John B. Watson , together with Ivan Pavlov, was one of the important characters of classical conditioning and was key to the later development of Operant Conditioning that became famous thanks to B.F. Skinner. Both classical and operant or instrumental conditioning are part of behaviorism , one of the most outstanding currents in psychology.

Although classical conditioning was born thanks to the experiments of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who was interested in salivation reflexes in dogs, Watson introduced it in the United States where it had a great impact on the American educational system.

Biography of John Broadus Watson

John Broadus Watson was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1878 and died in New York in 1958.

He studied at the University of Chicago and graduated in 1903. He wrote many scientific articles, one of the first being called “Animal Education: an experimental study of the psychic development of a white rat, in correlation with the growth of its nervous system”. In this article he describes the relationship between brain myelinization and learning ability in rodents .

Watson worked at John Hopkins University for 14 years, and there he conducted a great deal of experiments on bird learning. In 1920 he left his job at the University because of rumors about a romantic relationship with his assistant Rosalie Reyner, with whom he performed his famous experiment on “little Albert”. Then he went to work as a psychologist in the company Thompson, and became interested in the field of advertising .

One of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century

As professor of psychology at John Hopkins University (United States) between 1908 and 1920, Watson was considered one of the most influential and decisive figures of the last century . His work is studied today in all the faculties of psychology around the globe, and is one of the bases for learning and for the treatment of some psychopathologies such as phobias. Therefore, his conclusions cannot be missing from any introductory book to psychology.

Although his career as an academic was short, his legacy has been much debated for almost a century. Watson helped define the study of behavior and psychology as a science , and emphasized the importance of learning and the influence of context on the development of human beings.

Watson popularized Behaviorism

He was a radical behaviorist, an anti-mentalist, and as such, he criticized Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, as he claimed that the study of consciousness and introspection had no place in psychology as a science. Psychology, according to Watson, only made sense through observable and measurable behavior , and therefore, his experiments were conducted in the laboratory, where he could manipulate the environment and control the behavior of his subjects.

The objective of behaviorism is to make psychology a natural science, and therefore, it must have methods that allow observing, measuring and predicting variables. John B. Watson will always be remembered as the person who coined and popularized behaviorism thanks to his publications and research.

Classic conditioning

Watson’s contributions to behaviorism are due to his experiments in classical conditioning , a type of learning that involves automatic responses or reflexes, and which is characterized by the creation of a connection between a new stimulus and an existing reflex. In other words, it is a type of learning according to which a neutral stimulus, which does not provoke a response, becomes able to provoke it thanks to the associative connection of this stimulus with the stimulus that normally provokes this response.

John Watson was inspired by the research of the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, but, in addition, thought that classical conditioning also explained learning in humans . Watson was clear that emotions were also learned through conditioned association, so that the differences in behaviour between humans were the cause of the different experiences that each one lived.

If you want to know more about Classical Conditioning and Ivan Pavlov’s experiments, we invite you to read our article: “Classical Conditioning and its most important experiments”

The experiment with “little Albert”

To test his hypothesis that emotions could be learned by conditioned association, Watson used an 11-month-old boy named Albert as an experimental subject . It should be mentioned that this study could not be carried out at present because of a breach of scientific ethics.

Albert was taken to the lab where he was introduced to a white rat. When the little one approached to touch it, Watson would strike a metal bar with a hammer. As a result of the heavy blow, the baby became upset and, out of fear, began to cry. Watson repeated this process half a dozen times, and observed that, after different trials, little Albert was scared simply by the fact of seeing the white rat . Albert had learned that every time the rat appeared, the hammer would hit the metal board. In other words, he anticipated the heavy blow.

Here’s a video so you can visualize the experiment:

According to the scientist, this was due to classical conditioning. The Unconditioned Stimulus (EI) is a stimulus that automatically causes a response from the organism. In Watson’s experiment, he would refer to the hammer blow. The Unconditioned Response (RI), that is, the response that occurs because of the presence of EI, would be the feeling of fear. The white rat would be the Neutral Stimulus (EN), because it does not produce any response in the body.

However, when EN (white rat) is presented several times along with EI (hammer blow) causing an RI (fear), EN (white rat) becomes a Conditioned Stimulus (EC). Then, the presence of EC (i.e., the white rat) triggers a Conditioned Response (RC). The Conditioned Response is equal to the IR (feeling of fear).

Classical conditioning and phobias

This is the most frequent mechanism of acquisition of phobias , a strong irrational fear that some people suffer as a result of associating negative experiences with the presence of something (flying in an airplane, spiders, clowns, among many others).