An Introduction to Structural Psychology

Structuralism was among the first schools of Psychology. It was created by Edward B Tichner; a student of Wilhelm Wundt, who is also known as the father of psychology. Structuralism is erroneously thought to be a school created by Wundt, however, Wundt’s experimental psychology is correctly known as “Voluntarism.” Structuralism was an experimental psychology; it’s prime goal being to discover the “structure of consciousness.” 

Tichner defined consciousness as “the sum-total mental processes occurring at any given ‘present’ time.”

To study the structure of consciousness Tichner employed the method of “introspection” as looking within. His students and colleagues were trained in the method of introspection; thus structuralism also came to be known as “introspective psychology”

Tichner’s method can be elaborated in the following example;

 A trained introspector is presented with couple of cards one at a time; each card has a word printed on it. Now, the introspector will observe the mental processes (consciousness) that is stimulated by those words. Those words might trigger a memory, or another word that describes or relates to that word, or they might evoke an emotion for example; sadness, happiness. Now the task for the observer is to describe the mental processes as clearly as possible.

 However, in order to achieve accurate results, the introspector needs to be trained; who can make the inner observations without unduly disturbing the mental processes.

 Through this method, three elements of consciousness were found in structuralism; ‘sensations’, ‘images’ and ‘feelings’. Although all three of these elements were studied by Tichner; his focus was on sensations.

Sensations and images had four attributes; “Quality” (e.g. sweet, low, hot, red) “Intensity” (e.g. vivid, dim, loud, soft) “Clarity” (e.g. distinct, indistinct, dominant, vague) “Duration” (how long the sensation/image lasted). The same attributes also applied to the element “feelings” but with the exception of clarity.

Tichner aimed to develop a periodic table for psychology, just like chemists were doing in chemistry. He distinguished more than 44000 characteristic sensory experiences for vision and audition alone.

However, this had limited use in psychology, since such an “elemental analysis” could say little about the workings of the human  mind. Therefore structural psychology did not remain popular for long, since a lot of new schools, such as functionalism, psycho-analysis and behaviorism were emerging and they sought to explain the human mind and behavior in a much better way than structuralism ever could.