John B. Watson Biography

John B. Watson, an American psychologist, was a key figure in the development of behaviorism. He advocated for a scientific approach to studying behavior and emphasized the importance of nurture in the nature-nurture debate. Watson’s work extended to various areas, including child development and animal behavior. However, he is perhaps most famous for his controversial ‘Little Albert’ experiment, which aimed to demonstrate the conditioning of emotions.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: John Broadus Watson
  • Died At Age: 80
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Mary Ickes (m. 1901–1920), Rosalie Rayner (m. 1921–1935)
    • Father: Pickens Butler
    • Mother: Emma Watson
    • Children: John Ickes Watson, Mary Watson
  • Born Country: United States
  • Psychologists
  • American Men
  • Died on: September 25, 1958
  • Place of death: Woodbury, Connecticut
  • U.S. State: South Carolina
  • More Facts
  • Education: Johns Hopkins University, Greenville Senior High School, The University of Chicago, Furman University

Childhood & Early Life

John Broadus Watson was born on January 9, 1878, in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, as the fourth of six children of Pickens Butler and Emma Kesiah Watson. His father, an alcoholic who had affairs with Native American women, left the home when he was 13. His religious mother had named him after a Baptist minister and hoped that he would grow up to become one too; however, her strict upbringing and religious training made him an atheist instead. To provide better opportunities to her children, his mother sold their farm and moved to Greenville, South Carolina, which allowed him to meet diverse people, contributing to his psychological theories. While he was not a good student in school, he was able to enter Furman University, thanks to his mother’s connections, and completed a few psychology courses. Though he lacked social skills and made few friends, he put in great efforts to improve academically after entering college at 16, and supported himself by taking several jobs on campus. He graduated at 21, and spent a year at a one-room school that he had named Batesburg Institute, where he was the principal, janitor, as well as the handyman. After being recommended to study philosophy under John Dewey, he successfully petitioned to the president of the University of Chicago for admission. He considered working with radical biologist Jacques Loeb, but eventually worked under the supervision of psychologist James Rowland Angell and physiologist Henry Donaldson. He was also heavily influenced by the work of Ivan Pavlov, particularly the relationship between stimulus and response, and incorporated Pavlov’s basic principles in his own theories.


John B. Watson earned his Ph.D. in 1903 with a dissertation on ‘Animal Education’, which showed that brain myelination in rats was related to learning, and was the first modern scientific work on rat behavior. He remained at the University of Chicago post his graduation and did a series of ethological studies on the behavior of sea birds, which later formed the basis of ethology. A reputed researcher in animal behavior by 1908, he was offered a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University. Almost immediately, he earned a promotion to chair the psychology department. In 1913, he published the important paper, ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’, or ‘The Behaviorist Manifesto’, which defined behaviorism as an objective branch of science based on experimental research and observable data. In 1920, he was asked to leave Johns Hopkins University after his scandalous affair with his student Rosalie Rayner became public news. At the age of 42, he lost his reputation among the academic elites and was forced to start his career afresh. Leaving academia, he worked at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, where he learned from the ground level by working as a shoe salesman at a departmental store. He earned the position of vice president within two years and worked there until he was 65. He is credited with popularizing the ‘coffee break’.

Major Contributions

In his 1930 book ‘Behaviorism’, John B. Watson argued that language, speech and memory can be conditioned or taught through imitation or by associating feelings and behaviors with situations, objects, and symbols. To put his point across, he famously claimed to be able to shape a dozen babies into any field of discipline, but the ‘twelve infants’ quote is often used partially and out of context. Believing that emotions were physical responses to external stimuli, he carried out the controversial ‘Little Albert’ experiment in 1920, in which he induced fear of a white rat into a 9-month-old boy. He paired the appearance of the animal with a loud bang sound as stimulus, and repeated the procedure until the boy showed fear of not only rats, but any furry animals, and even fur coats. The experiment became controversial as Watson did not cure the child of the fear, thereby affecting him permanently, even though he was able to eliminate fear from another boy named Peter. Moreover, recent researchers identified ‘Little Albert’ to be Douglas Merritte, who was not “healthy”, but suffered from neurological impairments, and died from congenital hydrocephalus at six, putting the effectiveness of the experiment into question. In 1928, he wrote the book ‘Psychological Care of Infant and Child’, in which he mentioned that children should be treated as young adults but raised with relative emotional detachment. His ideas, however, have been criticized by modern psychologists for promoting a causal, businesslike relationship between mother and child, and it should also be noted that he later regretted writing in the field.

Family & Personal Life

John B. Watson met his first wife, Mary Ickes, a sister of politician Harold L. Ickes, in graduate school, and married her in 1901. They had two children, John and Mary Ickes Watson. Mary later became the mother of ‘Emmy Award’-winning character actress Mariette Hartley, who established the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 1920, he became involved in an affair with his top research assistant and graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, while still married to his first wife. His wife searched Rayner’s bedroom to unearth his love letters to her. Soon after his divorce was finalized, he married Rayner in December 1920 and had two more children with her: William Rayner Watson and James Broadus Watson. He strained his relationships with his family members by applying his behaviorist studies on his children. His daughter Mary and two of his sons, William and James, had attempted suicide, with William dying in 1954. According to sources, Watson was devastated and became an alcoholic when his second wife died in 1935. Out of frustration, he burned all of his unpublished works when William committed suicide. He died on September 25, 1958, at the age of 80, at his farm in Woodbury, Connecticut, where he had spent most of his later life. He was buried at Willowbrook Cemetery, Westport, Connecticut. He harbored strong opinions and bitterness towards his critics even in old age, and before his death, burned most of his letters and personal papers.


Shortly before his death, John B. Watson was invited to New York to accept the Gold Medal from American Psychological Association for his contributions to psychology. While he did attend the event, he sent his son to accept the award out of fear that he might break down in front of the public.

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