The Legacy of John B. Watson: On Voodoism and The Unexamined Influence of the Father of Behaviorism on American Psychology

Posted by Nikole Hollenitsch on Jun 2, 2015 10:05:00 PM

A guest post by faculty member Oksana Yakushko, Ph.D.

Who Was John B. Watson and What Did He Contribute to Mainstream Psychology?

johnbwatsonIn the early 1900s, John B. Watson, relatively unknown research psychologist from Johns Hopkins, delivered the “Behaviorist Manifesto” to an audience at Columbia University. He decried the psychology’s misguided infatuation with “introspection” and consciousness, neither of which could be measured or objectively defined. Psychology, in his view, mired by what he called Freud’s unscientific “voodoism,” has gone in the wrong direction. In contrast, Watson proposed a psychology that is a true “scientific” discipline, seeking to understand and control human behavior in “physico-chemical” terms. Introspection, he argued, has no place in this scientific endeavor..

It's All About Timing

Watson’s manifesto was rightly timed. Freudians, still based mostly in Europe, were already discredited as a “Jewish” discipline not informed by the “real” sciences, despite the extensive educational backgrounds of most of the early analysts. The discreditors of psychoanalysis had one thing right: the activities and teaching of the early Freud followers indeed often fell outside the official treatment spaces. They advocated for free psychological clinics for those who could not afford care, free kindergartens with trained caregivers for kids whose parents were toiling in factories all day, and free treatment for those who were traumatized by violence. In short, they were socialists, and when many of them fled to the U.S. they were easily barred from any positions of authority, including University posts, already dominated by American behaviorists running studies in animal labs. 

In the mean time, Watson developed his grand plans for liberating humanity from the oppression of fear and dependency. Buoyed by Pavlov’s Nobel prize win and generously supported by the grants from the War Department, Watson pushed his own animal studies (mostly on rats) toward humans. He actively worked toward his grand goal: to have access to untainted freshly-born human material, such as infants,  he could use his animal-based behavioral strategies to mold them into whatever he wished.

In fact, Watson dreamed on a “farm” of such infant. He famously said, “Give me a dozen healthy infants well-formed and my own specified world to bring them up in", he so famously offered, "and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select”. Watson’s curious obsession with the purity of the infant experience may reflect his own struggles. Raised by a strict Southern Baptist mother, who saw “devil” in anything that was “dirty” or “dark,” Watson was famously afraid of the unlit places and obsessive about cleanliness throughout his life. Indeed, if only infants could be taken before they learn unhealthy human responses and trained to resist the fear, to be made free of it… 

If you have not learned about Watson’s “Little Albert” experiments in a U.S. high school or college psychology class, either your education was deficient or you found Psych 101 better served as your nap time. All of us are taught that Watson proved through the use of experiments that as human beings we can truly be made free: our petty fears are conditioned and they can, thus, be unconditioned. 

What You Probably Don't Know About Watson

What is not included in any of these textbooks and lectures is that “Little Albert,” an infant son of a wet nurse beholden by her job at Johns Hopkins hospital, had many neurological deficiencies, apparently known to Watson and Reyner (they preferred an infant who was a bit more docile than your average 6 months old). And you probably did not hear that while where Watson worked, the little boy indeed became scared of everything fluffy and white and a whole lot of other things Watson and Reiner showed to him, he was never unconditioned from his fear response. Not only did the boy show resistance to Watson’s methods, his mother, finally reaching her “breaking point” with the experiments, pulled her boy out of the studies before they were finished. Watson decided that his 'almost results' were good enough: he presented the non-results as surely obvious findings that would have eventually been found. His claim that our human fears can be easily conditioned and then unconditioned, thus gave the “scientific” foundation to a whole host of treatments and experiments that define American psychology.

Watson’s ideas took off like wildfire in academic psychology. The assumptions of behaviorism are indeed straight forward: human beings are like any animals studied in the animal labs—we can be controlled, changed, manipulated, and, the best news of all, made free of our petty human foibles and fears through precise steps and methods. This study of behavior, like on our animal counterparts, could be carried out in University labs with small numbers of dedicated “psychology students,” operationalized (i.e., manualized), and measured. Abundantly funded by government grants and cordially embraced within psychology training institutions in the U.S., behaviorists methods thrived into today’s mental health landscape.

