Understanding Structuralism in Psychology
Structuralism was the first “school” of psychology devoted to applying the scientific method to psychology. Edward Titchener and Wilhelm Wundt were the pioneers of this approach though Wundt is considered to be the father of Structuralism. Wundt opened the first lab in 1879 that was devoted to psychological experimentation. Wundt was part of a larger movement in his native Germany towards attempting to understand the human mind by reducing the mind to parts and elements. Wundt’s views of the structure of the mind became known as Structuralism.
Structuralism denied the metaphysical explanations of the mind that were promoted through religion in 19th century Europe. Consciousness was assumed to be a physiological process resulting from chemical interactions. The identification of the different components of consciousness occurred through introspection.
Introspection encouraged self-reflection and self-observation. Introspection included reporting on the conscious thoughts and sensations. Conscious mental processes were assumed to be purposeful processes that rely upon rationality, feelings, and the moral components of the mind. Extrospection involved describing things external to self based upon perceptions or sensations.
Structuralism made an attempt to explain the mind as a complex composition of naturalistic elements that created the different features of mental function including features normally associated with the soul. The goal of Structuralism was to provide a comprehensive and naturalistic explanation for the unique structure of human beings in comparison with other organisms.
The theory did possess weaknesses that opened the door for other theoretical orientations. First, Wundt’s studies lacked reliability. Wundt’s descriptions of the components of the brain were not observable. Second, the physiological assumptions of Structuralism were based on a limited understanding of physiology. Third, some aspects of human cognitions may be beyond the scope of introspection such as beliefs, judgments, or values. Fourth, introspection cannot accurately reveal bias, prejudices, or metaphysical thoughts.
Structuralism in its current form is called cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology uses the latest technology to explore the physical components and structures of the brain. Cognitive psychology uses the scientific method and rejects subjective methods like introspection. Cognitive psychology recognizes the existence of mental states like those identified by Wundt such as belief, desire, and motivation. Technology like MRI scans is used to identify the different segments of the brain in response to stimuli. Human behavior is physiological in origin.
The research topics of cognitive psychology include many of the same topics that were of interest in Structuralism. The topics include perceptions, attention, memory, and sensations. Other areas of interests include physiological functions associated with language formation, information encoding, and decision-making.