John Broadus Watson, I-O Psychologist
Diane F. DiClemente and Donald A. Hantula
John B. Watson (1878-1958) was one of the most well known early psychologists
whose work and professional relationships spanned the field from comparative
psychology (e.g. Watson, 1908a, 1909b; Watson & Lashley, 1915), experimental
psychology (e.g. Watson 1907), sensory psychology (Watson, 1909a) to behavioral
psychology (Watson & Rayner, 1920). Indeed, the terms "behavioral"
and "experimental" are often used to describe Watson and his work, and
they have overshadowed his contributions to I-O psychology. Thus, it may
surprise many to find that Watson was involved in applied psychological research
throughout most of his life, but his contributions to the field of I-O
psychology have often been overlooked despite the fact that many of his ideas
Watson's career in advertising is usually discussed in relation to his
applied psychology work, but what may be most unexpected about Watson's work in
applied psychology is that it did not inspire the current behavior analytic
consumer psychology literature with active research programs in classical
conditioning (e.g. Tom, 1995) and operant conditioning (e.g. Lindsley, 1962;
Foxall 1994). Although his best-known applied work was in advertising, it was
his accomplishments in personnel selection and management that continue to have
an effect today. In this paper we present Watson's largely unknown contributions
to I-O psychology, especially in personnel selection, with the majority of this
research garnered from documents that contain many of Watson's original writings
from the Watson files in the Library of Congress.
Tenor of the Times: Applied Psychology in the Air (1918-1923)
Like many other early 20th century psychologists such as Walter VanDyke
Bingham, James McKeen Cattell, and Walter Dill Scott, Watson was interested in
applied psychological work as part of a new generation of professionals who came
of age around the turn of the century and soon discovered that the problems
created by an expanding industrial economy created opportunities for those who
could offer solutions to the problems. While at Carnegie Institute of
Technology, Bingham headed the Division of Applied Psychology where he developed
a program for local businessmen for training sales representatives, and Cattell
formed the Psychological Corporation, of which Watson was one of the original
members (Landy, 1997). Scott (1903) went on to write a book on advertising and
shifted his concentration to a more comprehensive scope of business psychology.
Finally, WWI produced a well-defined role for applied psychology with the use of
the Army Alpha and Beta intelligence tests. In response to the demand for the
types of psychological services provided by the Army intelligence tests, Scott
created the Scott Company, which included Watson, Bingham, Robert Yerkes, and E.
Major Watson (1917-1919)
During WWI, Watson was also among a group of scientists and engineers on the
National Research Council (NRC), which was designed to coordinate research in
all branches of science. In addition, a second organization, the Committee on
Classification of Personnel in the Army (CCPA), was also formed and it was under
the auspices of the CCPA that many psychologists served in the war.
As a Major in the U.S. Army during WWI, Watson furthered his reputation as an
applied psychologist by devising a number of perceptual and motor tests for
would-be pilots, investigating how the pilots reacted to oxygen deprivation that
existed at high flying altitudes (Cohen, 1979) and gathering data for the
development of selection tests for American flight officers.
Indeed, Watson played a significant role in the personnel selection testing
in WWI. He was seen as a key figure in the effort to mobilize psychology for the
purpose of the war and was an early proponent of using specific tests to select
and classify military personnel (Buckley, 1989). Because the forces had to be
rapidly deployed, Watson championed the use of scientifically developed
personnel selection tests for classification and assignment of recruits, as well
as for providing a basis for proper training for the war.
Professor Watson (1908-1920)
At age 29, Watson was offered a full professorship at Johns Hopkins
University and joined the faculty in 1908, after 8 years at the University of
Chicago. His responsibilities at Johns Hopkins soon accelerated as the then head
of the department, James Baldwin, resigned due to a sex scandal and Watson took
his place. At age 31, Watson became the director of psychology at this major
research institution and also the editor of Psychological Review. In an
undated letter to the Furman University (his alma mater) Psychology Club, Watson
described the situation:
A few weeks after I began work at Johns Hopkins, Prof. James Mark Baldwin
came into my office and said, "I'm leaving now for the University of
Mexico. You are now the new editor of the Psychological Review." I
was aghast. The Psychological Review was the official organ of the
American Psychological Association. I was about as well prepared to undertake
this work as I was to swim the English Channel. More manuscripts poured in than
we could publish. I must have made a lot of enemies by refusing many articles,
some possibly quite as good as those accepted. But the magazine prospered.
Prospered to such an extent that it was thought best to add the Journal of
In 1913, Watson revealed his ideas about behaviorism at a lecture at Columbia
University and subsequently was elected president of the American Psychological
Association in 1916.
