Functionalism in Psychology: Definition, Examples, Criticism

functionalism in psychology overview and examples, explained below

Key Points in this Article:

  • Functionalism in psychology emphasizes the adaptive value and purpose of mental processes and behaviors.
  • Functionalism focuses on how our cognitive structures are adaptable to environmental factors.
  • Functionalism in psychology is a reaction to the limitations of psychological structuralism.
  • The strengths of functionalism include its emphasis on adaptation, holistic analysis, ecological validity, and practical applications.
  • Functionalism has also faced criticism due to its vague theoretical constructs, overemphasis on behavior, and reliance on naturalistic research settings that may lack control.

Functionalism is a theoretical framework in psychology that stresses the adaptive value and purpose of mental processes and behaviors.

According to this perspective, human behavior evolved (or ‘adapted’) to help individuals adapt to their environment by performing essential functions necessary for survival.

Functionalist psychologists believe that mental processes are instrumental in helping humans interpret and respond to stimuli in their environments.

As such, functionalism focuses on how the brain’s cognitive structures process information and why they operate as they do.

chrisComprehension Questions: As you read through this article, our editor Chris will pose comprehension and critical thinking questions to help you get the most out of this article. Teachers, if you assign this article for homework, have the students answer these questions at home, then use them as stimuli for in-class discussion.

Definition of Functionalism in Psychology

In psychology, functionalism focuses on studying mental processes based on their functions or purposes rather than just their elements and structures (Lundin, 1996).

According to Levin (2023),

“…functionalism is the doctrine that what makes something a thought, desire, pain (or any other type of mental state) depends not on its internal constitution, but solely on its function, or the role it plays, in the cognitive system of which it is a part.” 

Functionalists believed that mental processes were a response to environmental pressures and aimed to explain how they helped individuals adapt to their situations. 

Therefore, they emphasized the importance of evaluating psychological phenomena in terms of what they do or the functions they perform.

As McConnell (1986) states, functionalism is:

“…a general psychological approach that views behavior in terms of active adaptation to the environment” (p. 130).

From a scientific perspective, functionalism requires empirical testing and validation of hypotheses. Researchers had to develop methods to measure behavior accurately as it relates to adaptive functioning (Bzdak, 2013).

For example, functionalist researchers might study how perceptual processing allows people to recognize objects quickly or how problem-solving skills help people adapt to new situations.

Put simply, functionalism is a scientific approach that aims to provide explanations for complex human behavior by looking at the purpose behind it. 

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Write your own paraphrased definition of functionalism. What key points would you include in your own definition? Keywords you might use include “environmental factors”, “adaptable”, and “mental processes”. 

10 Examples of Functionalism in Psychology

  • Hunger: Feeling hungry is a sign the body requires food as fuel. So, adaptive function signals us to eat when we need to provide energy that functions effectively.
  • Sleep: Getting adequate sleep fulfills a crucial adaptive function of restoring the body’s energy levels and allowing for effective cognitive functioning during periods of wakefulness.
  • Fear: Fear serves an essential adaptive function by alerting us in potentially dangerous situations; our automatic flight or freeze response is shaped by environmental cues indicating specific actions to undertake.
  • Memory Retention: Our ability to remember things serves an essential adaptive function, strategizing better decision-making and problem-solving skills based on our previously learned experiences and accomplishments.
  • Sexual Attraction: Sexual attraction is believed to have evolved as an adaptation mechanism promoting reproductive success as humans are attracted towards individuals deemed attractive, nurturing potential offspring within mate selection.
  • Socialization: Socialization, including communication. is necessary for human interaction, which helps develop social-adaptive skills like self-expression, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence, shaping positive interpersonal relationships.
  • Learning Through Play: In childhood, learning occurs mostly through play, aiding skill development fundamental for future adaptations, as well as teamwork and creativity helping navigate social interactions later in life.
  • Laughter: Laughter acts as a functional signal conveying social bonds prompting communication within groups, promoting well-being, and ultimately increasing wellness levels across societal systems.
  • Selective Attention Skills: Directing attention towards defined stimuli functions similarly as highlighting relevant avenues for mastery, allowing goal-directed focusing increased productivity, well-being & general life satisfaction.
  • Cognitive Dissonance: Cognitive dissonance represents a functional process that encourages adapting conflicting beliefs/emotions helping justify behavior via rationalization, subsequently managing or alleviating discomfort arising from non-suited cognitions.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: In these examples, we have seen that our mental processes and behaviors serve a function. According to functionalism, this is exactly why we have developed these processes and behaviors: they have a valuable purpose! Can you name two more mental processes that we have adapted over time to serve a key function? (Hint: think about social behaviors such as gestures and mannerisms or behaviors we engage in within the classroom).

Origins of Functionalist Psychology

Functionalism emerged as a school of thought in psychology during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Goodwin, 2022).

