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January is the month of resolutions and since psychologists are omnivorous, there is research on the subject of New Year’s Resolution. 50% of us make them but only 10`% keep them which proves that Oscar Wilde’s epithet – I can resist anything except temptation – was nearly right. I don’t have any magic formula to make myself or others stop smoking, stop drinking and guzzling fewer calories but I can draw attention to some research that is a century years old, which may help tame your Wilder instincts.
Back in 1977 I interviewed the great behaviourist Burrhus Skinner for the Observer. He was famous for his studies of conditioning which out Pavlov-ed Pavlov. Skinner told me the story of John Broadus Watson, the founder of behaviourism. Watson became professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University when he was under 30 – after his predecessor was caught with his pants down in a brothel. Watson made his name with his research on learning, not just in rats.
But Watson was more than an animal man. He wanted to make psychology useful for ordinary men and women. He wanted to set up Personality Clinics where people could go and debug their hang ups. Wilhelm Reich had much the same idea.
In terms of New Year Resolutions, Watson’s interesting idea was that all students of psychology should observe themselves and fill in what he called a balance sheet of the self. The aspiring psychologist should note:
What are your intellectual strengths and intellectual weaknesses?
What are your fears?
What do you think people think of you?
What are your goals?
What are your anxieties about money?
Watson was interested in Freud’s work and also wanted students to think about the following;
What are your obsessions?
What are your sexual fears?
What are your unspoken desires?
How well do you sleep?
Watson argued – and this was in the early 1920s – that a psychologist had to know herself or himself before having clients. This long self-report would allow students to compare their scores over time and, especially, after a crisis or an intervention.
The usefulness of this balance sheet for the New Year is obvious. You create your own graph and jot down what your goals and hopes are for the coming year and keep track of how well you are doing. It won’t stop you cheating, of course, but It will encourage you to be objective about your objectives.
2018 was the 140thanniversary of Watson’s birth. He and Skinner are now history of psychology rather than psychology, but we should remember the early behaviourists were not obsessed with laboratory rats and laboratory research. Skinner had started out wanting to be a poet and wrote Walden Two, a novel about Utopia where people were conditioned by rewards, not punishments. Watson himself left psychology in 1920 when it was discovered he had been having an affair with a student. He went into advertising and changed it radically.
Anyone who wants to find out about these two very interesting psychologists – and I apologise for the plug – can read two of my books. John B Watson, the founder of behaviourism and Great Psychologists as Parents where I discuss both men as well as Freud, Jung, Melanie Klein and possibly the most troubled of them all, R.D Laing.
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