January 22, 2001

John Broadus Watson: The Father of Behavioral Psychology

Hopkins has had many illustrious faculty members in its 125-year history, often world-renowned in their fields. Inevitably, there have been a few who became notorious. One of the most interesting of these characters was psychologist John Broadus Watson. Born in Greenville, S.C., Watson earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1902, studying under Hopkins alumnus John Dewey. In 1908 he came to Hopkins as professor of experimental psychology.

In 1919, Watson published Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, credited with launching the field of behavioral psychology. Several of his experiments involved infants, and the university’s archives hold a remarkable set of snapshots, taken around 1917, illustrating these experiments. In one of these photographs, captioned “testing the grasping reflex,” a baby is dangling by one hand from a rod held up by Watson. An assistant holds her hands open under the child, in case he loses his grip.

Watson promoted ideas about child-rearing that many would find cold and cruel. He felt it was a grave mistake to show affection to a child, since that would only enhance the child’s emotional attachment to the parent and make it more difficult for the child to grow into an independent adult. It was his belief that children, once able to move around on their own, should be treated like miniature adults.

What made Watson notorious, however, had little to do with his experimentation (although many contemporaries did denounce his ideas). Watson was married to Mary Ickes, daughter of a prominent family, and fell in love with Rosalie Rayner, one of his graduate students. He wrote Rosalie numerous letters, one of which included the memorable passage “… every cell I have is yours, individually and collectively… . I can’t be more yours than I am, even if a surgical operation made us one.”

Rosalie also was from a prominent family and lived with her parents. Mary Watson became aware of her husband’s affair and plotted revenge when the Rayners invited the Watsons to dinner. During the evening, Mary feigned a headache and asked to go upstairs and rest. Under this ruse, she searched Rosalie’s room, found the letters her husband had written and removed them. Mary then sued her husband for divorce and turned over the letters as evidence; many of them promptly found their way into the newspapers. She won her divorce and a generous settlement in 1921, and, just days later, Watson married Rosalie Rayner.

Many Hopkins faculty were horrified by Watson’s actions and welcomed President Goodnow’s demand for Watson’s resignation. Watson dutifully complied, then casually asked Goodnow what reason he should give in the future if he were asked about his dismissal. Watson found himself blacklisted in the psychological profession.

Unable to earn a living, he obtained a job with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and became a pioneer in applying psychology to advertising. Prior to Watson’s bringing his expertise to the field, advertising had been primarily limited to claims of one product’s superiority over its competitors; Watson applied behaviorism to influence consumers to buy products based on what they saw and felt in the advertisement, as well as product claims.

Watson died in 1958, at the age of 80, many years after the death of Rosalie in 1935, when she was only 36. Sadly, there is evidence from Watson’s own family that his child-rearing ideas caused more harm than good. The actress Mariette Hartley, the child of Watson’s daughter, has described a painful childhood, saying, “There wasn’t exactly a plethora of physical affection in our family.” Both her parents became alcoholics, and her father shot himself in the head with his family nearby. Her mother, Watson’s daughter, later attempted suicide several times.