It was a response to the limitations of structuralism, which focused on understanding mental processes by breaking them down into basic elements or components. 

The founders of functionalism were influenced by various disciplines, including evolutionary theory and pragmatism

They believed that mental processes could not be reduced to simple elements but had to be studied within their context, taking into account their function in adaptation and survival (Goodwin, 2022).

William James is widely regarded as the father of functionalism, thanks to his influential book The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890. 

In this book, James (1890) proposed that psychology should focus on how mental processes help individuals adapt to their environment.

He argued that consciousness provides us with crucial information about our surroundings that help us navigate everyday life (James, 1980).

Other important figures associated with functionalism include John Dewey and G. Stanley Hall. 

Dewey prioritized studying real-life behavior rather than laboratory experiments, while Hall sought to establish psychology as a science and founded the first American Psychological Association (Goodwin, 2022).

Functionalists believed that understanding mentality required looking beyond its individual components, instead examining its purpose and contribution to an organism’s functioning in its ecosystem. 

They emphasized studying psychological phenomena in naturalistic settings.

Overall, functionalism played an essential role in developing modern psychology by shifting attention toward behavior’s functions within an organism’s environment rather than mere combinations of elements.

Functionalism vs. Structuralism in Psychology

I have a full guide on functionalism vs structuralism in psychology, but here’s a quick summary:

While both schools contributed significantly towards modern psychology development, structuralism focused on objective measurements and introspection techniques, while functionalism emphasizes phenomena within specific contexts.

Structuralism was established by Wilhelm Wundt and popularized by Edward Titchener. Structuralists believed the human mind could be broken down into its most fundamental components or structures (Corsini, 2017).

These structures were thought to be measurable units of the mind, such as sensations, emotions, and thoughts.

This approach aimed to understand consciousness through introspection, where researchers objectively observed their own mental process. 

For example, a participant might report what they experienced when looking at a blue object. From this extensive subjective data collection, structuralists aimed to analyze consciousness systematically.

Functionalism is associated with William James, who believed that consciousness should not only be studied in terms of its basic elements but also how it affects behavior and cognitive processes (James, 1890).

Functionalists were interested in how people adapted their behavior to meet their environment and utilized natural observation to explore this idea.

They explored questions such as how individuals learn skills necessary for survival and prosperity in society. For example, they may study how attention helps solve new problems or challenges individuals face (Levin, 2023).

Both structuralism and functionalism worked toward studying mental phenomenon; however, they differ significantly in methodology and foci:

  • The structuralist approach relies heavily on reliance upon introspection techniques: Participants typically observe their own experiences firsthand before reporting back to researchers compared, with the functionalist focus on observing phenomena within natural settings from an empirical perspective.
  • Functionalists emphasized context in analyzing psychological phenomena: They placed importance on understanding perception or thought processes within specific circumstances, such as interactions with others or environmental factors, rather than breaking them into static parts as structuralists did (Corsini, 2017).
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Using the above information, create a venn diagram where you can compare the similarities, differences, and overlaps between structuralism and functionalism in psychology. A sample of a completed venn diagram is provided in the appendix (teachers: remove the table when assigning this article as homework to encourage independent thinking).

Strengths of Functionalist Psychology

Functionalism was a significant school of thought in psychology and emphasized the importance of studying mental processes in relation to their function rather than breaking them into static components like structuralism did (Kidd & Teagle, 2012).

There are several strengths to functionalism:

  • Emphasis on Adaptation: Functionalists recognize the importance of adaptation, emphasizing behavior’s adaptability to enable survival in real-world settings where individuals face challenges and opportunities.
  • Focus on Holistic Analysis: In contrast to structuralism’s focus on exploring basic elements, functionalists researched how groups of elements work cohesively and how they influence the cognition and actions of individuals, leading to understanding psychological phenomena from a more holistic perspective.
  • Ecological Validity: While laboratory experiments were popular during the early twentieth century, functionalist theorists argued that it was important to investigate behavior within naturalistic settings, giving ecological validity. It strengthened credibility for real-life applications.
  • Importance of Practical Applications: Functionalists believed psychology should have applied value rather than just theoretical underpinnings taking problem-solving techniques from pragmatism philosophy. They attempted to develop practical interventions aimed at helping people improve their ability to learn, work or adapt better within specific contexts.

So, functionalism contributed significantly to modern psychology by investigating mental processes’ adaptive functions, giving rise to significant subfields such as cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology, amongst others (Kidd & Teagle, 2012).

Critique of Functionalist Psychology

Although influential, functionalism in psychology has also been criticized due to its vague theoretical construct, overemphasis on behavior, and empirical research gathering through the non-controlled environment.

One of the critiques is that functionalism’s theoretical constructs are too inclusive and vague without adequate scientific mapping, making their empirical testing difficult and unreliable (Sohlberg, 2021).

