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Two Early Approaches: Functionalism and Structuralism

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  • 1:11 Structuralism
  • 1:36 Introspection
  • 3:13 Functionalism
  • 4:09 Evolutionary Psychology
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Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

What were the first two approaches to psychology, and how were they related? What do introspection and evolutionary principles have to do with it? In this lesson, you'll explore structuralism and functionalism.

For a long time, questions of human motivation and behavior were considered a part of philosophy. Philosophers asked many of the questions that underlie psychological study today; particularly, the debate over whether behavior and personality are shaped more by nature or nurture goes all the way back to the Greeks. But philosophers didn't go about answering these questions in systematic or scientific ways. Their theories couldn't be proved right or wrong because they were based only on casual observation.

Psychology really got going as a discipline when two men decided to take the principles of scientific research and apply them to the study of human behavior. Wilhelm Wundt was a German scientist who founded a laboratory in Leipzig that took a structuralist approach to psychology. William James was an American who founded a laboratory at Harvard that took a functionalist approach. We'll take a closer look at both men and their approaches in order to more thoroughly understand psychology's foundation as a science.

Wundt's lab, founded in 1879, was the first of its kind. His structuralist approach sought to identify the building blocks, or the structure, of psychological experience. Other sciences had been broken down in this way before; chemistry had its periodic table of elements, and physics had its fundamental laws. Wundt sought to do the same for psychology, establishing a series of fundamental relations or structures that could be used to explain all behavior.

Wundt and colleagues, like student Edward Titchener, used a method called introspection to learn what was going through people's heads as they completed various tasks. Wundt was especially interested in how people processed sensory stimuli, and he was the first to draw a distinction between sensation, or a stimulus' effect on one of our senses, and perception, or our brain's interpretation of the stimulus. He discovered this by realizing that when he asked people to listen to a sound and respond as soon as they heard it, they were much faster than when they had to also say what sound they heard. The processing and categorizing of sound took longer than the hearing of it, indicating that perception is a process that is separate but related to sensation. This is a fundamental concept for psychology that Wundt was able to discover through subjects' introspection.

The problem with introspection, as maybe you've already guessed, is that people's descriptions of their own feelings and reactions are often wrong. Let's say a psychologist like Wundt were trying to figure out the softest sound a person could hear; he'd play a sound and then ask if you could hear it, relying on your introspection to determine how sharp your hearing is. But if you expected to hear a sound, you might think that you heard one even if you didn't--and Wundt would conclude that humans can hear much softer sounds than they actually can. We're inaccurate about all sorts of things; even our memories are full of inaccuracies and exaggerations. So while introspection was valuable as an attempt to apply a scientific method to studies of the mind, some of its results suffered from our inability to accurately report our thoughts and feelings.

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