1.5 Psychological Approaches: Functionalism, Structuralism, Gestalt, Psychoanalysis & Behaviourism

Jan 12, 2020 | ch1 Introduction, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

In this lesson, you will explore some of the popular approaches that psychologists use to help them study the human mind. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

What Is Behaviour?

When you were a child, did you ever hear a parent ask you to please behave? Ha! If only it were that simple. What is behavior? How do we recognize and construct and perform behavior? Is behavior formed in the brain, in the mind, in the subconscious, in the soul? Does behavior exist, or is it simply a theoretical manifestation of our conscious surroundings? Please behave. As if.

The study of the mind and behavior is a field called psychology. Psychologists attempt to unravel these complex and confusing questions about how we think and behave, including such seemingly simple questions as why?. Why do we behave? Whoa – not so simple after all. To explain their understanding of the human mind, psychologists developed several approaches, or ways to look at these questions. None of these are accepted by all psychologists, but all reveal something different about the mind and how it works.

Approaches to Psychology

Functionalism is the theory that defines mental states by their function. What this means is that your brain is inherently neutral, without behavior, but produces different behaviors depending on the signal it receives. Think of it like a computer. You type in a set of data, the computer analyzes it and creates a chart analyzing the data. Like a computer, your brain receives all sorts of data: what you see, hear, feel, taste, and touch. Your brain calculates the data and creates a behavior that is an appropriate response to your surroundings. That’s the essence of functionalism.

Functionalism looks to the brain, but other approaches are more connected with the mind, or consciousness. In structuralism, the structure of the mind is defined by the interaction of basic parts of the mind. What this means is that consciousness is the accumulation of all of your experiences throughout your life. At their most basic, these experiences can be separated into three categories: sensations, images, and emotions. By understanding how these basic components interact, structuralists believe you can understand the structure of the mind. Unlike functionalism, structuralism does not see the brain as chemically causing conscious awareness and behavior.

From here we can look at another fundamental approach, Gestalt psychology. A gestalt is something in its entirety, so Gestalt psychology looks at the mind as a whole as independent of the individual parts. This means that the mind is not just a compilation of different parts, like structuralism would argue. In the words of Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, the whole is other than the sum of its parts.

Gestalt psychologists are interested by how the mind turns the individual stimuli of experiences into a greater whole that is entirely unique. For example, your sense of awareness may be related to the smell of your house, the feel of the sun coming through the window, and the sound of this video, but your mind turns these individual things into a greater awareness of existence. In simple terms, why do we look at a picture of a face and recognize it as a face? Why not just a series individual dots and lines? Gestalt psychology is all about how our minds create entire concepts, not the individual pieces.

But wait – there’s more. So far, we’ve talked a lot about very obtuse, high-minded ideas of psychology. Heh – get it? High-minded? Because psychology studies the mind? Ha! Anyway, at some point you need approaches that are more directly concerned with the best ways to actually perform psychological research. One of the earlier approaches to practicing psychology was behaviorism, or the belief that psychology should concern itself with observable events. This is pretty different from the other approaches we discussed that are focused on internal processes inside the mind. Behaviorism tends to ignore private thoughts and focuses only on public behaviors. This school of thought teaches that behavior can be observed and documented scientifically without needing to examine internal things like thoughts or beliefs.

The other practical approach, which sometimes compliments and sometimes rejects behaviorism, is psychoanalysis. This approach, first proposed by Sigmund Freud, states that behavioral issues stem from conflicts between the conscious and the unconscious. In this approach, the way to correct mental issues, from anxiety to depression, is to make the person consciously aware of what is bothering them subconsciously. This method of psychology relies on the person talking to a trained psychoanalyst about their feelings, dreams, and thoughts, from which the professional determines where the unconscious conflict is, and helps the patient come to terms with that issue. Like all of these approaches, psychoanalysis is not supported by everyone, but it has been a major influence on the field of psychology over the last century.

Lesson Summary

The study of the human mind and behavior is a field called psychology. Psychologists deal with a very complicated subject, so they developed several approaches to help them frame their arguments. First is functionalism, in which mental states are defined by their function. If the brain is a computer, then behaviors are the responses the brain calculates from all the data it receives about your surroundings. Structuralism states that the structure of the mind is defined by the interaction of basic parts of the mind. In other words, all of your accumulated experiences create your consciousness. This approach is opposed by Gestalt psychology, which states that the mind is an entire whole, independent of the parts. Gestalt psychologists are interested in how the mind turns individual things, like dots and lines, into a whole, like a recognizable image.

Some psychologists believe in an approach where the researcher only focuses on observable events. This is called behaviorism. Rather than worry about the individual thoughts in a person’s conscious mind, this approach stresses the scientific observations of public behavior. Finally, there is psychoanalysis, the belief that mental issues come from the conflict of the unconscious and conscious mind. Therefore, the job of the psychologist is to help a person understand what is bothering them on an unconscious level and bring that to resolution. See, behavior is a complex and complicated field of study. And they told you to please just behave.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Define psychology
  • Explain why behavior is a difficult concept to define
  • Describe the following approaches to psychology: functionalism, structuralism, Gestalt psychology, behaviorism and psychoanalysis
1.6 Cognitive Revolution in Psychology
1.4 Rationalism vs. Empiricism: Similarities & Differences