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... (1930, p.82)Now, I don't really like Watson. I think he derailed what was supposed to be a brilliant next step in the development of American Philosophy, and turned into something trite and hollow. Also, he was clearly an asshole, both as a member of the profession and as a human being.
That said, I am certainly willing to defend this claim. I think, when it is examined carefully, that it is quite reasonable, and that history has proved him right.
Let's note a few important points about Watson's claim:
- He specifies that the infants be "healthy" and "well-formed".
- He lists professions that require no particularly special physical abilities (e.g. no "professional weight lifter").
- He lists those professions as quite broad categories (e.g., "doctor" not "brain-tumor surgeon").
- He does not say they will be exceptional at those jobs compared to their peers.
- He does not say they will be particularly happy in their profession.
- He does seem to imply that they are in their professions willingly, as they are to be "trained to become" a member of that profession; but many people choose to be in professions they are not great at and are not particularly happy with.
It is clearly ambitious to claim you could do simultaneous with a dozen infants, but that is a logistic problem, not a "could it be done?" problem. It is, perhaps, unclear if Watson himself could have done it, in 1930, with 12 infants. However, I suspect with the right money and resources, he could have. Given his penchant for experimentalism, if he had some problems with the first dozen, he surely would iron out those mistakes for the next dozen.
In this day and age, most folks believe that any normally functioning child can grow up to be any of the professions that Watson names. If they can become that, then you can manipulate the environment to make them more likely to become that. Thus, today the issue is about how high a probability you could achieve.
Note also, that while people seem to think Watson would be setting up various systems of reinforcement and punishment, nothing like that is mentioned. He wants control of the complete environment. That makes me think things like, "What would I do to make an engineer?" My bet is that I could take any "well formed" infant, get them through high school at a passing level, then send them to Olin College with a full ride for 4-6 years, and in the end they would be quite "trained to become" an Engineer. It seems to me that the level of detail required to reliably get someone trained in a profession isn't even very detailed. Do I know exactly what they would do every instant? No. Do I know that they can train someone to be an engineer? Yes. If I did a shoddy job getting the kid math in high school, they might take them an extra year, maybe two, but it would happen. Making a thief or a beggar would be even easier, and a lot cheaper.
In sum, today this quote is still being held up as a dramatic example of the flaws of behaviorism, and yet when pressed I suspect most people would believe it was possible... at least today... with sufficient resources.
But, if it is so obviously true, why has there been all this fuss for 80 years?!?
I think there is confusion, because at the time the quote would have been controversial for reasons that people today are far less sensitive to. Today, I think, people find the first half of the quote controversial, implying as it does that Watson's will can mold the child's will. In contrast, I suspect it was that last half of the quote that was the most controversial in 1930:
regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors...Watson was dismissing a whole range of things that were widely held to limit the potential of a child, even one who otherwise seemed healthy and well-formed. At a time when folks believed much more strongly than today that a person's race limited their abilities to succeed in certain professions --- and folks believed much more strongly than today that some people were born with built in moral compasses that would lead them towards, or away from, certain professions --- this was a strikingly bold claim.
By today's standards, in fact, it is a very Liberal claim! The only difference between a white boy running a successful business and a white boy begging is the world they have found themselves in?!? A child of any race can be a doctor or lawyer if we just give them the right support?!?
"YES!" Watson claims, "I can take a child of any race, or parentage, and despite what you may think, they can be made into a productive member of whatever profession you name."
Alright, that's enough defending Watson for one decade.