The following text is © 1997 Robert Wozniak. All hyperlinked text links to footnotes located at the bottom of the document.

John B. Watson, Behaviorism, and Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology

Robert H. Wozniak
Bryn Mawr College

In 1913, John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) published two lectures that he had given before the Columbia University Psychological Seminary. In the first of these lectures, [1] which appeared in the Psychological Review, Watson articulated an iconoclastic vision of psychology:

"Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist's total scheme of investigation." [2]

In the second lecture, [3] published several months later in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Watson extended his argument. Using metaphors of war, he flatly denied the existence of centrally aroused mental images, argued that implicit verbal behavior -- not the image -- intervenes between stimulus and response, and reasserted his claim that the objective methods of the behaviorist know no dividing line between animal and human:

"Imagery from Galton on has been the inner stronghold of a psychology based on introspection. All of the outer defenses might be given over to the enemy, but the cause could never be wholly lost as long as the pass (introspection) to this stronghold (image) could be maintained. So well guarded is the image that it would seem almost foolhardy for us to make an attack on it. If I did not perceive certain signs of weakening on the part of the garrison...I should better admit the claims of imagery...(but) I prefer to attack rather to remain upon the defensive.

"There are no centrally initiated processes...Where explicit behavior is delayed (i.e., where deliberation ensues), the intervening time between stimulus and response is given over to implicit behavior (to "thought processes")...If implicit behavior can be shown to consist of nothing but words movements...the behavior of the human being as a whole is as open to objective observation and control as is the behavior of the lowest organism." .


With the publication of these two papers, Watson issued a call to arms within psychology. Frustrated with what he perceived to be psychologists' failure to appreciate the value of "behavior data...per se," [5] Watson embarked on a personal campaign to change the face of psychological science. Even after his career as an academic psychologist was abruptly and involuntarily cut short in 1920 [6], he continued to proselytize for behaviorism. [7] By the early 1930s, when the last of his ties to the science were severed, behaviorism had taken center stage within American psychology.

The neo-behaviorists Edward C. Tolman (1886-1959) [8] and Clark L. Hull (1884-1952) [9] were vying for ascendancy within experimental psychology, and a young student of animal behavior, B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), was already at work articulating the principles of a behaviorism that would be radical even by Watson's standards[10]. More importantly, introspection had been largely discredited. Regardless of theoretical persuasion, scientific psychologists all operated as methodological behaviorists. [11] Psychology had ceased to be the science of consciousness[12] and had become the science of "behavior data per se".

The first extended treatment of the behaviorist approach to the interpretation of behavior data appeared a little over a year after Watson issued his programmatic statement of 1913. Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology is widely acknowledged to be the first textbook of the new behaviorism. Not surprisingly, it begins with an almost verbatim reprint of the two earlier papers. Following this programmatic introduction, Watson provides a four-part taxonomy of problems in behavior research. Besides carrying out studies of sense organ function, instinctive function, and habit formation, the behaviorist, he argues, must work out the correlations in behavior data between ontogeny and phylogeny, behavior and structure, and behavior and structure with physico-chemical processes.

Watson's third chapter, devoted to apparatus and methods for the study of vertebrate behavior, is in many ways the book's most important contribution. Then, as now, the primary constraint on the development of behavioral research was methodological. Watson knew, as all psychologists do, that a theoretical perspective will be no more influential than the productivity of its methods, and in a section of some fifty pages, he offered students a methodological handbook for the new behaviorism. In this chapter he presented ground plans, figures, and detailed instructions for the construction of nearly every major type of apparatus then available for the study of animal behavior.

The remainder of Watson's text is then devoted to the extant behavior data. Two chapters are concerned with observational and experimental studies of instincts and their origin, five with habit formation -- including a section on language habits that contains almost the only discussion of human behavior data -- and four with the function of sense organs. In this regard, it is instructive to compare Watson's text to its closest "mentalistic" competitor, Margaret Floy Washburn's (1871-1939) Animal Mind: A Text-book of Comparative Psychology, which appeared in a second revised edition in 1917[13].

Although the Watson and Washburn texts are more alike in overall structure and research coverage than they are dissimilar, they do differ in certain fundamental ways. Where Watson introduces behaviorism, Washburn introduces mind. Where Watson talks of "habit formation", Washburn refers to "the modification of conscious processes by individual experience". Where Washburn describes the "visual perception of form", Watson discusses "response to form and size". Finally, Washburn's list of references is considerably more extensive than that of Watson. This seems to be partly accounted for by Watson's having omitted work that failed to lend itself to a straightforward behavioral interpretation.

