Wilhelm Wundt's Theory & Structuralism: Overview

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  • 0:01 Wilhelm Wundt
  • 0:50 Birth of Experimental…
  • 2:04 Methods of…
  • 3:40 Titchener & Structuralism
  • 5:08 Wundt's Theories Today
  • 6:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tiffany Frye
Wilhelm Wundt is considered the founder of experimental psychology. Read more to learn about how these early experiments were conducted, the theories that developed from them, and Wundt's legacy in contemporary psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt: Historical Context

Portrait of Wilhelm Wundt

Wilhelm Wundt was a psychologist, philosopher and linguist responsible for setting up the first psychology laboratory. He was active in the late 1800s and early 1900s, at a time when the future of the discipline of psychology was unsure. Up until that point, psychology had been seen as a branch of philosophy, and that branch was dangerously close to being cut off when Immanuel Kant claimed that psychology had no viability as an academic discipline because he saw consciousness as impossible to study objectively. It was Wundt's work and his establishment of a psychology laboratory that cemented psychology's identity as a legitimate discipline. He is therefore often referred to as the 'father of experimental psychology.'

The Birth of Experimental Psychology

Portrait of E.H. Weber

Wundt's work was preceded by an important breakthrough by E.H. Weber in the study of human physiology. Weber discovered that if you hold a pile of rocks in your hand, there is a specific ratio by which the weight of that pile would need to be increased before you would notice the change in weight. Weber discovered this by noticing that weight-lifters were able to discriminate between weights better when picking them straight off the floor, but when they were already holding the weights in their hands, the weight had to increase by a specific ratio before the weight-lifters noticed the increased heaviness. What was most important about Weber's breakthrough was that it was discovered not through introspection but through experimentation.

Wundt believed that this approach could be applied to experimental psychology. Experimental psychology is the branch of psychology that seeks to study the mind through empirical experiments. Wundt was one of the first people to believe that consciousness could be studied through experimentation and that consciousness and other mental phenomena should be the object of study in psychology. While these assumptions may seem obvious to us, they were a complete departure from what many philosophers believed at the time.

Wundt in his laboratory with his research group

Methods of Experimental Psychology

These days, we have MRIs, computed tomography and other methods of neuroimaging that allow us to see physiological reactions in the brain. Of course, Wundt did not have these technologies at his disposal. Therefore, he had to rely on a combination of control of external stimuli and reports of internal observations by the research subject. He believed that there were two sides to any explanation of a phenomena - the external side, measured in the laboratory, and the psychological side, measured by self-report of internal observations.

Many of Wundt's experiments, especially his earlier ones, built on Weber's work by concentrating on sensation and perception. Sensation is the physiological response to an external stimuli (for example, the mechanisms of the eye registering a round, small, red object), and perception is the psychological interpretation of sensation (for example, stating that you see an apple). Wundt's experiments consisted of varying external stimuli in a laboratory setting and then asking research subjects to report their relative internal changes. The difference between Weber's and Wundt's work was that, while Weber's experiments were only concerned with physiological reactions, Wundt's experiments were concerned with psychological reactions. Even though Wundt had strict rules about self-observation, it was because of his reliance on internal observation that critics were originally skeptical of Wundt's methods.

Edward B. Titchener and Structuralism

Edward B. Titchener was a student of Wundt's at his psychological laboratory. When Titchner left Germany and came to the United States to continue his study of psychology, he became a vocal advocate of Wundt's work and produced translations of his primary writings. However, there is controversy surrounding these translations. Many of them are considered to be mistranslated in a way that makes Wundt appear to support Titchener's ideas more than he actually did.

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