Sex Scandals and Psychology: John Watson, Rosalie Rayner and the Emergence of Behaviorism

One of the most charismatic pioneers of psychology was John Watson. He was born into poverty and abuse, yet managed to turn psychology into a science and posed questions about who we are as humans that we continue to ponder half a century after his death. He enjoyed a spectacular rise to academic fame and public celebrity, and fall from grace just as spectacular leading to academic obscurity that resounds as a mystery to this day.

What led to that spectacular fall? A salacious sex scandal of course!

Born in 1878 on a South Carolina farm Watson was the fourth of six children who suffered through abuse and poverty. His father was an alcoholic who had difficulty holding a job, but was skilled at fighting, drinking, extra marital affairs and what we now call domestic violence.

His mother was a conservative Baptist who sought to rein in her son with the twin threats of God and the Devil. The threats did not seem to do much to curb his delinquent behaviors, but were quite effective in initiating anxiety attacks that lasted a lifetime.

By all accounts, Watson seemed destined to follow his father’s example, especially after the trauma of his father abandoning the family for another woman when Watson was 13. His teachers remembered him has lazy, argumentative, and disrespectful. As a teen, he was arrested several times for fighting and once for shooting a gun inside the city limits. Exactly who or what he was shooting at has been lost to history. Although Watson’s mother was intensely religious, she was unable to turn him from what seemed to a path to prison and poverty.

But Watson had several things in his favor. He was a handsome young man, very articulate, and extremely bright. He was also ambitious, yet very conscious of his less than stellar social status. In spite of his propensity for alcohol, partying and violence he was able to use his more urbane skills to win admission to Furham University to satisfy his mother’s somewhat unrealistic hope that he become a minister. Although his peers viewed him as a nonconformist and his teachers barely tolerated him, one professor saw some value in the rough-hewn Watson and encouraged his academic growth. Strangely enough, he found his calling in academia. Something must have clicked with Watson because he graduated from Furham with a Master’s degree and gained admission at the University of Chicago intending to earn a PhD Philosophy.

His first exposure to philosophy at Chicago convinced him that he needed to choose something else to study. The noted philosopher John Dewey delivered one of the first lectures Watson heard at the University of Chicago, and left young Watson completely befuddled. “I never knew what he was talking about then, and unfortunately for me I still don’t know”, he said years later.

This was the beginning of an incredible stretch of luck and coincidence that propelled Watson to the heights of academia, and then to wealth and social status in business. Watson entered the University of Chicago in 1899 when psychology was just emerging from philosophy as an academic discipline of its own. At the time, psychology focused on how individuals organized perceptions into an understandable whole — that is, consciousness. Watson was destined to turn psychology on its head and reinvent it for the 20th century.

One of the leading psychologists at the University of Chicago was James Angell, who would soon become President of a powerful academic organization, the American Psychological Association. In one of many amazing coincidences, Watson worked as a janitor to earn money for school, and drew the task of cleaning Angell’s office. The two became acquainted and developed a respect for one another, and Angell became Watson’s dissertation advisor.

In 1903, at the age of 25 Watson was the youngest ever to earn a PhD. at the University of Chicago. In addition, he graduated magna cum laude and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key. He was a rising star on the fast track to academic success, and everyone knew it. He married Mary Ickes, a student of his whom, legend has it, came to Watsons attention after writing a love letter as an addendum on a psychology essay. Ickes was from a wealthy and socially prominent Chicago family, giving Watson the social credentials he sought since his days at Furman.

At the turn of the century, psychology was in disarray, without clear direction or a unifying theme. Psychology came to America twenty-five years before when William James, a wealthy dilettante with a medical degree from Harvard, traveled to Europe where he learned of the new discipline of psychology, then little more than a philosophical concept. He found the new discipline fascinating and learned enough about it that he was able offer a class in physiology and psychology upon his return to Harvard in 1875.

For the next quarter century, psychology languished as an interesting philosophical school of thought, but failed to gain traction as a science. The problem was there was nothing to measure. Unlike natural sciences like chemistry or biology, psychology was concerned with internal mechanisms that defied measurement. Psychological research consisted of introspection — simply examining thoughts and perceptions that one experienced. Slowly attention turned to questions concerning how people related to their environment. Still there was little to measure, and psychology was not able to earn a reputation as a true science.

The abstract nature of philosophy did not appeal to Watson, and neither did the abstract nature of introspection and consciousness. His dissertation was on the neurological maturation of white lab rats — a line of study he was attracted to because it was so much more concrete than introspection.

Watson found himself in a dilemma: newly married to a woman from a successful family, and newly graduated with such notoriety that palpable expectations for academic success hung in the air, yet he did not really like working with people –the object of his chosen field. What to do? What avenue could he take that would allow him to make his mark on psychology, yet not require studying humans?

Watson turned his attention to the behavior of animals. He began to wonder why his lab rats did the things they did. Influenced by the work of Russian scientists IP Pavlov, Watson abandoned a psychology of introspection and concentrated on the study of observable and measurable behaviors. Watson published papers on the new concept of behaviorism after earning his PhD, and began to emerge as a leader in the quest to make psychology a natural science.

Then another series of uncanny coincidences unfolded that propelled Watson to fame. In 1906 James Angell, president of the American Psychological Association and Watson’s dissertation advisor gave the keynote speech at the APA annual conference in which he declared that the true focus of psychology must be behavior, not the process that underlie it.

