Functionalism - Major Schools of Thought - Definitions

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Major Schools of Thought

As its name implies, functionalism is concerned with what things do, and with the results that follow, rather than with what things are. It is the yin to the yang of structuralism, and it came into being as a reaction against structuralism. From the functionalist perspective, a psychological state’s meaning emerges not from its components but from its end product. A functionalist would say that any mental state—sadness, ecstasy, guilt, boredom—is definable primarily by how it spurs subsequent action or mental states. In that sense, a functionalist would argue that different emotions that have led to the same reactions or behavior may not be so different after all. Moreover, from the functionalist perspective, that similarity of reactions or behavior is much more important than any differences in the mental states that gave rise to them. Given this focus on the actionable results of mental states, functionalism is more concerned than structuralism is with behavior, because functionalism emphasizes how a person’s mental states will play out in the surrounding world. Functionalism, focusing less on mental processes than on the capabilities of the mind itself, places importance on experimental results that can be applied in practical ways, and so a lot of theorists under the functionalist umbrella have emphasized quantifiable, observable research results. Some of the earliest formal psychology laboratories were established by functionalists. Later functionalists, such as Edward Thorndike, can be viewed as early behaviorists, since they were most interested in the way that an organism responds and adapts to its environment.