Psychology Textbook Audition – Major Schools of Thought

Major Schools of Thought


Structuralism involves breaking down psychological experiences—thoughts, feelings, and behavior—into their most fundamental components and then exploring how these components connect to create more complex systems and phenomena. It posits that consciousness can be categorized in terms of basic elements, just as physical objects can be reduced to smaller parts. Wilhelm Wundt is often considered to have been the founder of this school of thought, and he is said to have been the first to call himself a psychologist; Edward B. Titchener was structuralism’s primary torchbearer. Wundt’s establishment of the first experimental psychology lab, in 1879, led to decades of exploration that focused on defining and categorizing elements of the psychological experience. Structuralists were most interested in further understanding thoughts, emotions, and perception; they did not concern themselves as much with personality or behavior. Structuralism asserts that the main method of identifying fundamental components of psychological phenomena is introspection, an approach by which the structuralists intended to create descriptions of mental processes in the most basic terms. The term introspection, though it sounds like something you do on your day off while lying on the couch and wondering where your life is headed, refers in this case to more a more scientific and structured exploration. A person, often a psychological theorist, would embark on the methodological observation of his or her own inner thought process under carefully controlled experimental conditions and would then report back as objectively as possible. Though empirically oriented, this method eventually fell out of favor as a research technique, given the question of how externally observable an individual’s thoughts can be as well as possible biases and the impossibility of quantifying of any given person’s self-report. For this reason, structuralism also fell out of favor in psychology when psychology’s focus shifted to more outwardly measurable mental processes and actions.


As its name implies, functionalism is concerned with what things do, and with the results that follow, rather than with what things are. It is the yin to the yang of structuralism, and it came into being as a reaction against structuralism. From the functionalist perspective, a psychological state’s meaning emerges not from its components but from its end product. A functionalist would say that any mental state—sadness, ecstasy, guilt, boredom—is definable primarily by how it spurs subsequent action or mental states. In that sense, a functionalist would argue that different emotions that have led to the same reactions or behavior may not be so different after all. Moreover, from the functionalist perspective, that similarity of reactions or behavior is much more important than any differences in the mental states that gave rise to them. Given this focus on the actionable results of mental states, functionalism is more concerned than structuralism is with behavior, since functionalism emphasizes how a person’s mental states will play out in the surrounding world. Functionalism, focusing less on mental processes than on the capabilities of the mind itself, places importance on experimental results that can be applied in practical ways, and so a lot of theorists under the functionalist umbrella have emphasized quantifiable, observable research results. Some of the earliest formal psychology laboratories were established by functionalists. Later functionalists, such as Edward Thorndike, can be viewed as early behaviorists, since they were most interested in the way that an organism responds and adapts to its environment.