After peaking in the mid-19th century, antiracism fell into decline in the U.S., remaining dominant only in the Northeast. By the 1930s, however, it was clearly reviving, largely through the efforts of the anthropologist Franz Boas and his students. But a timid revival had already begun during the previous two decades. In the political arena, the NAACP had been founded in 1910 under the aegis of WASP and, later, Jewish benefactors. In academia, the 1920s saw a growing belief in the plasticity of human nature, largely through the behaviorist school of psychology. The founder of behaviorism was an unlikely antiracist. A white southerner who had been twice arrested in high school for fighting with African American boys, John B. Watson (1878-1958) initially held a balanced view on the relative importance of nature vs. nature. His book Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919) contained two chapters on “unlearned behavior”. The first chapter is summarized as follows:
In this chapter, we examine man as a reacting organism, and specifically some of the reactions which belong to his hereditary equipment. Human action as a whole can be divided into hereditary modes of response (emotional and instinctive), and acquired modes of response (habit). Each of these two broad divisions is capable of many subdivisions. It is obvious both from the standpoint of common-sense and of laboratory experimentation that the hereditary and acquired forms of activity begin to overlap early in life. Emotional reactions become wholly separated from the stimuli that originally called them out (transfer), and the instinctive positive reaction tendencies displayed by the child soon become overlaid with the organized habits of the adult.
By the mid-1920s, however, he had largely abandoned this balanced view and embraced a much more radical environmentalism, as seen in Behaviorism (1924):
Our conclusion, then, is that we have no real evidence of the inheritance of traits. I would feel perfectly confident in the ultimately favorable outcome of a healthy, well-formed baby born of a long line of crooks, murderers and thieves, and prostitutes(Watson, 1924, p. 82) […]
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. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years. (Watson, 1924, p. 82)
Everything we have been in the habit of calling “instinct” today is a result largely of training—belongs to man’s learned behavior. As a corollary from this I wish to draw the conclusion that there is no such thing as an inheritance of capacity, talent, temperament, mental constitution, and characteristics. These things again depend on training that goes on mainly in the cradle. (Watson,1924, p. 74).
Why the shift to extreme environmentalism? It was not a product of ongoing academic research. In fact, Watson was no longer in academia, having lost his position in 1920 at John Hopkins University after an affair with a graduate student. At the age of 42, he had to start a new career as an executive at a New York advertising agency. Some writers attribute this ideological shift to his move from academia to advertising:
Todd (1994) noted that after Watson lost his academic post at Johns Hopkins, he abandoned scientific restraint in favor of significantly increased stridency and extremism, such that there were “two Watsons—a pre-1920, academic Watson and a post-1920, postacademic Watson” (p. 167). Logue (1994) argued that Watson’s shift from an even-handed consideration of heredity and environment to a position of bombast and extreme environmentalism was motivated by the need to make money and the desire to stay in the limelight after he left academia. (Rakos, 2013)
There was another reason: the acrimonious debate in the mid-1920s over immigration, particularly over whether the United States was receiving immigrants of dubious quality. Rakos (2013) points to Watson’s increasingly harsh words on eugenics and the political background: “It is probably no coincidence that only in the 1924 edition of the book—published in the same year that Congress passed the restrictive Johnson-Lodge Immigration Act—did Watson express his belief that behaviorism can promote social harmony in a world being transformed by industrialization and the movement of peoples across the globe.” Eugenics is mentioned, negatively, in his 1924 book:
But you say: “Is there nothing in heredity-is there nothing in eugenics-[…] has there been no progress in human evolution?” Let us examine a few of the questions you are now bursting to utter. Certainly black parents will bear black children […].