Adding to the Behaviorist Methods

Some time in the 1960s cognitions (rational or irrational) were added to the stimulus-response equation affecting behavior (adaptive or maladaptive) – cognitions, which supposedly can be individually identified, controlled, and changed (hence, the modern cognitive-behavioral approaches). New versions of behaviorism also added such techniques as shifting your eye balls as in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment, which combines behavioral exposure therapy with little-understood eye-movement supposed to treat trauma. There are also Solution Focused, Acceptance and Commitment, and Rational-Emotive therapies and other iterations of otherwise the same treatment modality that views human beings as a collection of clearly identifiable causes and effects that can be assessed and manipulated by a “clinician.” Even such rich spiritual traditions as Buddhism have been stripped into operationalized behavioral steps to teach you McMeditation for a quick method to control those unwanted thoughts and behaviors that bug us.

Do Behaviorist Methods Work?

Do people, like Pavolov’s dogs, respond to such treatments? Certainly. And if you are receiving treatment at a University lab (or a VA) with research “clinicians” telling you that if you comply with their “scientific” treatment, you’ll get better (otherwise, the problem is surely with you, not the methods), most of us indeed shape up. Behavior therapies work. Like diets. And when they don’t, it’s because you have to want it to, to do your homework, to apply what you learned. If you do so then you will surely be free of those nagging fears, bad habits, and relational troubles. Just like you’d have that perfect body if you could maintain that latest special diet. Who’s to blame?

Behaviorism is not the only game in psychology. Even sciences (through some rogue University labs such as at Columbia and U Penn) are showing that “voodoism” of psychoanalysis works, and often much better than so-called “empirically validated” and “evidence based” behavioral approaches. Be assured, Freud’s “talking cure” and further developments of analysis are alive and well (especially almost everywhere outside the U.S. that is a bit out of reach of American academic influence such as in South America). Today’s “voodoism” consists of not only classic psychoanalysis but many dynamic contemporary methods that explore our complexity and relational capacity. In the U.S. context you’d do better reading books on culture, colonialism, history, gender, sexuality, or even business to find out more about it.

Enter Depth Psychology

depthAlso thriving are Carl Jung’s ideas, emphasizing human wholeness and our ability to find our own distinct path by facing what we believe is unacceptable in ourselves and others. If you live in a city of any size, you can find Friends of Jung groups – lively learning spaces where everything from contemporary culture to spirituality to ecopsychology to literature are discussed as part of the human experience of what we call a psyche. Not sure Friends of Watson even exist. But anyone attending another famous set of groups-- AA or related self-help collectives-- has Jung to thank for: the idea of the Higher Power in facing one’s shadows, knowing oneself, and doing something in relation to others as part of your treatment are all essential aspects of analysis in many Jungian traditions (which Bill W. learned from a friend analyzed by Jung). And you certainly are seeing Jungian teachings in action when you watch any movie 

made in the U.S. for the past many decades: the screenwriters learn from day one about such concepts as archetypes, projections, need for mythology, and search for wholeness. These ideas make good movies: we relate to real struggling and growing people, whether they are superheroes or monsters. Imagine watching Frodo after a “successful” cognitive-behavioral treatment.

Even when we are tortured, we still don’t always act like you’d expect an animal to behave (or what we project into animal behavior in any case). Victor Frankl, another trained psychoanalyst, developed an existential perspective in psychology after his years of being imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Studying his own and other survivor experiences he showed that there is much more to us than stimuli and responses: we possess a profound freedom to act and be, to find meaning, even under most dire circumstances. There are also transpersonal, Gestalt, humanistic, family systems, client-centered, feminist, ecopsychological, and indigenous/shamanic psychologies among many others.

A Call to Embrace and Apply Other Methodologies that are Proven to Work

behaviorNevertheless, U.S. academic psychological landscape remains staunchly (cognitive) behaviorist.  Officially, mainstream academic psychology tolerates other approaches. But if you want a flavor of how all of these traditions are covered, pull out your high school or college Psych 101 and see what they tell you about Freud. Or read an online brochure for vets explaining what mental health treatment is at a VA. More often, either directly (textbooks) or indirectly (what training programs are recognized, what kind of treatments are approved by insurance providers, what studies are funded by grants) mainstream “psychology” is highly dismissive of anything other than (cognitive) behavioral treatments. We are now told that under the Affordable Care Act, “quality assurance” of these other approaches cannot be verified.  This statement is untrue according to a number of scholarly studies that explore these approaches (read summaries by Jonathan Shedler or by Bruce Wampold or other volumes of studies pointing to quite the opposite).

Despite volumes of new research which point to how psychoanalytically based treatments are among the most effective in getting you to feel better even with the most severe conditions or result in you improving on your own years after finishing your treatment (unlike behavioral and cognitive approaches that typically send you back for more after about a year), and apparently address more than a single symptom (see Shedler, 2010 in the American Psychologist) mainstream psychology is based on (cognitive) behavioral treatments. And what about in Germany where their citizens have freedom to choose among psychological treatments and have it be paid by their universal insurance for three years, Jungian and psychoanalytic treatments are not only highly effective in resolving psychological concerns but also result in much lower use of overall health services and improvement without any subsequent treatment (see Roesler’s, 2013 article and his book). “Voodoism” actually works really really well.