And there stood Watson, already a leader in the nascent behaviorist movement.

Two years later in 1908 Watson accepted a professorship at Johns Hopkins University offered by James Baldwin, chair of the psychology department, and founder and editor of Psychology Review, an influential academic journal. Only a year after Watson’s arrival, Baldwin embarrassed both himself and Johns Hopkins when a raid on a notorious local whorehouse resulted in his arrest and plenty of newsprint. He resigned in disgrace from Johns Hopkins, and Watson took his place as the chair of the Department of Psychology, as well as the editorship of Psychology Review. Watson was only 31 years old.

This is when things begin to get very interesting. Watson continued his meteoric rise in the field of psychology, and began to be somewhat of a public celebrity. In 1914, he published his first book about psychology. In 1915, he won election as president of the APA. He turned his attention to social issues and began writing lay articles about child rearing and parenting. About this time, Johns Hopkins administrators rejected a proposal from Watson to research sexual activity and alcohol use among adolescents, holding that such work was too controversial for a conservative university. As it turned out Watson would not take no for an answer.

Nevertheless, Watson’s ability to sell himself and his ideas was bringing grant and foundation money to the university to such an extent that he earned a 50% salary increase in 1919 to forestall his defection to other universities competing for him. He had just published groundbreaking research demonstrating that fear of ordinary objects could be created in people under the right circumstances. His future was assured. He was untouchable, or so he thought.

In 1920, it came to light that Watson was having an affair with a much younger woman named Rosalie Rayner, who just happened to be his research assistant. Because of the social stature of his wife’s family, and Watson’s position as one of the first scientific celebrities of the 20th century the news caused frenzy in the press. His love letters to Rayner made it to the newspapers at the beginning of what promised to be a wonderfully salacious divorce case. However, the divorce case was abruptly settled and Watson was summarily fired from his position at Johns Hopkins. Subsequently he was not able to get a job anywhere in academia, and began what turned out to be a very lucrative career in advertising. Watson married Rosalie Rayner and they had two children.

The dismissal, combined with universal rejection from academia, seems harsh but makes more sense in light of what we consider very conservative sexual attitudes in the 1920’s.

There is something wrong with that explanation, however. The 1920’s were anything but conservative. Women had earned voting rights, were venturing into non-traditional jobs in government and academia and were making steady progress in areas as diverse as contraceptive availability, business ownership and political office. Certainly, affairs and divorce did not warrant such reactionary measures as blackballing a famous and promising academic professional who had achieved celebrity status while at Johns Hopkins, not to mention recently ascending to the presidency of the American Psychological Association, and the recipient of a 50% bonus only a few months before his fall from grace.

It seems there is more to the story.

Suspicion began to arise that Watson’s abrupt departure from the public stage had something to do with information Ickes family lawyers leaked to the administration of Johns Hopkins. The last thing the University wanted was to be drawn into a long and highly public divorce trial involving its’ star professor.

For years, rumors have circulated that the real reason for Watson’s excommunication from psychology was not a simple extra marital affair, but rather sex studies that he undertook with the assistance of “the other woman”, Rosalie Rayner. Furthermore, these sex studies involved measurements of physical attributes during the act of sexual intercourse.

A private sexual peccadillo and consequent divorce are one thing, but public admission implicating a university in clandestine sexual research is quite another, particularly when the investigators are also the experimental subjects. The fact one of them is married to someone who is not an experimental subject exacerbates the matter, and the allure to the press of wealth and society complicates things even further.

The story might have remained a hushed rumor had it not been for the discovery of instruments used to measure sexual response found in a collection of Watson’s effects in a Canadian museum in 1978. Had Watson and Rayner used these instruments for sexual research they surely would have maintained research notes, data and other records of their findings. It is easy to imagine that this was the evidence that Ickes lawyers revealed to Johns Hopkins administrators that led to Watson’s downfall. The 1920’s was an era of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck challenging the status quo, and flappers, birth control and woman’s suffrage challenging sexual roles. Watson’s affair might have been tolerated, but detailed notes on sexual response arising from that affair might not. This might be the real reason for the unexpected end of Watson’s academic career.

Although Watson lived an outwardly enviable life, he carried the burden of personal sadness and tragedy.

Handsome, articulate and urbane, Watson easily mingled in the upper class of New York society throughout the 1920’s and thirties. He cut a path as a debonair and daring gentleman, racing speedboats, drinking with movie stars and tycoons, and gracing the pages of magazines and newspapers. He built a huge house in Connecticut for his new family, staffing it with servants. For a while, it seemed that his charmed life would continue in new directions. It was not to be.

Personal tragedy and disappointment followed Watson for the rest of his life. Rayner died in 1935 at the age of 37. Watson became estranged from the children from both his marriages and lived alone in a small house in Connecticut from the time of his retirement from advertising in 1945 until his death in 1959 at the age of 80. The American Psychological Association awarded him a lifetime achievement award shortly before his death, but he refused to accept it, sending a friend instead.

The evidence remains unconvincing, and the “sex experiments” are no longer mentioned in psychology textbooks or histories. Just the same, if such experiments did exist they would make Watson’s harsh treatment more rational and easily understood.

We will likely never know how much truth there is to Watson’s alleged sexual escapades, but the possibility brings a refreshing bit of humanity to the otherwise dryly academic study of the history of behaviorism. It also makes for a much more interesting introduction to BF Skinner, who enters the behaviorism story shortly after Watson left, or more accurately, was yanked form the stage.

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