APA Monitor: Notes On a Scandal

The October 2012 issue of the American Psychological Association‘s Monitor on Psychology is now online. Included in the issue’s Time Capsule section is a piece by Jamie Chamberlin on the persistent myth that John Watson was fired from Johns Hopkins in 1920, not due to his affair with graduate student Rosalie Raynor, but rather because it was discovered that Watson was conducting research on physiological responses during sexual intercourse. This rumor seems to have originated with psychologist James Vernon McConnell (1925–90) and made its way into numerous of textbooks in the latter part of the twentieth century.

As Chamberlin describes,

It wasn’t until 2001 that the story was seriously investigated. That’s when Benjamin began his probe, eventually working with three graduate students to trace the story through introductory and history textbooks, the Watsons’ divorce record and the correspondence of Watson, Larson, McConnell and others. The research team found that the story stretched and changed, with other versions alleging that Watson and Rayner used a kymograph measuring device during intercourse. McConnell claimed that there was a photo of the instruments Watson used for the sex research. But Benjamin, who traveled to both Hopkins and the Canadian Psychological Association museum where they supposedly hailed from, found no evidence that the instruments existed or had ties to Watson.

At least one textbook regarded the sex research story as gossip, the AP authors found. In the third version of his “History of Psychology” text, psychologist David Hothersall wrote: “A careful examination of Watson’s dismissal and divorce convinced a recent biographer of Watson that there is no evidence that he was dismissed because of alleged experiments concerned with human sexual behavior.” Hothersall omitted the story entirely from his text’s 2004 fourth edition, as did most other authors by that time.

How did a rumor become textbook fodder? “Nothing really sells like sex,” posits Jodi Whitaker, of The Ohio State University, one of Benjamin’s co-authors. “It was a wonderfully salacious story to spread around.”

The full article, “Notes on a Scandal,” can be read online here.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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