Watson Contributions to Psychology


Born on 9th January 1958, John Broadus Watson was the first psychologist to explore behaviorism as a psychological school of thought, creating a significant change in psychology by addressing psychology from a behaviorists’ perspective (Cohen, 1980). The renowned American psychologist, also considered the ‘Father of Behaviorism’ was at the peak of his career during the first quarter of the 20th Century (i.e. 1913).

Watson’s primary focus was on child-rearing and animal behavior and was once the editor of Psychological Review journal from 1910 to 1915. In 2002, Watson was ranked as the 17th most cited psychologists of the 20th century by a review of general psychology survey (Gregory et al 2013). Primarily, Watson pushed for the science of psychology to be based on the behaviorism of the person in question rather than the consciousness of the individual. Therefore, he was convinced that consciousness could not be studied and doing so hindered the advancement of psychological theories.


The Environmental and Political Context of the Time

During his childhood, Watson underwent a harsh religious training that caused him to develop a lifelong apathy to any form of religion and would later become an atheist (Gregory et al 2013). Furthermore, Watson lived under single parenting after his father separated and went to live with two Indian women. According to Hergenhahn (1992), Watson’s academic success began when he and his mother moved to Greenville South Carolina in search of a better life. This facilitated Watson’s move from a rural setting to an urban environment where he could cultivate his psychological theories by experiencing interacting with different types of people (Cohen, 1980).

Watson gained a college admission and performed exceptionally well even in courses that other students failed; entering college at 16 and graduating with a Master’s degree at 21 years of age (Bergmann, 1956). He later got employed at the university to pay for some of his college expenses. He then graduated and spent some time at Batesburg institute as a janitor (Bergmann, 1956). Later on, Watson petitioned the University of Chicago’s President and joined the university, leading to his successful ascension to the world of psychology.

Significant Influences On Watson’s Work

Watson’s success in the subject of psychology was influenced by other scholars that he interacted with during his career. For instance, according to Hergenhahn (1992), Watson studied psychology under John Dewey on Gordon Moore’s recommendation. Ultimately, under the influence of Henry Herbert, Jacques Loeb and John Dewey, Watson developed a highly objective and descriptive approach to behavioral analysis that he later termed as ‘behaviorism’ (Fracher, 1990).

Ideally, Watson’s success in psychology was influenced by the colleagues and professors he met at college. According to Hergenhahn (1992), these colleagues made a significant contribution to Watson’s efforts in understanding behaviorism and developing psychology as a credible field of study. With the aim of making psychology more scientifically accepted, Watson developed an interest in the work of Ivan Pavlov and this made him include versions of Pavlov’s principles into his work (Bolles, 1993).

The Legacy of Watson

Watson set his legacy in 1913 when he published the “psychology as the behaviorist” where he outlined the basic features of his new behaviorism theory. In the first paragraph of the article, Watson outlined what he termed as his behaviorist position, whereby he argued that psychology from a behaviorist point of view was an objective and experimental branch of natural science. In the article, according to Hergenhahn (1992), Watson aimed to control and predict behavior, through non-introspection methods, and through scientific data that is independent of the interpretation of consciousness.

His objective theorization began in 1913 when he viewed Pavlov’s conditioned reflex as a psychological mechanism that controls glandular secretions (Bergmann, 1956). This was after he had rejected the Law of Effect by Edward Thorndike, based on his opinion that it was too subjective and included unnecessary elements. Later on, in 1916, Watson acknowledged and included Pavlov’s formulation at the American Psychological Association presidential address. During the address, Watson strongly defended the objective and scientific nature of psychology, which was at that time considered inferior (Cohen, 1980).

With his behaviorism theory, Watson emphasized on people’s behavior and reactions to their specific situations as opposed to their internal mental state. Therefore, according to Hergenhahn (1992), Watson’s behaviorist theory claimed that human actions could only be objectively understood by analyzing their behaviors and reactions. Later, this theory was combined with other ideas such as empiricism, evolutionary continuism and determinism to develop what is currently known as radical behaviorism (Bergmann, 1956). It was this radical behaviorism that Watson claimed would contribute to a new era of psychology, with no ‘anarchy and confusion.’