Another critique aims at functionalism’s overemphasis on behavior, negating the exploration of subconscious processes as advocated by psychoanalysis leading to significant limitations in certain studies.

Furthermore, critics posit that functionalism highly emphasizes adaptive survival behaviors (Sohlberg, 2021). Thus, they might understate holistic components of human experiences, such as emotional or psychological nuances during modus operandi, which do not necessarily relate to adaptation.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Based on the above strengths and critiques of functionalism, create a summary table with ‘strengths’ on the left and ‘weaknesses’ on the right. This will help with your note-taking and information retention. A sample of a completed table is provided in the appendix (teachers: remove the table when assigning this article as homework to encourage independent thinking).


Functionalism in psychology emerged as a significant school of thought that aimed to shift away from the reductionist approach of structuralism. 

Instead, it emphasized the importance of understanding mental processes holistically and how they help individuals adapt to their environment. 

However, despite its contributions towards developing subfields, including cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology, it has also faced criticisms from scholars. 

Some critiques include its lack of coherent theory constructs that lead to ambiguous empirical testing and over-emphasis on adaptive functions at the expense of other human experiences. 

Nonetheless, functionalism remains a vital perspective for understanding human cognitive processes within set situational contexts while offering advance variables needed to shed light on dynamic cognitive processes considering the context.


Bzdak, D. (2013). Knowing how: An empirical, functionalist approach knowing how: An empirical, functionalist approach.

Corsini, R. (2017). Dictionary of psychology. London: Routledge.

Goodwin, C. J. (2022). A history of modern psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

James, W. (1890). The Principles of psychology. New York: Cosimo Classics.

Kidd, W., & Teagle, A. (2012). Culture and identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Levin, J. (2023). Functionalism (E. N. Zalta & U. Nodelman, Eds.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Lundin, R. W. (1996). Theories and systems of psychology. Washington DC: D.C. Heath.

Sohlberg, P. (2021). Functionalist construction work in social science. London: Routledge.

Homework Answers

1. Examples of Paraphrased Definitions

  • Functionalism is a psychological framework that emphasizes how mental processes are adaptable to environmental factors in order to perform essential functions necessary for survival.
  • In psychology, functionalism is a theoretical perspective that focuses on how mental processes help individuals adapt to their environment by processing information and responding accordingly.
  • Functionalism is a view of psychology that stresses the importance of studying mental processes based on their adaptable functions in response to environmental factors. It emphasizes how cognitive structures process information to help individuals adapt to their situations.

2. Additional Examples of Functionalism

  • Emotions: Emotions are believed to serve a functional purpose by helping individuals respond adaptively to their environment. For example, feeling anxious in a potentially dangerous situation may prompt someone to take action to protect themselves.
  • Language: Language serves a crucial adaptive function by allowing individuals to communicate with one another and share information, ideas, and emotions. It helps us adapt to our social environment.
  • Decision Making: Decision making serves an essential adaptive function by helping individuals choose the best course of action in different situations. Our ability to make decisions helps us adapt to complex and changing environments.
  • Creativity: Creativity is an adaptive function that allows individuals to come up with innovative solutions to problems and challenges. It helps us adapt to changing circumstances and find new ways to thrive.
  • Motivation: Motivation serves an essential adaptive function by helping individuals pursue goals and engage in behaviors that are necessary for survival and success. It helps us adapt to the demands of our environment and achieve our objectives

3. Venn Diagram

Unique aspects of FunctionalismSimilarities between Functionalism and StructuralismUnique Aspects of Structuralism
– Emphasizes the adaptive value and purpose of mental processes and behaviors– Both aim to understand mental processes in psychology– Emphasizes the basic elements or structures of the mind
– Focuses on how cognitive structures process information and why they operate as they do– Both emerged as schools of thought in psychology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries– Relies heavily on introspection techniques to observe mental processes
– Studies mental processes based on their functions or purposes rather than just their elements and structures– Both contributed significantly to the development of modern psychology– Intended to understand consciousness through introspection
– Interested in how people adapt their behavior to meet their environment– Both have strengths and weaknesses as psychological frameworks– Analyzes consciousness systematically by breaking it down into basic elements
– Utilizes natural observation to explore psychological phenomena within specific contexts– Both aimed to study mental processes and behavior empirically– Primarily concerned with objective measurements of mental processes

4. Table of Strengths and Weaknesses

Emphasizes the adaptive value and purpose of mental processes and behaviorsTheoretical constructs are too inclusive and vague without adequate scientific mapping
Focuses on how cognitive structures process information and why they operate as they doOveremphasis on behavior at the expense of subconscious processes
Studies mental processes based on their functions or purposes rather than just their elements and structuresUnderstates holistic components of human experiences not related to adaptation
Interested in how people adapt their behavior to meet their environmentEmpirical research gathering through naturalistic settings may lack control
Utilizes natural observation to explore psychological phenomena within specific contexts
Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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