And yet here in the U.S. behaviorism continues to be touted as the primary treatment of choice, especially for the most vulnerable communities: seriously mentally ill, children with autism, the veterans. If recent books and articles are any indication that veterans are trying to give themselves a choice outside of exposure therapy or EMDR, there may be a change for them. Unless you were born in the NYC area (or South America) where analysis is normative, the insidious insistence of academic psychology in the U.S. that “their” treatment approaches are the only ones that are truly scientific, that “their” accredited program provide the only valid training to psychologists-to-be, or that "their" many grants testify to their rightness, or that their dominance in the VA and other community mental health systems or even in services covered by the Affordable Care (no, you won’t be able to see an analyst) are justified, indeed show that the behaviorist American psychology is the answer to all of our psychological treatment needs.

What Ever Happened to Watson?

Watson’s own experience with academic psychology and the APA was less triumphant. He was kicked out of Johns Hopkins for his affair with his student Rosalie Reiner, who was more than half his age. Not the first or last affair with a student, it cost Watson’s his post and access to research facilities and funding. He did not give up his desire to apply animal approaches to human beings, experimenting on all four of his children. His 1928 book on child-rearing continues to be used despite its awful premises that children should never be touched or told they are loved in order for them to grow into self-reliant non-needy individuals. He also put his behavioral principles to financially lucrative use by working within an advertising industry: he is credited with developing branding of cigarettes to children and instituting coffee breaks for unhappy office workers so that they’d drink more of the stuff.

Unlike contemporary psychology in the U.S. still pushing Watson’s ideals albeit in new variations, Watson himself apparently regretted a lot of what he had done and verbally repudiated some of his theories.  He refused to accept a life-time achievement award from the APA himself and sent his son Billy, a Freudian psychiatrist (talk about voodoo), in his stead. His children were suicidal, depressed, and had severe physical health problems they blamed on Watson’s scheduled feedings. The only one of his children, who seemed to come through the psychologically traumatizing behaviorist treatment inflicted by his father, credited extensive psychoanalysis for his recovery. Prior to his death of alcohol related disorder, Watson burned all of his papers. He also remained scared of the dark and the dirt until his last days.

Maybe it is time for our collective and extensive analysis as a culture of therapy-seekers and mental health junkies seeking ever quicker fixes. Maybe we should demand that our insurances cover therapies other than (cognitive) behavioral and that our non-CogB therapists stop having to lie about their supposed behavioral treatments with us to our insurance reviewers. Maybe children with autism can receive more than behavioral analysis. Maybe veterans would not be required to re-live their traumatic experiences in order to identify cognitive and behavioral triggers to control but invited to find themselves amidst their experiences of horror. Maybe psychologists, most of whom seek their own therapy and typically from other psychoanalytically oriented clinicians, would face the hypocrisy of delivering one treatment to the rest of us while seeking something with a bit more meaning for themselves. Just maybe. And maybe the rest of us will educate ourselves about the use of such terms as “empirical,” “evidence-based,” “accredited,” and so on and understand the long-standing assumptions of the field that sought to flee from “voodoism” of human “introspection” toward the control of our humanity through “physico-chemical” methods.

"Grandfather's theories infected my mother's life, my life, and the lives of millions. How do you break a legacy? How do you keep from passing a debilitating inheritance down, generation to generation, like a genetic flaw?"- Mary Loretta Hartley, granddaughter to John B. Watson; in memoir of her experiences, "Breaking the Silence" (Putnam Group, 1990).



Yakushko_OksanaOksana Yakushko, Ph.D. Dr. Yakushko's training and interests span depth psychology, women and gender studies, and psychology. Her clinical and research interests focus on immigration, human trafficking, diversity, and gender issues. In addition, she has written on indigenous healing practices, women's spirituality, multicultural counseling approaches, and qualitative cross-cultural research methods. Dr. Yakushko has published over 50 peer reviewed articles, book chapters, and book reviews. She has received several awards for her scholarly work and activism including an APA Presidential Citations (2008), (2011) and the Oliva Espin Social Justice Award (2008). In addition to her scholarly work, she has been active in the American Psychological Association and local initiatives focused on health and spirituality. Her goal as a chair is to nurture both the students and the clinical programs toward a soulful engagement with issues of today's world, inside and outside the classroom.

Topics: C.G. Jung, history of psychology, clinical psychology, Psychology