In publishing Behavior, Watson hoped to achieve several goals. [14] He wished to provide his professional colleagues with an existence proof that psychology could be organized along behaviorist lines. He wanted to achieve a wider popular circulation for his ideas, and he hoped to infiltrate behaviorism into the introductory laboratory and the classroom. Through this first textbook and through succeeding texts, especially Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist,[15] which went through three editions and numerous printings, Watson succeeded in reaching those who were most open to change. Over the course of several professional generations, the students of behaviorism gradually transformed psychology. To make sense of the nature of that transformation, it is helpful to trace the roots of behaviorism back to Watson's own days as a student.

John Broadus Watson was born near Greenville, South Carolina in 1878. [16] The son of a ne'er-do-well father, against whom he harbored life-long resentment, and a devoutly religious mother, Watson spent much of his boyhood in the relative isolation and poverty of rural South Carolina[17]. In 1894, at the age of 16, he entered Furman University, from which he graduated five years later with a basic introduction to psychology and an M.A. degree. After a year as principal of a small private school, Watson obtained admission to the University of Chicago.

When Watson arrived at Chicago in 1900, he found himself in a unique intellectual environment. At the turn of the century, Chicago was the center of a new, quintessentially American orientation to psychology. John Dewey (1859-1952) had arrived from the University of Michigan in 1894. Together with George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and Addison W. Moore (1866-1930), whom he had brought to Chicago as assistant professors of philosophy, and James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), whom he had chosen to direct the laboratory of psychology, Dewey was forging a distinctively functional approach to psychological theory and research.

Functionalism in the Chicago style involved three related questions: How does X function? What is the function of X? And of what is X a function? The focus, in other words, was on processs, on use value, and on dependent relations to antecedent conditions. On the positive side the Chicago functionalists were influenced by the process approach to consciousness of William James (1842-1910) [18] and the evolutionary emphasis of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) on the survival value of biological structures and processes and on the dependent relationship between the organism and its environment. 19 On the negative side, their thought took form as a reaction against the excessively analytic, content-oriented structuralism of Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927). As Angell described the movement: [20]

"Functional psychology...involves the...effort to discern and portray the typical operations of consciousness under actual life conditions, as over against the attempt to analyze and describe its elementary and complex contents...It is...synonymous with descriptions and theories of mental action as distinct from the material of mental constitution... The most essential quarrel which the functionalist has with structuralism in its thoroughgoing and consistent form...touches the feasibility and worth of the effort to get at mental process as it is under the conditions of actual experience rather than as it appears to a merely post mortem analysis...The functional wont to take his cue from the basal conception of the evolutionary movement, i.e., that for the most part organic structures and functions possess their present characteristics by virtue of the efficiency with which they fit into the extant conditions of life broadly designated the environment." [21]

This was Chicago during John Watson's formative years. He took philosophy with Dewey, Moore, James Hayden Tufts (1862-1942), and Edward Scribner Ames (1870-1958). He worked under Angell in experimental psychology and he spent many a pleasant Sunday in the laboratory with Mead watching the behavior of rats and monkeys[22]. At Angell's suggestion, Watson chose neurology under Henry Herbert Donaldson (1857-1938) as one of his two minor fields. It was in this context that he met Jacques Loeb (1859-1924), a biologist who not only made a number of independent contributions to objective psychology but also exerted a critical influence on the direction of Watson's nascent objectivism. [23]

Loeb, who had come to Chicago from Germany in 1892, [24] was already famous for his tropism theory of animal conduct. [25] According to Loeb's view, conditions of morphological and physiological symmetry in any animal are such that motions caused by light, gravity, contact and other agencies that "appear to the layman as expressions of will and purpose on the part of the animal...(are) in reality...forced movements...determined by internal or external forces." [26]

Loeb's interest was in the general mechanisms by which animal behavior is controlled. It was his strong belief that scientists, armed with this knowledge, could learn to govern organic behavior much as engineers control the behavior of inorganic materials. To achieve an understanding of these general mechanisms, Loeb thought it necessary to focus on reactions of many different types of organisms. In addition, as Pauly has shown, [27] Loeb was holistic and peripheralist in his orientation. He thought of tropisms as a response of the whole organism, "attacked the notion that it was necessary to explain actions such as tropisms in terms of sensorimotor physiology," and argued that "the central nervous system did not necessarily play an indispensable role in" tropistic behavior. [28]

Watson was impressed. Indeed, he even thought briefly of working under Loeb for the dissertation, [29] an idea that received a decidedly cool response from Angell and Donaldson. As Watson described it, "Neither Angell nor Donaldson in those days felt that Loeb was a very "safe" man for a green Ph.D. candidate, so I took my research jointly under Donaldson and Angell on the correlation between increasing complexity of the behavior in the white rat and the growth of medullation in the central nervous system." [30] Be that as it may, and not withstanding the fact that Watson's early immersion in functionalism made behaviorism possible, his future approach to psychology bore more the stamp of Loeb than that of either Angell or Donaldson. As Pauly[31] has indicated:

