A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Defending John Watson - Asshole Behaviorist

Mike Samsa had a post a few weeks ago explaining common misunderstandings about behaviorism. There were some good points. Among them was discussion of Watson's claim regarding his ability to manipulate children:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one 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... (1930, p.82)
Now, I don't really like Watson. I think he derailed what was supposed to be a brilliant next step in the development of American Philosophy, and turned into something trite and hollow. Also, he was clearly an asshole, both as a member of the profession and as a human being.

That said, I am certainly willing to defend this claim. I think, when it is examined carefully, that it is quite reasonable, and that history has proved him right.

Let's note a few important points about Watson's claim:
  1. He specifies that the infants be "healthy" and "well-formed".
  2. He lists professions that require no particularly special physical abilities (e.g. no "professional weight lifter"). 
  3. He lists those professions as quite broad categories (e.g., "doctor" not "brain-tumor surgeon").
  4. He does not say they will be exceptional at those jobs compared to their peers.
  5. He does not say they will be particularly happy in their profession. 
  6. He does seem to imply that they are in their professions willingly, as they are to be "trained to become" a member of that profession; but many people choose to be in professions they are not great at and are not particularly happy with.
 Does anyone today seriously doubt that this is possible? Given that our children grow up and go into different professions, given that some parents steer their children into professions effectively, given that there are cultures in which jobs are determined at quite young ages and most people stay in them?

It is clearly ambitious to claim you could do it simultaneously with a dozen infants, but that is a logistical problem, not a "could it be done?" problem. It is, perhaps, unclear if Watson himself could have done it, in 1930, with 12 infants. However, I suspect with the right money and resources, he could have. Given his penchant for experimentalism, if he had some problems with the first dozen, he surely would iron out those mistakes for the next dozen. 

In this day and age, most folks believe that any normally functioning child can grow up to be any of the professions that Watson names. If they can become that, then you can manipulate the environment to make them more likely to become that. Thus, today, any remaining question is purely about how high a probability you could achieve.

Note also, that while people seem to think Watson would be setting up various systems of reinforcement and punishment, nothing like that is mentioned. He wants control of the complete environment. That makes me ask myself questions like, "What would I do to make an engineer?" My bet is that I could take any "well formed" infant, get them through high school at a passing level, then send them to Olin College with a full ride for 4-6 years, and in the end they will be "trained to become" an Engineer. It seems to me that the level of detail required to reliably get someone trained in a profession isn't very detailed. Do I know exactly what that person will do every instant of the day? No. Do I know that that person will become a trained engineer? Yes. If I did a shoddy job getting the kid math in high school, it might take them an extra year, maybe two, but it would happen. Making a thief or a beggar would be even easier, and a lot cheaper.

In sum, today this quote is still being held up as a dramatic example of the flaws of behaviorism, and yet, when pressed, I suspect most people believe it could be done... at least today... with sufficient resources. It is a false protest.

But, actually, regarding this quote, we shouldn't just think Watson was right, we should admire his open-minded thinking.


Ask yourself: If Watson's claim is so obviously true, why has there been all this fuss for 80 years?!?

I think there is confusion  about this, because the point of the controversy has changed. At the time, the quote would have been controversial for reasons that people are now far less sensitive to. Today, I think, people find the first half of the quote controversial, implying, as it does, that Watson's can mold the child's will. In contrast, I suspect it was that last half of the quote that was the most controversial in 1930:  
regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors...
Watson was dismissing a whole range of things that were widely held to limit the potential of a child, even one who otherwise seemed healthy and well-formed. At a time when folks believed much more strongly than today that a person's race limited their abilities to succeed in certain professions --- and folks believed much more strongly than today that some people were born with built in moral compasses that would lead them towards, or away from, certain professions --- this was a strikingly bold claim.

By today's standards, in fact, it is a very Liberal claim! The  only difference between a white boy running a successful business and a white boy begging is... the world they found themselves in?!? A child of any race can be a doctor or lawyer, if we just give them the right support?!?  

"YES!" Watson claims, "I can take a child of any race, or parentage, and despite what you may think, they can be made into a productive member of whatever profession you name."


Alright, that's enough defending Watson for one decade.


  1. It's tough when assholes are onto something with their science :)

  2. I doubt whether Watson had any intention of following-through on his claim.

    The very next sentence in that passage reads, "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."

    Maybe he intended it more as a attention-grabbing exercise, a precursor of his susbsequent work in advertising...?

  3. I agree that he never intended to do this, but I suspect he would have happily taken up the challenge had a rich enough person been interested in seeing the experiment through. (Those being the days before Big Government funding and before human-subjects review boards.)

    It is controversial, and he was definitely going beyond the facts of his day... but as a whole I think history has proved him, in this case, correct. --- Definitely more correct than proponents of the opposite view, quite possibly just completely correct.

  4. The motto of the criticism is generally put in terms of his so-called "extreme environmentalism," and no doubt modern evolutionary psychology and some branches of biology seem to be angry that someone is downplaying the role of genes. As usual, this is more of a straw man attack, as shown by omitting the last portion of Watson's infamous quote. Also, less attention is put on who and what was Watson arguing against: particularly McDougall and the then popular eugenics movement. People don't seem to notice that Watson's assertion is actually a reason for hope

  5. Is there any evidence that supports Watson's claim, and is there evidence that does not support his claim?

  6. Strange how much things can change in just 5 years..."Does anyone today seriously doubt that this is possible?" Anyone acquainted with the literature on monozygotic twins knows that Watson was absolutely wrong when he thought he could train children into becoming specialists of a certain type.