19th Century Schools of Psychology (OLI)

Gradually in the mid-1800s, the scientific field of psychology gained its independence from philosophy when researchers developed laboratories to examine and test human sensations and perceptions using scientific methods. 
The first two prominent research psychologists were the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), who developed the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879, and the American psychologist William James (1842–1910), who founded an American psychology laboratory at Harvard University.

-from OLI textbook-


The Early Schools of Psychology: No Longer Active

From Flat World Knowledge: Adapted from Introduction to Psychology, v1.0. CC-BY-NC-SA.

School of PsychologyDescriptionEarliest PeriodHistorically Important People
StructuralismUses the method of introspection to identify the basic elements of "structure" of psychological experiences.Late 19th CenturyWilhelm Wundt, Edward B. Titchener
FunctionalismInspired by Darwin's work in biology. Attempted to explain behavior, emotion, and thought as active adaptations to environmental pressures. These ideas influenced later behaviorism and evolutionary psychology.Late 19th CenturyWilliam James, John Dewey

Stucturalism: The Influence of Chemistry and Measurement

Wundt’s research in his laboratory in Leipzig focused on the nature of consciousness itself. Wundt and his students believed that it was possible to analyze the basic elements of the mind and to classify our conscious experiences scientifically. This focus developed into the field known as structuralism, a school of psychology whose goal was to identify the basic elements or “structures” of psychological experience. Its goal was to create a “periodic table” of the “elements of sensations,” similar to the periodic table of elements that had recently been created in chemistry.

Structuralists used the method of introspection in an attempt to create a map of the elements of consciousness. Introspection involves asking research participants to describe exactly what they experience as they work on mental tasks, such as viewing colors, reading a page in a book, or performing a math problem. A participant who is reading a book might report, for instance, that he saw some black and colored straight and curved marks on a white background. In other studies the structuralists used newly invented reaction time instruments to systematically assess not only what the participants were thinking but how long it took them to do so. Wundt discovered that it took people longer to report what sound they had just heard than to simply respond that they had heard the sound. These studies marked the first time researchers realized that there is a difference between the sensation of a stimulus and the perception of that stimulus, and the idea of using reaction times to study mental events has now become a mainstay of cognitive psychology.

Perhaps the best known of the structuralists was Edward Bradford Titchener (1867–1927). Titchener was a student of Wundt who came to the United States in the late 1800s and founded a laboratory at Cornell University. In his research using introspection, Titchener and his students claimed to have identified more than 40,000 sensations, including those relating to vision, hearing, and taste.
Wilhelm Wundt (seated at left) and Edward Titchener (right) helped create the structuralist school of psychology. Their goal was to classify the elements of sensation through introspection. 
An important aspect of the structuralist approach was that it was rigorous and scientific. The research marked the beginning of psychology as a science, because it demonstrated that mental events could be quantified. But the structuralists also discovered the limitations of introspection. Even highly trained research participants were often unable to report on their subjective experiences. When the participants were asked to do simple math problems, they could easily do them, but they could not easily answer how they did them. Thus the structuralists were the first to realize the importance of unconscious processes—that many important aspects of human psychology occur outside our conscious awareness and that psychologists cannot expect research participants to be able to accurately report on all of their experiences. Introspection was eventually abandoned because it was not a reliable method for understanding psychological processes.

Functionalism: The Influence of Biology

In contrast to structuralism, which attempted to understand the nature of consciousness, the goal of William James and the other members of the school of functionalism was to understand why animals and humans have developed the particular psychological aspects that they currently possess. For James, one’s thinking was relevant only to one’s behavior. As he put it in his psychology textbook, “My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing.”

James and the other members of the functionalist school were influenced by Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) theory of natural selection, which proposed that the physical characteristics of animals and humans evolved because they were useful, or functional. The functionalists believed that Darwin’s theory applied to psychological characteristics too. Just as some animals have developed strong muscles to allow them to run fast, the human brain, so functionalists thought, must have adapted to serve a particular function in human experience.
The functionalist school of psychology, founded by the American psychologist William James (left), was influenced by the work of Charles Darwin.

Although functionalism no longer exists as a school of psychology, its basic principles have been absorbed into psychology and continue to influence it in many ways. The work of the functionalists has developed into the field of evolutionary psychology, a contemporary perspective of psychology that applies the Darwinian theory of natural selection to human and animal behavior.

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