Structuralism in Psychology

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Published by:
Practical Psychology
Andrew English
Reviewed by:
Andrew English, Ph.D.

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, like structuralism, you can understand how we got to where we are today.

This page 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. He and a student, Edward Bradford Titchener, set out to study psychology and to better understand consciousness.

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

Wilhelm Wundt

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 its parts, they could understand the mind better.


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 subjective smell of a candle, the subjective feel of a blanket, or the sounds we hear on the street are all examples of sensations that the mind has to process.
  • Images: the elements that make ideas
  • Affections: the elements that make emotions

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


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 determine the processes the conscious mind uses to make decisions or draw certain conclusions.

They set out to understand this process through the concept of 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?



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

All in all, structuralism was rather short-lived. It’s not exactly easy to find consistent patterns or findings when you only use introspection as a research method. Everyone perceives sensations differently. The motivations that influence our behaviors may be hard to find and are influenced by many different experiences. Plus, our memory isn’t always as good as we think. 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 looks 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.

When structuralism and functionalism fought for the top spot in psychology, another psychologist threw his ideas into the ring. His name was Sigmund Freud.


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 shape how we treat mental conditions today. Modern talk therapy includes elements of psychoanalysis. You may be asked to address feelings, memories, or fears you may have repressed for years. Psychoanalysts strongly believe that those repressed feelings result in fixations, phobias, and mental disturbances.

Consciousness Today

Structuralism was attempting to tackle a pretty big term in 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 now have more information on how we sense the world 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 will continue to shape how we approach psychology and matters of the mind. And it all started with schools of thought like structuralism, functionalism, and psychoanalysis.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, April). Structuralism in Psychology. Retrieved from

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