Certainly the yellow-skinned Chinese parents will bear a yellow skinned offspring. Certainly Caucasian parents will bear white children. But these differences are relatively slight. They are due among other things to differences in the amount and kind of pigments in the skin. I defy anyone to take these infants at birth, study their behavior, and mark off differences in behavior that will characterize white from black and white or black from yellow. There will be differences in behavior but the burden of proof is upon the individual be he biologist or eugenicist who claims that these racial differences are greater than the individual differences. (Watson, 1924, p. 76)
You will probably say that I am flying in the face of the known facts of eugenics and experimental evolution—that the geneticists have proven that many of the behavior characteristics of the parents are handed down to the offspring—they will cite mathematical ability, musical ability, and many, many other types. My reply is that the geneticists are working under the banner of the old “faculty” psychology. One need not give very much weight to any of their present conclusions. (Watson, 1924, p. 79)
The last quote is indeed strange, since Watson no longer had any faculty position, either new or old.
Antiracism did not revive during the interwar years because of new data. Watson’s shift to radical environmentalism took place a half-decade after his departure from academia. It was as an advertising executive, and as a crusader against the 1924 Immigration Act, that he entered the “environmentalist” phase of his life. This phase, though poor in actual research, was rich in countless newspaper and magazine articles that would spread his behaviorist gospel to a mass audience.
The same could be said for Franz Boas. He, too, made his shift to radical antiracism when he was already semi-retired and well into his 70s. Although this phase of his life produced very little research, it saw the publication of many books and articles for the general public. As with Watson, the influence of external political events was decisive, specifically the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s.
In both cases, biographers have tried to explain this ideological shift by projecting it backward in time to earlier research. Boas’ antiracism is often ascribed to an early study that purported to show differences in cranial form between European immigrants and their children (Boas, 1912). Yet Boas himself was reluctant to draw any conclusions at the time, merely saying we should “await further evidence before committing ourselves to theories that cannot be proven.” Later reanalysis found no change in skull shape once age had been taken into account (Fergus, 2003). More to the point, Boas continued over the next two decades to cite differences in skull size as evidence for black-white differences in mental makeup (Frost, 2015).
Watson’s radical environmentalism has likewise been explained by his Little Albert Experiment in 1920, an attempt to condition a fear response in an 11-month-old child. Aside from the small sample size (one child) and the lack of any replication, it is difficult to see how this finding could justify his later sweeping pronouncements on environmentalism. There were admittedly other experiments, but they came to an abrupt end with his dismissal from John Hopkins, and little is known about their long-term effects:
Watson tested his theories on how to condition children to express fear, love, or rage—emotions Watson conjectured were the basic elements of human nature. Among other techniques, he dropped (and caught) infants to generate fear and suggested that stimulation of the genital area would create feelings of love. In another chilling project, Watson boasted to Goodnow in summer 1920 that the National Research Council had approved a children’s hospital he proposed that would include rooms for his infant psychology experiments. He planned to spend weekends working at the “Washington infant laboratory.” (Simpson,2000)
Watson did apply behaviorism to the upbringing of his own children. The results were disappointing. His first marriage produced a daughter who made multiple suicide attempts and a son who sponged off his father. His second marriage produced two sons, one of whom committed suicide (Anon, 2005). His granddaughter similarly suffered from her behaviorist upbringing and denounced it in her memoir Breaking the Silence. Towards the end of his life Watson regretted much of his child-rearing advice (Simpson, 2000).
Anon (2005). The long dark night of behaviorism, Psych 101 Revisited, September 6
Boas, F. (1912). Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants, American Anthropologist, 14, 530-562. Fergus, C. (2003). Boas, Bones, and Race, May 4, Penn State News
Frost, P. (2015). More on the younger Franz Boas, Evo and Proud, April 18
Rakos, R.F. (2013). John B. Watson’s 1913 “Behaviorist Manifesto: Setting the stage for behaviorism’s social action legacy, Revista Mexicana de analisis de la conducta, 39(2)
Simpson, J.C. (2000). It’s All in the Upbringing, John Hopkins Magazine, April
Watson, J.B. (1919). Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist,
Watson, J. B. (1924). Behaviorism. New York: People’s Institute.