewards, punishment, time out ... manipulation basically) then yes, you may say that these methods have their roots in Behaviorism.

Many people today have taken the basic principles of Behaviorism and toned them down, or adapted them to fit the current times ... but they are controlling methods none the less.

When Watson says not to hug or kiss your children, most parents would say, "that's crazy!"

But, his point was that if children are given too much affection they may not learn to "stand on their own two feet" or develop independence and strong problem solving skills.

And, of course, every parent wants their children to be strong, healthy, well-adjusted individuals. Take the 1928 language out of Behaviorism and replace it with 21st century wording ("If you sleep with your baby, your children will never learn to fall asleep by themselves"), and suddenly Watson's ideas are once again being praised.

They are softened, yes. But the overall idea and message is still clear!

So whether you agree with it or not, this theory is still very evident today!

Some of the principles discussed in Psychological Care of Infant and Child include:

  •  Children should be treated as young adults

  • Coddling and affection should be avoided

  • Detachment is preferred over attachment

  • Strict schedules should be followed

  • Parents should control the environment in which their children are raised

  • Children should be conditioned to live up to parents expectations

  • The development of independence, maturity, and problem solving skills is encouraged

Watson may have pushed things a little too far when he made the statement "not more babies but better brought up babies" and suggested that people should just stop having children until a more efficient or effective method of child-rearing is proven.

Even though it may be viewed as harsh in some areas, this is a good book in helping parents understand the authoritarian style of parenting in its most extreme state and recognizing Behaviorist principles at work in other parenting theories.


Behaviorism is the book that changed people's views of human behavior.

In Behaviorism, John B Watson takes the principles that he had previously introduced to the academic world and presents them in a way intended for the average reader.

Although it is not about parenting specifically, it does outline Behaviorism and helps the reader see how this theory can impact the family.

In fact, Behaviorism is the book that first introduced the now famous "give me a dozen children" quote and told parents that they could control their children's behavior.

John B Watson covers a wide variety of topics including:

  •  What is Behaviorism?

  • Scientific methods to studying human behavior

  • The human body and physiological foundations for behavior

  • Do instincts exist?

  • Emotions

  • Habits

  • Personality

  • Talking and Thinking

  • Separation of behavior from the mind

  • Punishments, rewards, and conditioning

Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist

Again, Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist is not about parenting specifically, but it is very helpful in understanding the basis for many of Watson's child-rearing ideas.

In fact, there are many who claim that this was his most important work since, together with the 1913 lecture, it introduced the world to the concept of Behaviorism.

Watson discusses the limitations of traditional psychology and describes his vision to see this field recognized as a natural science.

It includes all the basic principles of Behaviorism and focuses on many aspects of psychology as seen from a behaviorist point of view:

  •  Using the stimulus-response model to predict and control behavior

  • Categories of behavior: explicit and implicit, hereditary and acquired

  • Physiological foundations of stimulus and control - responses and receptors

  • Basis for emotions, thinking, temperament, and personality

  • Denial of instincts, consciousness, inherited abilities

Other Academic Sources on Watson

If you need more information on John Watson's life, you may consider on of the following resources:

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