Structuralism vs Functionalism (Psychology)

Structuralism vs Functionalism (Psychology)Reviewed By Chris Drew (PhD)

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.

structuralism vs functionalism definitions, explained below

Structuralism and functionalism are two early schools of thought in psychology. The former studied the mind’s structure while the latter focused on its functions.

Structuralism was developed by Wilhelm Wundt and his student Edward Titchener in the late 19th century. The primary focus of this approach is to understand the basic elements of the mind, which structuralists examine through introspection.

Around this, functionalism originated in the United States as a direct counter to structuralism. The functionalists believed that, instead of trying to study the structure of the mind, we should focus on its utility: “How does the mind help us in various ways?” they ask.

Structuralism and functionalism are both attempts to study the mind, but they differ in many ways. We will look at the similarities and differences between them later. First, let us understand each of these in more detail and look at some examples.

Structuralism vs Functionalism

1. Structuralism in Psychology

Read Full Study Guide: Structuralism in Psychology

Michael W. Passer and Ronald Edward Smith define structuralism as

“The analysis of the mind in terms of its basic elements” (2007).

Structuralism was one of the earliest schools of thought in psychology. It originated when Wilhelm Wundt established the first experimental psychology lab at the University of Leipzig (Germany) in 1879.

Wundt wanted to model psychology after the natural sciences to provide legitimacy to the new discipline. He felt that a psychologist could study the mind in the same way that a chemist studies a complex compound: by breaking it down into individual elements. (Vardanyan, 2011)

The first generation of psychologists trained under Wundt, one of whom was Edward Titchener. Like his teacher, Titchener was also focused on studying the structure, that is, the basic building blocks of the mind.

Titchener believed that introspection (“looking within”) can help us achieve this:

“The state of consciousness…can become an object of immediate knowledge only by way of introspection or self-awareness”. (1929).

Elements of the Mind

In his work, Titchener concluded that there are three types of mental elements:

  • Sensations: These constitute perceptions or discernments.
  • Images: These are ideas or thoughts.
  • Affections: These refer to emotions.

Titchener further broke down these elements into several properties: quality (like color or temperature), intensity (how strong something feels), duration (how long it lasts), clearness (the amount of attention directed to it), and extensity (the perception of space).

He argued that sensations and images possess all these qualities. However, affections lack clearness and extensity. Moreover, images and affections could be broken down into sensations. 

All in all, Titchener believed that the mind could be understood with sensations, which can be studied through introspection. He also argued that the law of contiguity governs the interaction of mental elements: the thought of a particular thing causes thoughts of other things experienced along with it.

Key Concepts in Structuralism

  1. Introspection: Introspection literally means “looking within”, and structuralists used it as their primary means of analysis. Titchener believed that introspection was the “final and only court of appeal” (1906). However, this is not like the “pure introspection” of early philosophers, which according to Wundt, is relatively unstructured. In contrast, structuralists employ “experimental introspection”, which uses laboratory experiments that help get a precise measure of perceptions.
  2. Self-Reports: Structuralists used self-reports of sensations to understand the workings of the mind. This is done by giving the subject an object, say a box. The researcher then asks the subject to describe the characteristics of the box, like its size, color, etc. The subject is told not to mention the name of the object (“box”) because it doesn’t describe anything about his sensations. Titchener considered this a “stimulus error” and instead focused on the subject’s own experience.

2. Functionalism in Psychology

Read Full Study Guide: Functionalism in Psychology

Passer and Smith define functionalism as an approach that:

“…held that psychology should study the functions of consciousness rather than its structure.”

Functionalism originated in direct opposition to structuralism during the late 19th Century. It was highly influenced by Charles Darwin: just like the evolutionary theory showed how our bodies adapt to the environment, functionalism studied how our mental processes help us similarly adapt to our environments (Fancher, 1990).

So, unlike structuralism, functionalism is about finding the “utility” or “purpose” of our mental processes.

Edward L. Thorndike is often considered the leader of this movement, and other thinkers include William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead.

Key Concepts in Functionalism

  1. Adaptive Behavior: One of the key areas of functionalism—which was heavily influenced by Darwinism—is studying how mental processes help individuals adapt to the environment. Functionalists were amongst the first to study problem-solving and we can still use these in real-world settings. For example, psychologists can study how individuals make financial investments: assess their investment decisions, explore their thought processes, compare their actions, etc.
  2. Social Interaction: Functionalism can also help us study social interactions. For example, psychologists can conduct a research study to see how social influence shapes us. This can be similar to the famous “Asch conformity experiment” and would help us gauge how participants make decisions. In the same way, functionalism can study collaboration, negotiation, empathy, etc. All of these can help us in real-world settings, say launching a marketing campaign.

