Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.4: Early Psychology - Structuralism and Functionalism

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Early Psychology—Structuralism and Functionalism

    Learning Objectives

    • Define structuralism and functionalism and the contributions of Wundt and James to the development of psychology

    Psychology is a relatively young science with its experimental roots in the 19th century, compared, for example, to human physiology, which dates much earlier. As mentioned, anyone interested in exploring issues related to the mind generally did so in a philosophical context prior to the 19th century. Two men, working in the 19th century, are generally credited as being the founders of psychology as a science and academic discipline that was distinct from philosophy. Their names were Wilhelm Wundt and William James.

    Table 1. The Most Important Approaches (Schools) of Psychology

    School of psychology


    Important contributors


    Uses the method of introspection to identify the basic elements or “structures” of psychological experience

    Wilhelm Wundt, Edward B. Titchener


    Attempts to understand why animals and humans have developed the particular psychological aspects that they currently possess

    William James


    Focuses on the role of our unconscious thoughts, feelings, and memories and our early childhood experiences in determining behavior

    Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Erik Erickson


    Based on the premise that it is not possible to objectively study the mind, and therefore that psychologists should limit their attention to the study of behavior itself

    John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner


    The study of mental processes, including perception, thinking, memory, and judgments

    Hermann Ebbinghaus, Sir Frederic Bartlett, Jean Piaget


    The study of how the social situations and the cultures in which people find themselves influence thinking and behavior

    Fritz Heider, Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter

    Wundt and Structuralism

    Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) was a German scientist who was the first person to be referred to as a psychologist. His famous book entitled Principles of Physiological Psychology was published in 1873. Wundt viewed psychology as a scientific study of conscious experience, and he believed that the goal of psychology was to identify components of consciousness and how those components combined to result in our conscious experience. Wundt used introspection (he called it “internal perception”), a process by which someone examines their own conscious experience as objectively as possible, making the human mind like any other aspect of nature that a scientist observed. Wundt’s version of introspection used only very specific experimental conditions in which an external stimulus was designed to produce a scientifically observable (repeatable) experience of the mind (Danziger, 1980). The first stringent requirement was the use of “trained” or practiced observers, who could immediately observe and report a reaction. The second requirement was the use of repeatable stimuli that always produced the same

    experience in the subject and allowed the subject to expect and thus be fully attentive to the inner reaction. These experimental requirements were put in place to eliminate “interpretation” in the reporting of internal experiences and to counter the argument that there is no way to know that an individual is observing their mind or consciousness accurately, since it cannot be seen by any other person. This attempt to understand the structure or characteristics of the mind was known as structuralism . Wundt established his psychology laboratory at the University at Leipzig in 1879. In this laboratory, Wundt and his students conducted experiments on, for example, reaction times. A subject, sometimes in a room isolated from the scientist, would receive a stimulus such as a light, image, or sound. The subject’s reaction to the stimulus would be to push a button, and an apparatus would record the time to reaction. Wundt could measure reaction time to one-thousandth of a second (Nicolas & Ferrand, 1999).

    Photograph A shows Wilhelm Wundt. Photograph B shows Wundt and five other people gathered around a desk with equipment on top of it.
    Figure 6. (a) Wilhelm Wundt is credited as one of the founders of psychology. He created the first laboratory for psychological research. (b) This photo shows him seated and surrounded by fellow researchers and equipment in his laboratory in Germany. However, despite his efforts to train individuals in the process of introspection, this process remained highly subjective, and there was very little agreement between individuals. As a result, structuralism fell out of favor with the passing of Wundt’s student, Edward Titchener, in 1927 (Gordon, 1995).

    Interactive Element

    Follow the link for a deeper look at Structuralism & Functionalism

    James and Functionalism

    William James (1842–1910) was the first American psychologist who espoused a different perspective on how psychology should operate. James was introduced to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and accepted it as an explanation of an organism’s characteristics. Key to that theory is the idea that natural selection leads to organisms that are adapted to their environment, including their behavior. Adaptation means that a trait of an organism has a function for the survival and reproduction of the individual, because it has been naturally selected. As James saw it, psychology’s purpose was to study the function of behavior in the world, and as such, his perspective was known as functionalism . Functionalism focused on how mental activities helped an organism fit into its environment. Functionalism has a second, more subtle meaning in that functionalists were more interested in the operation of

    the whole mind rather than of its individual parts, which were the focus of structuralism. Like Wundt, James believed that introspection could serve as one means by which someone might study mental activities, but James also relied on more objective measures, including the use of various recording devices, and examinations of concrete products of mental activities and of anatomy and physiology (Gordon, 1995).

    A drawing depicts William James.
    Figure 7. William James, shown here in a self-portrait, was the first American psychologist.


