Structuralism in Psychology: Definition & Examples

structuralism in psychology

Structuralism is a school of thought in psychology that attempts to understand human consciousness by examining its underlying components. By identifying the basic and rudimentary components and examining how they operate together, it is possible to understand human behavior.

This school of thought was founded by Wilhelm Wundt and his student Edward Titchener. The goal of structuralism is to break down a complex phenomenon such as consciousness into is smaller components.

Structuralism states that the elements of a person’s mental experiences are a result of sensations, mental images, and feelings that are associated with previous experiences.

Wundt offered the very first university course ever taught in scientific psychology in 1862 in Germany. He stressed the use of experimental methods from the natural sciences to study human consciousness and thus helped psychology move away from its roots in philosophy.

He later established the first experimental psychology lab in 1879 at the University of Leipzig.

Definition of Structuralism In Psychology

Structuralism is on of the main theoretical approaches in psychology. This approach involves focusing on the components of the mind and how they relate to one another.

This approach breaks down mental processes into their smallest possible components and analyzes them. Through this approach, it seeks to understand how these components combine and, together, end up forming complex psychological phenomena.

According to Structuralist theorists, it is the relationships between these parts that is the key to understanding our psychological processes.

Structuralism is a major theory in psychology, alongside functionalism. Functional psychology’s focus is more on how the mind adapts to its environment in order to survive.

FunctionalismStructuralism
DefinitionThe study of how our minds adapt to external stimuli in order to help us survive and thrive in our environmentsThe study of how our minds make meaning through small step-by-step cognitive processes.
Key TheoristsWilliam JamesEdward Titchener
Key ConceptsAdaptation and Environmental stimuliComponents of the mind and analysis of structures
Example of StudyAn example study might be one that explores how we use language to communicate and function as social beings.An example study might be one that focuses on the words used to explain emotions after watching a television advertisement.

Structuralism Examples

  • An aspiring structuralist makes audio recordings of his thoughts and feelings while listening to classical music, being sure to only use only single adjectives.   
  • To study taste sensations, a researcher provides samples of three types of chocolate and asks the research participants to take notes on the sensations they feel while consuming each type.
  • A marketing psychologist shows research participants different product ads and asks them to describe their emotional experience while watching each one.
  • A criminologist tries to document the thoughts and feelings of convicted conmen while they were tricking people out of their life savings.
  • A developmental psychologist carefully documents the verbal interactions of two toddlers as they engage in pretend play.
  • A psycholinguist carefully documents the progression of language development from ages 2-4 years old, identifying the increase in sentence complexity and structure.
  • A psychotherapist shows her patients several Rorschach inkblots in an attempt to identify their underlying thought processes.  
  • A researcher studying group dynamics and decision-making takes detailed notes on the different types of statements that people make while developing a budget.
  • To identify the sensations of touch, a research participant is instructed to hold a fleece blanket and describe what they feel using the simplest adjectives possible. They use words such as soft, fuzzy, and warm to describe what they feel.
  • A neurolinguist examines the relation between areas of the brain and speech disorders in young children. By mapping the connection between components of the brain and communication processes, pharmaceutical companies may be able to develop medical interventions.     

Case Studies of Structuralism in Psychology  

1. The Concept of General Intelligence  

The concept of general intelligence was originally proposed by Spearman (1904). He postulated that “intelligence” was a general mental ability that was comprised by many specific intellectual abilities.

This was based on his observation that children often did similarly well across different subjects. Spearmen concluded that because children’s performance on different subjects were highly related, there must exist an underlying, core intelligence, which he referred to as g.

In his own words:

“…observed facts indicate that all branches of intellectual activity have in common one fundamental function (or group of functions), whereas the remaining or specific elements of the activity seem in every case to be wholly different from that in all the others” (p. 284).

Modern concepts of intelligence identify several distinct cognitive abilities that form a hierarchy of skills from narrow to more general, referred to as the g factor.

Empirical research on intelligence today incorporates experimental cognitive psychology as well as brain anatomy and physiology. These represent a structuralist as well as functional approach to the study of intelligence in the modern era.

2. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget devised a theory of cognitive development that identifies how thinking processes evolve over time. The brain goes through a maturational process of biological growth that allows for increasingly enhanced cognitive abilities. Different structures in the brain develop, which then allows for more advanced cognitive processes.

For example, children make sense of the world by forming mental frameworks called schemas. Schemas are constantly changing as a result of assimilation and accommodation.

