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Watson, John B

Entry updated 2 October 2018. Tagged: Author.

(1878-1958) US psychologist and author, the principal figure in the creation and advancement of the school of behaviourism that dominated modern American Psychology for many decades (its influence was greatest in the US). He is of little direct sf interest, though indirectly his theory and practice can be seen to tacitly underlie much Genre SF, in tales where it is assumed that any child can gain competence, and even Superpowers, through the benefits of proper education (see Children in SF; Education in SF), rather like the Frankenstein Monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). At the same time, however, it is clear that any behaviourist experiment in raising children as tabulae rasae awaiting illumination would assume that the infants to be Uplifted will come from "healthy" stock. That this is back-door Eugenics is clear enough. Watson acknowledges as much in a famous paragraph which appears in various editions of Behaviorism (as multiple pamphlets 1924; 1925):

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.

In his lightly fictionalized "Should a Child Have More Than One Mother?: A Psychologist's Notion of a Better Way to Grow Up" (29 June 1929 Liberty), Watson promulgates a Utopia on these lines. It is run by "behaviourist physicians" who police thought and action, and are authorized to maintain the health of the community by committing euthanasia on the unfit. Males and females are segregated (Watson's psychology radically minimized the role and immanence of Sex in Homo sapiens), with roles determined on conventional lines, males learning science and medicine and females home-management (see Feminism Women in SF); when they mate, they remain monogamous, though their children are raised communally.

Watson's proposal to found an "infant farm" himself never bore fruit, but the psychologist B F Skinner, who was deeply influenced by him, created an adroitly Watsonesque Utopia in Walden Two (1948). [JC]

John Broadus Watson

born Travelers Rest, South Carolina: 20 April 1878

died Woodbury, Connecticut: 11 September 1958

works (highly selected)

  • Behaviourism (New York: The Peoples' Institute Publishing Company Incorporated, 1925) [nonfiction: assembles twelve consecutive pamphlets first issued 1924: hb/nonpictorial.]
  • "Should a Child Have More Than One Mother?: A Psychologist's Notion of a Better Way to Grow Up" (29 June 1929 Liberty: A Weekly for Everybody) [Vol 6, number 25: mag/]


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