    • Functionalism: focused on how mental activities helped an organism adapt to its environment
    • Structuralism: understanding the conscious experience through introspection

    Ecological Validity

    One important challenge researchers face when designing a study is to find the right balance between ensuring internal validity , or the degree to which a study allows unambiguous causal inferences, and external validity , or the degree to which a study ensures that potential findings apply to settings and samples other than the ones being studied ( Brewer, 2000 ). Unfortunately, these two kinds of validity tend to be difficult to achieve at the same time, in one study. This is because creating a controlled setting, in which all potentially influential factors (other than the experimentally-manipulated variable) are controlled, is bound to create an environment that is quite different from what people naturally encounter (e.g., using a happy movie clip to promote helpful behavior). However, it is the degree to which an experimental situation is comparable to the corresponding real-world situation of interest that determines how generalizable potential findings will be. In other words, if an experiment is very far-off from what a person might normally experience in everyday life, you might reasonably question just how useful its findings are.

    Because of the incompatibility of the two types of validity, one is often—by design—prioritized over the other. Due to the importance of identifying true causal relationships, psychology has traditionally emphasized internal over external validity. However, in order to make claims about human behavior that apply across populations and environments, researchers complement traditional laboratory research, where participants are brought into the lab, with field research where, in essence, the psychological laboratory is brought to participants. Field studies allow for the important test of how psychological variables and processes of interest “behave” under real-world circumstances (i.e., what actually does happen rather than what can happen ). They can also facilitate “downstream” operationalizations of constructs that measure life outcomes of interest directly rather than indirectly.

    Take, for example, the fascinating field of psychoneuroimmunology, where the goal is to understand the interplay of psychological factors - such as personality traits or one’s stress level- and the immune system. Highly sophisticated and carefully controlled experiments offer ways to isolate the variety of neural, hormonal, and cellular mechanisms that link psychological variables such as chronic stress to biological outcomes such as immunosuppression (a state of impaired immune functioning; Sapolsky, 2004 ). Although these studies demonstrate impressively how psychological factors can affect health-relevant biological processes, they— because of their research design—remain mute about the degree to which these factors actually do undermine people’s everyday health in real life. It is certainly important to show that laboratory stress can alter the number of natural killer cells in the blood. But it is equally important to test to what extent the levels of stress that people experience on a day-to-day basis result in them catching a cold more often or taking longer to recover from one. The goal for researchers, therefore, must be to complement traditional laboratory experiments with less controlled studies under real-world circumstances. The term ecological validity is used to refer the degree to which an effect has been obtained under conditions that are typical for what happens in everyday life (Brewer, 2000). In this example, then, people might keep a careful daily log of how much stress they are under as well as noting physical symptoms such as headaches or nausea. Although many factors beyond stress level may be responsible for these symptoms, this more correlational approach can shed light on how the relationship between stress and health plays out outside of the laboratory.


    How do we act?

    Learning theories focus on how we respond to events or stimuli rather than emphasizing what motivates our actions. These theories provide an explanation of how experience can change what we are capable of doing or feeling.

    Classical Conditioning and Emotional Responses

    Classical Conditioning theory helps us to understand how our responses to one situation become attached to new situations. For example, a smell might remind us of a time when we

    were a kid (elementary school cafeterias smell like milk and mildew!). If you went to a new cafeteria with the same smell, it might evoke feelings you had when you were in school. Or a song on the radio might remind you of a memorable evening you spent with your first true love. Or, if you hear your entire name (John Wilmington Brewer, for instance) called as you walk across the stage to get your diploma and it makes you tense because it reminds you of how your father used to use your full name when he was mad at you, you’ve been classically conditioned!

    Classical conditioning explains how we develop many of our emotional responses to people or events or our “gut level” reactions to situations. New situations may bring about an old response because the two have become connected. Attachments form in this way. Addictions are affected by classical conditioning, as anyone who’s tried to quit smoking can tell you. When you try to quit, everything that was associated with smoking makes you crave a cigarette.


    Figure 8. Ivan Pavlov

    Ivan Pavlov (1880-1937) was a Russian physiologist interested in studying digestion. As he recorded the amount of salivation his laboratory dogs produced as they ate, he noticed that they actually began to salivate before the food arrived as the researcher walked down the hall and toward the cage. “This,” he thought, “is not natural!” One would expect a dog to automatically salivate when food hit their palate, but BEFORE the food comes? Of course, what had happened was . . . you tell me. That’s right! The dogs knew that the food was coming because they had learned to associate the footsteps with the food. The key word here is “learned”. A learned response is called a “conditioned” response. Pavlov began to experiment with this “psychic” reflex. He began to ring a bell, for instance, prior to introducing the food.

    Sure enough, after making this connection several times, the dogs could be made to salivate to the sound of a bell. Once the bell had become an event to which the dogs had learned to salivate, it was called a conditioned stimulus. The act of salivating to a bell was a response that had also been learned, now termed in Pavlov’s jargon, a conditioned response. Notice that the response, salivation, is the same whether it is conditioned or unconditioned (unlearned or natural). What changed is the stimulus to which the dog salivates. One is natural (unconditioned) and one is learned (conditioned). Well, enough of Pavlov’s dogs. Who cares? Let’s think about how classical conditioning is used on us. One of the most widespread applications of classical conditioning principles was brought to us by the psychologist, John B. Watson.