Compare and Contrast with The Passer’s Arm Analogy

Passer uses an excellent analogy to demonstrate the difference between structuralism and functionalism. Consider the human arms, he says. A structuralist would try to study how the muscles, tendons, and bones combine together to make the arm; that is, he will focus on the structure and components. A functionalist, however, would ask questions like “Why do we have arms?”, “How do they help us adapt to the world?”, etc. In other words, he will focus on the utility or purpose of the arm. Structuralists and functionalists approach mental processes in the same way.

Structuralism and Functionalism Similarities

Both structuralism and functionalism were early schools of thought in psychology that shaped the discipline in significant ways.

They were similar in the following ways:

  • Early schools of thought: Structuralism and functionalism both originated in the late 19th century and were each other’s contemporaries. The early psychologists, such as Wundt, wanted to establish psychology as a scientific discipline to give it legitimacy. Both structuralism and functionalism, despite differing in their methods, tried to study the mind in a scientific way. They moved away from the “pure introspection” ways of philosophy toward lab experiments.
  • Study of mental processes: Both structuralism and functionalism are ultimately ways of studying mental processes, even if they employ different tools of analysis. Mary Calkins, a student of William James, even tried to reconcile the two theories during her APA presidential address. She developed her school of thought, self-psychology, as a place where structuralism and functionalism could unite.
  • Legacy: Although both structuralism and functionalism lost their prevalence, they still played a key role in shaping psychology. Many ideas of structuralism remain influential in the field of cognitive psychology, and proponents argue that we can still gain useful insights from introspection. On the other hand, functionalism has influenced evolutionary psychology (the study of the adaptiveness of behavior) and behaviorism.

Structuralism and Functionalism Differences

Structuralism and functionalism are contrasting approaches to studying the mind, and they also employ different tools of analysis. 

  • Approach: Structuralism and functionalism are different ways of studying the mind. The former focuses on the structure of the mind, studying its elements and how they interact with each other. In contrast, functionalism tries to understand the utility/purpose of mental processes, without bothering much about the mind’s structure. Leahey argued that structuralism comes from philosophy, while functionalism from biology (2004).
  • Tools of Analysis: These two theories employ different tools of analysis. Structuralism uses introspection as the primary means of studying the mind, and it employs it in a scientific manner. In contrast, functionalism rejects introspection, considering it to be too subjective and unreliable. Instead, it employs observation, experimental methods, mental testing, etc.
  • Environment: Structuralism is solely concerned with the structure of the mind, but functionalism focuses on the environment too. The former approach tries to understand the elements (sensations, images, etc.) of the mind and how they interact. Functionalism, however, pays special attention to the environment too, which clearly shows its links to Darwinian thinking. It tries to understand what functions mental processes have and how they help us to adapt to the environment. 

Summarized Table of Differences

DefinitionStructuralism is a school of psychology that seeks to understand the structure of the mind and its perceptions by analyzing those perceptions into their constituent parts.Functionalism is a school of psychology that focuses on the purpose and function of the mind and behavior in individual adaptation to the environment.
Key ProponentsWilhelm Wundt, Edward Titchener.Edward L. Thorndike, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead.
MethodologiesIntrospection, mental tests.Observation, mental tests, comparative methods.
FocusUnderstanding the individual elements of consciousness and how they combine to create our mental experiences.Understanding the adaptive purposes of mental processes and behaviors.
CriticismOverly concerned with internal behavior, which is not directly observable and cannot be accurately measured.Lacked a systematic methodology, making it difficult to test its theories empirically.
ContributionLaid groundwork for cognitive and experimental psychology.Influenced the emergence of behaviorism and applied psychology, and laid the groundwork for the later development of humanistic psychology and the cognitive revolution.
PerspectiveReductionistic, focusing on breaking down mental processes into the most basic components.Holistic, emphasizing the whole of human experience, and considering mental processes in their complete form.


Structuralism and functionalism are two approaches to studying the mind: the former studies the structure while the latter focuses on the utility/purpose.

These were two of the earliest schools of thought in psychology and played a key role in establishing it as a scientific discipline. Structuralists studied the mind by breaking it down into elements and examining them through introspection.

The functionalists, however, were not interested in studying the structure of the mind. Instead, they focused on the utility of mental processes and how they help us adapt to the environment. Both approaches eventually lost their prevalence but continue to influence psychology today.


Fancher (1990). Pioneers of Psychology. New York: W.W. Norton.

Leahey, Thomas Hardy. (2004). A History of Psychology: Main Currents in psychological thought. Sydney: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Passer, Michael W.; Smith, Ronald Edward. (2007). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior. London: McGraw Hill.

Vardanyan, Vilen. (January 2011). Panorama of Psychology. New York: AuthorHouse.

Titchener, Edward Bradford (1906). A Textbook of Psychology. London: APA.

Titchener (1929). Systematic Psychology: Prolegomena. London: APA 

Sourabh Yadav is a freelance writer & filmmaker. He studied English literature at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. You can find his work on The Print, Live Wire, and YouTube.

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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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