In essence, Watson’s idea of psychology rejected consciousness and a sub-topic in psychology on the basis that consciousness could not be studied owing to past attempts that had only hindered psychological theory advancements (Cohen, 1980). Furthermore, Watson believed that introspection was less effective and led to nothing less than confusion (Bergmann, 1956). Instead, he believed that psychology should no longer be considered as the science of the mind but should be considered a function of human behavior.

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Key Theories, Methods or Approaches That the Watson Developed

Watson’s wider theoretical considerations have contributed to the psychological understanding of speech, language, memory and emotions. With regards to language, memory and speech, Watson’s theory of behavior postulated that it would be impossible to observe human’s mental activity (Cohen, 1980). To expound on this idea, Watson wrote a book (i.e. behaviorism) where he discussed what he thought was the meaning of language, memory and words. He then examined whether these were just manual devices resulting in human thinking.

Particularly, according to Hergenhahn (1992), Watson conceptualized language as a manipulative habit because language originates from a part of the human body called larynx, which humans can manipulate to communicate. Ultimately, Watson concluded that words are just substitutes of situations and objects. Watson then theorized that when a child learns words as a result of his mom pointing at each word and reading it in a patterned manner, then the child recognizes the words and eventually learns to read the words back. This, according to Watson, is how people begin to have memory. Ultimately, Watson claimed that all the ideas and theories explaining memory and speech make up the memory that humans carry throughout their lives (Bergmann, 1956).

Watson also studied emotions with an interest in learning how human emotions are conditioned. Here, the scholar postulated that whereas behaviorism put an emphasis on people’s external behavior, emotions are somewhat physical responses and that at birth; humans are not born with the three emotional reactions of rage, fear and love (Cohen, 1980).

With regards to fear, Watson claimed that fear is evoked by only two unconditioned stimuli, which include a loss of physical support and sudden noise. However, the scholar also argued that because children are afraid of many things, it is likely that the fear-provoking stimuli are learned (Bergmann, 1956). Therefore, according to Crain (2010), Watson’s major conclusion was that fear can be understood by observing children’s reactions such as rapid breathing, sudden jumping, and crying.

On the other hand, Watson’s understanding of rage was that it innately occurs when the child responds to the body movement when they are constrained (Cohen, 1980). Therefore, according to Crain (2010), Watson argued that holding a child so stiffly that they cannot move causes them to stiffen their body and scream. This reaction is later applied to a different situation where children get hungry when they are forced to take a bath. Ideally, according to Watson’s behaviorism, such situations cause rage because they entail physical restraint.

In an attempt to understand love, Watson theorized that children automatically respond with love when they are patted, stroked or tickled. Children then respond with laughs and smiles or in other affectionate forms (Crain, 2010). Furthermore, Watson argued that as opposed to the notion that children love specific people, they are just conditioned to do so. This is exemplified in the phenomenon that because the mother’s face is always associated with stroking and patting, it elicits children’s affection towards their mothers (Crain, 2010).

This theorization was well explained in Watson’s book: Behaviorism, in which he explained that:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take anyone at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years” (Watson, 1930, p. 82).

However, Hothersall (2004) argued that this quote is often displayed without the preceding words, making Watson appear more radical than he was. Fundamentally, Watson used this sentence when he was posing an argument against eugenics.

In conclusion, this essay has displayed John B. Watson as a pioneer psychologist who made a significant contribution to the subject of psychology by coining behaviorism. As part of his works, Watson argued that psychology should be considered as scientific observable behavior and that behaviorism gives the most objective understanding of human actions.


Bolles, R. (1993). The story of psychology: A thematic history. California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Bergmann, G. (1956). The contribution of John B. Watson. Psychological review, 63(4), 265.

Crain, W. (2010). Theories of development: Concepts and applications, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cohen, D. (1980). JB Watson: The Founder of Behaviourism. Biography, 3(3), 272.

Fancher, R. E. (1990). Pioneers of Psychology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Gregory A., Michael W., and Charlotte W (2013). Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology. Psychology Press, p. 175.

Hergenhahn, B. (1992). An introduction to the history of psychology. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Hothersall, D. (2004). History of psychology. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Watson, J. (1930). Behaviorism (Revised edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Watson J. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological review 20 (2), p. 158.

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