Structuralism in Psychology

The study of psychology has had an enormous impact on our world. It has influenced the way that we raise our children. The way that we look at (and try to achieve) success. The way that we make sense of mental illness or just different feelings that we have. 

But psychology has undergone a lot of changes throughout the centuries. Many schools of thought have outright replaced and ridiculed its predecessors. But by learning about the original theories in psychology, you can understand how we got to where we are today.

This video is about one of the earliest theories in psychology, developed at the first laboratory for psychology ever! 

Wilheim Wundt 

In 1879, Wilheim Wundt set this laboratory up at the University of Leipzig. He also published what is now regarded as the first psychology textbook. Him and his student, Edward Bradford Titchener, set out to find a way to study psychology and look at consciousness. 

They developed structuralism, arguably the first “school” of psychology. 

What Is Structuralism? 

Wundt and Titchener knew that other sciences could break substances or concepts down into different structures. Why couldn’t they do the same with consciousness? From this idea, structuralism was born.

Structuralism was the idea that the mind was made up of the sum of its parts. If Wundt and Titchener could only break down the mind into all of its parts, they would be able to understand the mind better.

Elements 

But what are the parts that make up the entire mind? Wundt and Titchener laid out these different elements. Among them were:

  • Sensations: the sensory stimuli that we take in. The objective smell of a candle, the objective feel of a blanket, or the sounds we hear on the street are all examples of sensation that the mind has to process.

  • Images: the elements that make up ideas 

  • Affections: the elements that make up emotions 

Even these elements could be broken down and categorized by things like quality or intensity. 

Introspection

So the structuralists had an idea of what parts made up the mind. But they needed to figure out how they worked together. Through this study, they could figure out the processes that the conscious mind used to make decisions or draw certain conclusions. 

They set out to figure out this process through introspection. Wundt and Titchener asked participants to go inward. They would ask about certain memories. How intense were those memories? How did it make them feel at the time? How do they feel now? What were you thinking at that moment? What influenced you to act or to feel a certain way? 

Criticisms 

Structuralism was one of the first big theories in psychology. As with most theories, it became the subject of much scrutiny and criticism. Behaviorists weren’t concerned with the conscious mind – they wanted to understand what was happening even farther beneath the surface. Gestalt psychologists dismissed the idea that the mind could be broken up into parts. 

All in all, structuralism was rather short-lived. It’s not exactly easy to find consistent patterns or findings when you are only using introspection as a method of research. Everyone perceives sensations differently. The motivations that influence our behaviors may be very hard to find, and are influenced by many different experiences. Plus, our memory isn’t always as good as we think it is. Memories are also skewed and influenced by different experiences that one or two psychologists can’t always pinpoint in a few sessions. 

Functionalism and Psychoanalysis 

While structuralism is considered the “first” school of psychology, it was not the only one that appeared during the late 1800s. Two other schools of thought, functionalism and psychoanalysis, also sprang up during that time. 

Functionalism

Functionalism looked at the function of behavior. Rather than looking at where each element was placed and the interaction between a system of elements, functionalism looked at the why and how of each behavior. Functionalism inspired two schools of thought that heavily influenced modern psychology: behaviorism and applied psychology. But it wasn’t the perfect approach to psychology. It didn’t explain why or how we experience sensations like touch or smell. 

While functionalism was developed as a response to structuralism, they weren’t so different. Both schools of thought focused primarily on conscious thought. 

At the time that structuralism and functionalism were fighting for the top spot in psychology, another psychologist threw his ideas into the ring. His name was Sigmund Freud. 

Psychoanalysis 

Psychoanalysis wasn’t just concerned with the conscious mind. Freud was more concerned with how the unconscious mind influenced seemingly conscious decisions. 

Psychoanalysis is based on the idea that our unconscious mind and childhood memories shape much of how we think, feel, and make decisions. 

This school of thought helped to shape the way that we treat mental conditions today. Modern talk therapy includes elements of psychoanalysis. You may be asked to address feelings, memories, or fears that you may have repressed for years at a time. Psychoanalysts strongly believe that those repressed feelings resulted in fixations, phobias, and mental disturbances. 

Consciousness Today

Structuralism was attempting to tackle a pretty big term in the world of psychology. Even today, it seems impossible to “measure” someone’s consciousness. It’s abstract, yet so present in our lives. And the unconscious? How do you even begin to understand what you can’t consciously analyze? 

Some questions have been answered with technology and time. For example, we have more information on how we sense things around and how this stimuli travels through the brain. But why do we all perceive things so differently? What role does nature or nurture play in our perceptions and decisions? 

These questions are going to continue to shape the way we approach psychology and matters of the mind. And it all started with schools of thought like structuralism, functionalism, and psychoanalysis.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.