" can see that on every issue Watson sided with Loeb. Watson emphasized external and peripheral factors at the expense of internal and central ones; he sought broad generalizations across individuals and species; his approach was holistic and dynamic, not structural-mechanical; and, above all, his goals were experimental control and engineering, quite independent of evolutionary concerns." [32]

From 1903 to 1908, Watson remained at Chicago as an assistant and then an instructor in experimental psychology. During this period, he built and wired his own laboratory, designed his own apparatus, and pursued seminal research on the role of sensory cues in maze learning in rats. It was also at Chicago that he first began to formulate his later point of view:

"I never wanted to use human subjects. I hated to serve as a subject. I didn't like the stuffy, artificial instructions given to subjects. I always was uncomfortable and acted unnaturally. With animals I was at home...More and more the thought presented itself: Can't I find out by watching their behavior everything that the other students are finding out by using (human) O(bserver)s?" [33]

Although Watson was happy at Chicago, in 1907 James Mark Baldwin, then head of the Philosophy Department at Johns Hopkins, made Watson an academic offer that was too good to resist. [34] A year later Watson, barely 30 years of age, moved to Baltimore as a Full Professor. At Hopkins Watson had the opportunity to discuss his emerging views with Baldwin, [35] Knight Dunlap (1875-1949), and Adolf Meyer (1866-1950), among others. Dunlap and Meyer were especially important during this period in helping Watson to sharpen his argument, [36] but it was through scientific collaboration and a deepening friendship with Robert M. Yerkes (1876-1956) that Watson's behaviorism finally matured.

Yerkes and Watson shared a passion for the study of animal behavior. In 1909, Yerkes came to Hopkins as a visiting scientist and he and Watson made use of the visit to develop a new apparatus and method for the study of visual discriminations in animals. [37] The Yerkes-Watson discrimination method served for many years as the standard behavioral technique in American laboratories of comparative psychology. In 1910, in an attempt to effect an alliance between psychology, physiology, zoology, and anatomy, Yerkes and Watson collaborated again, this time to found the Journal of Animal Behavior. [38]

In the meantime, Watson's frustration with mainstream psychology was reaching the boiling point. His fundamental arguments for behaviorism were in place, but as is evident from a letter written to Yerkes in February 1910, a lingering sense of professional insecurity kept Watson from launching his attack for another three years:

"...I would remodel psychology as we now have it...and reconstruct our attitude with reference to the whole matter of consciousness. I don't believe the (human) psychologist is studying consciousness any more than we are and I am willing to say that consciousness is merely a tool, a fundamental assumption with which the chemist works, the physiologist and every one else who observes. All of our sensory work, memory work, attention, etc. are part of definite modes of behavior. I have thought of writing...just what I think of the work being done in human experimental psychology. It lacks an all embracing scheme in which all the smaller pieces may find their place. It has no big problems. Every little piece of work which comes out is an unrelated unit. This might all be changed if we would take a simpler, behavior view of life and make adjustment the key note. But I fear to do it now because my place here is not ready for it. My thesis developed as I long to develop it would certainly separate me from the psychologists -- Titchener would cast me off and I fear Angell would do likewise."

In 1913, the attack was launched, bolstered a year later by the appearance of Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. Published reactions were few and relatively mild. [40] There never was a behaviorist revolution; but behaviorism did slowly take hold. The war was won by attrition and by conversion. As older psychologists passed into history, they were replaced by younger minds more easily excited by Watson's vision. [41] By the mid-1930s, behaviorism, methodological and/or theoretical, had become the dominant orientation within psychology. For John B. Watson, however, the transformation of psychology had come too late. A New York City advertising executive, [42] Watson had been lost to the field that he loved for reasons that had nothing to do with the revolutionary psychology that he had preached.


1. Watson, J.B. (1913a). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177. This lecture was given at Columbia on 24 February 1913. [Back to text]

2. Ibid., p. 158. [Back to text]

3. Watson, J.B. (1913b). Image and affection in behavior. The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 10, 421-428. This lecture was given at Columbia on 3 April 1913. [Back to text]

4. Ibid., pp. 421-424. [Back to text]

5. Watson (1913a), p. 158. [Back to text]

6. Watson, J.B. (1936). John Broadus Watson. In C. Murchison (Ed). A history of psychology in autobiography. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, pp. 271-281. [Back to text]

7. Watson, J.B. (1924/1925). Behaviorism. New York: People's Institute Publishing Company; Watson, J.B. (1928). The ways of behaviorism. New York: Harper & Brothers; Watson, J.B. & McDougall, W. (1928). The battle of behaviorism. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. [Back to text]

