Structuralism and Experimental Psychology

Updated February 8, 2018

Structuralism began as a new discipline just prior to when the first learning theorists came on the scene. Structuralism was concerned with the structure of the brain and how it affects our ability to think and function. There were several early experimental or structural scientists on the scene such as Wilhelm Wundt (1882 – 1920), the father of experimental psychology.

Edward Tichener (1887 – 1927) who was a Cornell University psychologist taught his students on how to report on their experiences when exposed to different situations (stimuli). 

The students attempted to establish the building blocks of experience (outside forces) which form our human consciousness.  They observed data, did a lot of introspection and self-observations to come up with their findings.

Metronome experiment

These experiments were brilliant and so important to the newly developing field.  Wundt devised an experiment where his students were to listen to the clicking of a metronome. It sometimes ticked quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes it sounded off many times, and other times very few. The students then reported that if the metronome ticked quickly they became excited; if it clicked slowly they felt relaxed.  They felt tense inside anticipating the next click and after it finished clicking they felt relief.

This type of research started to wan when too many conflicting reports starting coming in. Because of using introspection as a measurement it was difficult to find any real solutions that way.

John B. Watson (1878 – 1958)

John B. Watson revolutionized the field by rejecting the subjectivity of introspection and took behavioral psychology into the realm of observable data.  This data could be measured and seen and reported. With introspection the scientist had to rely on the subjects account of what something made them think or feel.

The focus of psychology then changed from studying thinking and feelings to studying how people learn. The first studies looked at animal behavior. By extension these pioneers rationalized if they could find the mechanism by which people learn through a stimulus (trigger) and a response they could also predict human behavior.  By predicting behavior they could control it. 

This statement does sound like the beginning of a totalitarian state with the government controlling everything but it was not intended to be that way. Controlling behavior had positive applications such as controlling temper tantrums, and psychotic episodes.  It also meant that people could learn new skills and benefit from this new understanding of human nature and how we all can better our lives.