It was also during this time at Johns Hopkins that Watson began to look
beyond academia for opportunities in the applied field. In 1916, he worked with
the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and acted as a consultant for a life insurance
firm. He also brought the applied world to academia by offering a course on the
"Psychology of Advertising," at Johns Hopkins University in which he
instructed future managers in the importance of applied psychology, while
showing the academic officials how psychology could provide useful services to
the business community (Buckley, 1982). In 1919, Watson was given a $6,600 grant
by the U.S. Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board to examine the educational
effects of a motion picture campaign against venereal diseases (VD). Before the
American soldiers left for Europe, the anti-VD movies were shown to warn them of
the dangers of prostitutes. Through the use of questionnaires and personal
interviews, Watson and Karl Lashley studied the effectiveness of the films (Lashley
& Watson, undated). In 1920, Watson established an "Industrial Service
Corporation" with Dr. Edward Magruder, a Baltimore physician, which
provided personnel selection and management services. With Magruder's help,
Watson created a program at Johns Hopkins to train PhD students to work in
industrial psychology. However, Watson was forced to resign from Johns Hopkins
before the doctoral program began and in the next year, Watson's departure from
Johns Hopkins sealed the program's demise (Buckley, 1994).
Life After Academia (1920-1935)
In 1920, Watson's future at Johns Hopkins was virtually guaranteed. He had
achieved international recognition in the field of psychology, and Johns
Hopkins' President Frank Goodnow took great pains to keep Watson, including a
substantial salary increase (Buckley, 1982). However, Watson soon found himself
in the middle of a divorce scandal that cost him his job.
Watson did not have any doubts that he would find a job in a business
setting, and was introduced to the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New
York by his friend, sociologist William Thomas (Buckley, 1982). At the time, the
national advertising industry was growing due to the development of a system of
industrial production that was starting to distribute goods and services on a
national scale. Because of the tremendous growth of products and services,
advertisers looked to psychology for guidance in facilitating the distribution
and marketing process. The J. Walter Thompson Agency was impressed with Watson's
credentials in applied techniques as well as his reputation and promptly hired
"Advertising Man" (1920-1935)
When Watson first left academics and joined J. Walter Thompson, he claimed he
wanted to become an "honest-to-goodness working advertising man"
(Watson, 1922b, p. 3). His vision was clearly realized, as one of his first
assignments was traveling door to door from Illinois to New Orleans to study the
rubber boot market. This experience convinced him that marketing goods depended
not upon an appeal to reason but upon emotional conditioning and stimulation of
desire, a parallel to the contemporary concepts of central route versus
peripheral routes of persuasion (e.g. Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983). To
assure a reaction from the consumer, Watson instructed advertisers to
"tell him something that will tie him up with fear, something that will
stir up a mild rage, that will call out an affectionate or love response, or
strike at a deep psychological or habit need." (Watson, cited in Buckley,
1982, p. 212).
Watson placed a major emphasis on empirical marketing research by stressing
the importance of knowing the consumer through scientific study. In a
presentation to a graduating class of R. H. Macy Co. executives, Watson (1922b,
p.3) stated, "The consumer is to the manufacturer, the department stores
and the advertising agencies, what the green frog is to the physiologist."
His analogy of the customer and the green frog illustrates how Watson saw the
marketplace as a laboratory for the advertising industry and how the consumer
was akin to the experimental subject whose behavior was deliberately controlled
by the advertiser. Watson was convinced that to know anything about the
consumer, one would have to "dissect" the consumer until it was known
what he wanted and needed, and only then could the marketer properly provide a
One example of Watson's brand of marketing research was a cigarette study in
which he empirically tested subjects' reactions to smoking different cigarettes
without knowing which brand they were smoking. By shielding cigarettes behind
cardboard screens, the subjects were unable to distinguish the different
cigarette brands, even when they were exposed to the different brands beforehand
(Watson, 1922a). Thus, in the early 1920s, Watson was delving into brand
loyalty, a concept that is still studied in contemporary advertising research
(Yin & Kannan, 1999).
In an analysis of Watson's advertisements developed for Pond's facial cream,
Coon (1994) identified three common features: evoking emotion rather than
cognition, providing specific instructions for using the product, and employing
direct testimonials. Testimonials had long been used by manufacturers of patent
medicines and were generally held in low esteem by most advertisers. However,
under Watson's direction, the Thompson agency revived testimonial advertising,
which sparked a reevaluation of testimonials by the industry. Some of Watson's
direct testimonials linked the product with an appeal to authority or a desire
for emulation. But it was through indirect testimonials that employed symbols to
stimulate responses of fear, rage, and love that Watson illustrated how brand
appeal depended on factors other than usefulness or product reliability.
Today Watson's impact in the field of advertising is readily apparent. For
example, direct testimonials are seen in many of the same women's magazines in
which Watson's ads once appeared. Advertisements are filled with images of
various celebrities and attractive models endorsing products such as cosmetics,
clothing, and even watches. These testimonial advertisements are promoting not
just products, but also beauty and status that come along with applying the
cosmetics or wearing the clothing.