According to Piaget (1936),

“Assimilation can never be pure because by incorporating new elements into its earlier schemata the intelligence constantly modifies the latter in order to adjust them to new elements. Conversely, things are never known by themselves, since this work of accommodation is only possible as a function of the inverse process of assimilation….In short, intellectual adaptation, like every other kind, consists of putting an assimilatory mechanism and a complementary accommodation into progressive equilibrium” (p. 6-7).

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is both an example of structuralism and functionalism. He identifies the structure of thought process as well as how they serve different functions.

Read More: Go Deeper on Cognitive Development Theory in This Article

3. Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA)

Exploratory factor analysis (EFA) is a statistical procedure that allows for the identification of items on a measurement scale that are related to each other. It has been used in research on intelligence and personality characteristics.

For example, when trying to identify the different components (i.e., structures) of intelligence, a researcher will administer a large test to a group of research participants. The items on the test will cover different subjects such as math, science, analytical reasoning, and verbal skills, just to name a few.

By inputting the data into a statistical program such as SPSS and then conducting an exploratory factor analysis, the researcher can identify the different components that are measured by the IQ test.

All of the items that measure math will be correlated highly with each other, but be less correlated with items that measure verbal skills.

A similar approach is used when studying the components of a personality characteristic or psychological construct such as emotional intelligence.

4. Introspection as a Research Methodology 

Wilhelm Wundt, the father of psychology and creator of structuralism, relied on introspection as a key research methodology. By examining one’s internal sensations, feelings, and thought processes, it was possible to gain psychological insights into human behavior.

Wundt would carefully train his students to objectively analyze the most fundamental elements of their thoughts and sensations. He would present his study participants with various stimuli while highly trained observers would take detailed notes.

The environment was strictly controlled and the questions presented to the participants structured and rigid. The participants were trained to only offer a specific range of responses so as to avoid subjective biases.

Wundt’s method of introspection is quite different than what most people think of today, where the process is more similar to a free-flowing stream of consciousness and self-reflection. The meaning is often a subject of interpretation and open to many possible biases.

5. Trait Theory of Leadership

The trait theory of leadership seeks to identify the different components, or traits, of leadership. It begins with the assumption that great leaders are born with a specific set of personality characteristics that make them great leaders. 

Researchers studied leaders by observing them in action and producing a catalog of common characteristics. Although there were differences in the specific characteristics observed, there were also common denominators.

The research identified the personality profile of a leader which consists of several attributes, including adaptability, assertiveness, decisiveness, a high degree of motivation, the ability to motivate others, and self-confidence.

According to trait theory, these are all attributes that cannot be learned, but must come naturally.

Thomas Carlyle was one of the main proponents of the trait theory of leadership, in what he referred to as the “great man” theory. During his time of studying leadership, the prototype leader was either in the military or politics, which were male-dominated professions.

In the modern era, we would include examples of great female leaders as well, such as Margaret Thatcher, Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, and Sanna Marin.

Conclusion

Structuralism attempts to understand broad psychological processes by identifying the smallest components of those processes. It all began with German physiologist and psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, who also taught the world’s first course in psychology and founded the first experimental psychology lab.

Although structuralism is not a prominent school of thought today, many psychological phenomena can be understood from a structuralist perspective.

For example, Piaget sought to identify the basic building blocks of human understanding through the concepts of schema, assimilation, and accommodation.

Researchers that study general intelligence can break it down into different components of intelligence that are distinct but related.

At the same time, the trait theory of leadership attempts to understand what makes a leader by describing the most fundamental personality characteristics and behaviors of those recognized as great leaders.

References

Carlyle, T. (1841/2013). On heroes, hero-worship, and the heroic in history. (D. R. Sorensen & B.E. Kinser, Eds.). New Haven: Yale University Press. doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vm0w4

Cohen, R. J., & Swerdlik, M. E. (2005). Psychological testing and assessment: An introduction to tests and measurement (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Eysenck, H. J. (1986). The theory of intelligence and the psychophysiology of cognition. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Advances in the Psychology of human intelligence (Vol. 3, pp. 1-34). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Judge, T. A., Piccolo, R. F., & Kosalka, T. (2009). The bright and dark sides of leader traits: A review and theoretical extension of the leader trait paradigm. The Leadership Quarterly20(6), 855-875. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2009.09.004

Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of Intelligence in the Child. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Prinsloo, M., & Barrett, P. (2013, June). Cognition: Theory, Measurement, Implications. Integral Leadership Review. Retrieved from http://integralleadershipreview.com/9270-cognition-theory-measurement-implications/

Spearman, C.E. (1904). “General intelligence,” objectively determined and measured.  American Journal of Psychology, 15(2): 201–293. https://doi.org/10.2307/1412107  

Dave Cornell (PhD)
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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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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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