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John Broadus Watson, I-O Psychologist

Diane F. DiClemente and Donald A. Hantula
Temple University

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 endure today.

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. L. Thorndike.

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 Experimental Psychology.

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 him.

"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 product.

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, p.10).

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 stated,

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, p. 3).

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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Buckley, K. W. (1994). Misbehaviorism: The case of John B. Watson's dismissal from Johns Hopkins University. In J. T. Todd and E. K. Morris (Eds.), Modern perspectives on John B. Watson and classical behaviorism (pp. 37-63). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Cohen, D. (1979). J. B. Watson: The founder of behaviorism. London, England: Routlege & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Coon, D. J. (1994). "Not a creature of reason:" The alleged impact of Watsonian behaviorism on advertising in the 1920s. In J. T. Todd and E. K. Morris (Eds.), Modern perspectives on John B. Watson and classical behaviorism (pp. 37-63). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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Frei, R. L., Snell, A. F., McDaniel, M. A., & Griffith, R. L. (1998). Using a within subjects design to identify the differences between social desirability and faking. Paper presented in Garnett Stokes (chair), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: New Research Techniques in the Study of Social Desirability. Symposium for the 14th Annual Meeting of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Dallas, Texas.

Hogan, R., Hogan, J., & Roberts, B. W. (1996). Personality measurement and employment decisions: Questions and answers. American Psychologist, 51, 469-477.

Landy, F. J. (1997). Early Influences on the development of industrial and organizational psychology. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 467-477.

Lashley, K. S. & Watson, J. B. (undated). A psychological study of motion pictures in relation to veneral disease campaigns. Typescript contained in the John Broadus Watson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

Lindsley, O. R. (1962). A behavioral measure of television viewing. Journal of Advertising Research, 2, 2-12.

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Van De Water, T. (1997). Psychology's entrepreneurs and the marketing of industrial psychology. Journal of Applied Psychology, 4, 486-499.

Watson, J. B. (1907). Kinesthetic and organic sensations: Their role in the reactions of the white rat to the maze. Psychological Review Monograph Supplement, 8, 1-100.

Watson, J. B. (1908a). The behavior of noddy and sooty terns. Carnegie Institute Publication, 103, 197-225.

Watson, J. B. (1908b). Imitation in monkeys. Psychological Bulletin, 5, 169-178.

Watson, J. B. (1909a). Some experiments bearing upon color vision in monkeys. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 19, 1-28.

Watson, J. B. (1909b). Some water birds and their family secrets. The World To-Day, 17, 807-814.

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Watson, J. B. (1922b, April 20). The ideal executive. Address presented to the graduating class of young executives, R. H. Macy Co. Typescript contained in the John Broadus Watson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

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Watson, J. B. (1927). Can psychology help in the selection of personnel? J. Walter Thompson News Bulletin, 129, 1-13.

Watson, J. B. (1934). Lecture given at White Sulphur Springs to members of the Drug Manufacturers Association. Typescript contained in the John Broadus Watson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

Watson, J. B. (1935). Influencing the mind of another. Address delivered during the 1935 exhibition of the Montreal Advertising Club. Typescript contained in the John Broadus Watson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

Watson, J. B. (undated). If you're a failure: Change your personality. Contained in the John Broadus Watson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

Watson, J. B. (undated). A Letter from John B. Watson to Furman University Psychology Club. Typescript contained in the John Broadus Watson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

Watson, J. B., & Lashley, K. S. (1915). Homing and related activities of birds. Carnegie Institute Publication, 211, 1-104.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

Yin, C., & Kannan, P. K. (1999). Consumer behavioral loyalty: A segmentation model and analysis. Journal of Business Research, 44, 75-92.

Zerbe, W. J. & Paulhus, D. L. (1987). Socially desirable responding in organizational behavior: A reconception. Academy of Management Review, 12, 250-264.


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