Personality (Selection) Plus (1920-1935)
Watson sought to expand his role in applied psychology by working in
personnel selection and personnel management. He trained salesmen, measured the
performance of office workers, and plotted the curve of office production, all
of which raised the efficiency of the workplace. He emphasized the management of
employees through behavioral techniques and considered most personnel selection
tests as rough screening devices. Not that Watson was against testing for
selection purposes per se, but that he felt that "mental tests" were
not enough to successfully select employees, as he wrote in the J. Walter
Thompson News Bulletin:
Unfortunately, there are many vocations in life in which no form of testing
is applicable. Who would attempt today to pick out by any form of general
intelligence or special performance tests a good business executivea good
newspaper manthe proper material to make an advertising mana good
department store buyer(Watson, 1927, p. 9).
Watson was one of the first proponents of personality testing for personnel
selection. In the case of sales, he felt that there was too much
"barehanded selling" (Watson, 1935) and too little selection of
salesmen in terms of being versatile and interesting conversationalists. In
order to create a successful salesman, Watson instructed managers to bring out
the personality of each member of the sales force, instead of focusing on the
actual sales aspect of the job, because essentially it was the personality of
the individual that would eventually make the sale. His ideas anticipated
current work in matching the personality of the individual with the dynamics of
a job (e.g., Hogan, Hogan, & Roberts, 1996). Watson explained his position
in a speech given to a Macy's graduating class in 1922:
But business is not run by the individuals that such tests can at present
select for us. Even within the field in which they are accurate other factors
enter in. I want to know more about an individual than his rating on speed and
accuracy in typewriting and filing, and the like, or his ability to drive a
truck or a car or a delivery wagon. I want to know whether he is honest, whether
he will lie before he will confess a weakness and take a reprimand, whether he
is neat, whether he is faithful and loyal, whether he keeps his good nature
under exasperating conditions, whether he is given to emotional outbursts,
whether he can get along with his fellow employee.
Watson further commented that there was not a "mental test" that
would be able to detect whether or not a man is a liar whether he is able to
work in cooperation with other individuals and the like. I believe that more
people fall down from these so-called emotional factors than from lack of
"intelligence" or lack of "special ability" (Watson, 1927,
Deception in personnel selection has received a lot of attention in the
selection realm recently (Frei, Snell, McDaniel, & Griffith, 1998; Ones,
Viswesvaran, Reiss, 1996), however, Watson was raising this issue in the 1920s.
He advocated a more precise form of selecting employees for specific positions,
stating that while psychological tests may help to separate the qualified
applicants from the nonqualified applicants, it does not give much of an
indication about how to make the individual selections from the group of
qualified applicants (Watson, 1927).
Watson also held that in order to be successful in business, one had to be
able to speak of things other than business. In a Psychological Review
paper, Watson wrote,
Oftentimes it is more important for the business man to talk golf, hunting,
fishing and the like than to be able to exhibit proficiency in them. He can
always refuse to go golfing, hunting or fishing when his lack of manual skill is
not equal to his verbal performance, but he cannot refuse to talk about the
technical point of these avocations and stay in the athletic group (Watson,
1924, p. 273).
This is in essence an extension of impression management in organizations (Zerbe
& Paulhus, 1987). Watson went one step further in stressing how to become a
better salesman by changing one's personality to get along with others as he
If I can get this idea across to you of studying yourself, inventorying
yourself as you would a business, writing a description of yourself, shortly you
would get into a position to turn loose on the . . . fellow you do business with
. . . it is getting yourself in a position where you can predict the other
fellow's behavior that puts you in command in a selling situation (Watson, 1934,
Perhaps his most empathic example of this point is the title of one of his
popular magazine pieces, "If You're a Failure, Change Your
Personality" (although the publication title and year are not clear in the
Library of Congress copy, from the Don Wootton drawing accompanying the article,
it appears that the article might have run in The New Yorker).
Watson was one of the most prominent psychologist scientist/practitioners of
his era, writing on applied psychology for academic journals, business
publications, and popular magazines; however, much of this work is overshadowed
by his earlier prominence in experimental psychology and behaviorism. While his
most well-known applied work is in the area of advertising and marketing
research, Watson, unbeknownst to most, was active in the "I" side of
things and a proponent of personnel selection and testing in the workplace. Even
as early as the 1920s, Watson anticipated many of our contemporary ideas, taking
the scientist/practitioner role beyond the laboratory and generalizing his
findings to the world of work. In advertising, he studied such concepts as brand
loyalty and the central and peripheral route to persuasion, decades before they
became industry standards. He pioneered much of the work in selecting successful
sales people and argued for personality testing in personnel selection before
"The Big Five" were introduced to contemporary research. Finally,
Watson, like many of his contemporaries, saw "applied" (now I-O)
psychology as an integral part of psychology, moving easily between the
laboratory and the field and using seemingly disparate techniques, theories, and
insights learned in one to inform work in the other. This may be perhaps his
lasting legacy, an eloquent testimony that there are few things more useful than
a well-trained experimental psychologist.
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