    Watson and Behaviorism

    Watson believed that most of our fears and other emotional responses are classically conditioned. He had gained a good deal of popularity in the 1920s with his expert advice on parenting offered to the public. He believed that parents could be taught to help shape their children’s behavior and tried to demonstrate the power of classical conditioning with his famous experiment with an 18 month old boy named “Little Albert”. Watson sat Albert down and introduced a variety of seemingly scary objects to him: a burning piece of newspaper, a white rat, etc. But Albert remained curious and reached for all of these things. Watson knew that one of our only inborn fears is the fear of loud noises so he proceeded to make a loud noise each time he introduced one of Albert’s favorites, a white rat. After hearing the loud noise several times paired with the rat, Albert soon came to fear the rat and began to cry when it was introduced. Watson filmed this experiment for posterity and used it to demonstrate that he could help parents achieve any outcomes they desired, if they would only follow his advice. Watson wrote columns in newspapers and in magazines and gained a lot of popularity among parents eager to apply science to household order. Parenting advice was not the legacy Watson left us, however. Where he really made his impact was in advertising. After Watson left academia, he went into the world of business and showed companies how to tie something that brings about a natural positive feeling to their products to enhance sales. Thus the union of sex and advertising! So, let’s use a much more interesting example than Pavlov’s dogs to check and see if you understand the difference between conditioned and unconditioned stimuli and responses. In the experiment with Little Albert, identify the unconditioned stimulus, the unconditioned response, and, after conditioning, the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response.

    Operant Conditioning and Repeating Actions

    Operant Conditioning is another learning theory that emphasizes a more conscious type of learning than that of classical conditioning. A person (or animal) does something (operates something) to see what effect it might bring. Simply said, operant conditioning describes how we repeat behaviors because they pay off for us. It is based on a principle authored by a psychologist named Thorndike (1874-1949) called the law of effect. The law of effect suggest that we will repeat an action if it is followed by a good effect.

    Skinner and Reinforcement

    Interactive Element

    Watch a pigeon learn through the concept reinforcement.

    B.F. Skinner (1904-199 expanded on Thorndike’s principle and outlined the principles of operant conditioning. Skinner believed that we learn best when our actions are reinforced. For example, a child who cleans his room and is reinforced (rewarded) with a big hug and words of praise is more likely to clean it again than a child whose deed goes unnoticed. Skinner believed that almost anything could be reinforcing. A reinforcer is anything following a behavior that makes it more likely to occur again. It can be something intrinsically rewarding (called intrinsic or primary reinforcers), such as food or praise, or it can be rewarding because it can be exchanged for what one really wants (such as using money to buy a cookie). Such reinforcers are referred to as secondary reinforcers or extrinsic reinforcers.

    Figure 9. B. F. Skinner (1950)

    Positive and negative reinforcement

    Sometimes, adding something to the situation is reinforcing as in the cases we described above with cookies, praise and money. Positive reinforcement involves adding something to the situation to encourage a behavior. Other times, taking something away from a situation can be reinforcing. For example, the loud, annoying buzzer on your alarm clock encourages you to get up so that you can turn it off and get rid of the noise. Children whine in order to get their parents to do something and often, parents give in just to stop the whining. In these instances, negative reinforcement has been used.

    Operant conditioning tends to work best if you focus on trying to encourage a behavior or move a person into the direction you want them to go rather than telling them what not to do.

    Reinforcers are used to encourage a behavior; punishers are used to stop behavior. A punisher is anything that follows an act and decreases the chance it will reoccur. But often a punished behavior doesn’t really go away. It is just suppressed and may reoccur whenever the threat of punishment is removed. For example, a child may not cuss around you because you’ve washed his mouth out with soap, but he may cuss around his friends. Or a motorist may only slow down when the trooper is on the side of the freeway. Another problem with punishment is that when a person focuses on punishment, they may find it hard to see what the other does right or well. And punishment is stigmatizing; when punished, some start to see themselves as bad and give up trying to change.

    Reinforcement can occur in a predictable way, such as after every desired action is performed, or intermittently, after the behavior is performed a number of times or the first time it is performed after a certain amount of time. The schedule of reinforcement has an impact on how long a behavior continues after reinforcement is discontinued. So a parent who has rewarded a child’s actions each time may find that the child gives up very quickly if a reward is not immediately forthcoming. A lover who is warmly regarded now and then may continue to seek out his or her partner’s attention long after the partner has tried to break up. Think about the kinds of behaviors you may have learned through classical and operant conditioning. You may have learned many things in this way. But sometimes we learn very complex behaviors quickly and without direct reinforcement. Bandura explains how.

    This page titled 1.4: Early Psychology - Structuralism and Functionalism is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mehgan Andrade and Neil Walker.