8. Tolman, E.C. (1932). Purposive behavior in animals and men. New York: Century. [Back to text]

9. Hull, C.L. (1930). Simple trial-and-error learning: A study in psychological theory. Psychological Review, 37, 241-256; Hull, C.L. (1934). The concept of the habit-family hierarchy and maze learning. Psychological Review, 41, 33-52, 134-152. [Back to text]

10. Skinner, B.F. (1931). The concept of the reflex in the description of behavior. Journal of General Psychology, 5, 427-458. [Back to text]

11. See, for example, Woodworth, R.S. (1938). Experimental psychology. New York: Henry Holt. [Back to text]

12. It is important to recognize that this change was not synonymous with the banishment from psychology of mental constructs and mental terms. Thus, for example, concepts such as "purpose," "choice," and "expectancy" were central to the cognitive behaviorism of Tolman (1932). Mental constructs were given the status of hypothetical constructs or intervening variables that bore a functional relationship to stimuli and behavior. The critical thing about neobehaviorism is that behavior -- not mind -- was the thing to be explained and mental terms, if they were used at all, were used only in the service of the explanation of behavior. [Back to text]

13. Washburn, M.F. (1917). The animal mind: A text-book of comparative psychology. NY: Macmillan. [Back to text]

14. Buckley, K.W. (1989). Mechanical man. John Broadus Watson and the beginnings of behaviorism. NY: Guilford Press, p. 82. [Back to text]

15. Watson, J.B. (1919). Psychology from the standpoint of a behaviorist. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott. [Back to text]

16. Biographical details are drawn primarily from two sources: Watson (1936) and Buckley (1989). [Back to text]

17. In 1890, at the age of 12, Watson moved with his family to Greenville. See Buckley (1989), pp. 5-9 for an interesting discussion of the importance of this move for Watson's development. [Back to text]

18. James, W. (1884). On some omissions of introspective psychology. Mind, 9, 1-26. [Back to text]

19. Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of the species by means of natural selection, or, The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray. [Back to text]

20. Angell, J.R. (1907). The province of functional psychology. Psychological Review, 14, 61-91. [Back to text]

21. Ibid., pp. 61-68. [Back to text]

23. See Pauly, P.J. (1981). The Loeb-Jennings debate and the science of animal behavior. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 17, 504-515, especially p. 512, for an excellent analysis of this influence. [Back to text]

23. with an intervening year at Bryn Mawr College, where he taught comparative psychology. [Back to text]

24. Loeb, J. (1890). Der Heliotropismus der Thiere und seine Uebereinstimmung mit den Heliotropismus der Pflanzen. Wčrzburg: Georg Hertz. [Back to text]

25. Loeb, J. (1918). Forced movements, tropisms, and animal conduct. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott. [Back to text]

26. Pauly (1981), p. 506. See also Pauly, P.J. (1987). Controlling life: Jacques Loeb and the engineering ideal in biology. New York: Oxford University Press. [Back to text]

27. Pauly (1981), p. 506. [Back to text]

28. Watson (1936), p. 273. [Back to text]

29. Ibid. Watson's dissertation was published as: Watson, J.B. (1903). Animal education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Back to text]

30. Pauly (1981), the context of this discussion is an analysis of the debate between Loeb and Herbert Spencer Jennings (1868-1947) regarding the nature of invertebrate behavior. [Back to text]

31. Ibid., p. 512[Back to text]

32. Watson (1936), p. 276. [Back to text]

33. Ibid., p. 275. [Back to text]

34. Until 1909 when Baldwin was forced to resign after his arrest in a Baltimore bordello became a matter of public comment [See: Baldwin, J.M. (1926). Between two wars, 1861-1921, being memories, opinions and letters received. Boston: The Stratford Company. 2 volumes.] [Back to text]

35. See Watson (1936), pp. 276-277. [Back to text]

36. Yerkes, R.M. & Watson, J.B. (1911). Methods of studying vision in animals. Boston: Holt. [Behavior Monographs, Number 2].

[Back to text]

37. Published in 7 volumes from 1911 to 1917. [Back to text]

38. Watson to Yerkes, February 6, 1910, Yerkes papers, Yale University, cited in Buckley (1989), p. 72. [Back to text]

39. Samelson, F. (1981). Struggle for scientific authority: The reception of Watson's behaviorism, 1913-1920. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 17, 399-425, [Back to text]

40. See, for example: Tolman, E.C. (1952). Edward Chace Tolman. In Boring, E.G.; Langfeld, H.S.; Werner, H., & Yerkes, R.M. (Eds). A history of psychology in autobiography. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, p. 329; and Hull, C.L. (1952). Clark L. Hull. In Boring, E.G.; Langfeld, H.S.; Werner, H., & Yerkes, R.M. (Eds). A history of psychology in autobiography. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, pp. 153-154.

[Back to text]

41. Watson(1936), pp. 279-281. [Back to text]