In this lesson you’ll learn who Edward Bradford Titchener was and what he contributed to the field of psychology.
Additionally, you’ll explore the concepts of structuralism and experimental psychology, as well as their place in psychology today. If someone were to place an apple on a table in front of you, would you know what it was? Of course you would! You would see the color and shape of the object and deduce in a split-second that it was an apple. What if you closed your eyes and someone placed the object in your hands? You most likely would still know that it was an apple by the texture, size, and shape. What if they cut out a wedge and held it under your nose, or allowed you to taste it? Still an apple, right?
You have just demonstrated what Edward Bradford Titchener referred to as the psychology of structuralism. Titchener believed that all thoughts can be broken down to basic elements, specifically, sensations. Titchener would say that when you identified the object, you put together memories of sensations from your past (color, shape, texture, smell, and taste) and hence you deduced the object was an apple.
Titchener strongly advocated for psychology as a science and therefore believed it was imperative to classify the components of thought; after all, science deals with facts, not theories. He reasoned that if a thought, like ‘this is an apple,’ is a collection of elements, those elements or sensations should be identifiable. Much of his work focused on sensations, and he concluded that there are over 40,000 sensations that comprise thought, primarily related to vision and hearing.
Structuralism focused on immediate mental experience. Titchener often stated that he was only concerned with the ‘is,’ and that he left the ‘is for’ to others. Essentially, he was stating that he was only concerned with facts and that to ask the question ‘is for?’ was to delve into speculation, something that Titchener personally detested. He believed that for psychology to be accepted as a science, it needed to focus on facts.
Born in England in 1867, Titchener lived until 1927. Prior to receiving his doctorate, Titchener had the opportunity to study under Wilhelm Wundt and his school of voluntarism. After coming to America, he broke away from many of Wundt’s theories and founded the structuralism ‘school of thought.
‘ Where Wundt was concerned with studying consciousness, Titchener simply wanted to describe an individual’s current thoughts at any point in time.At age 25, Titchener received an appointment from Cornell University as a psychology professor and within a few years he had developed the largest doctoral program in psychology in the United States. One of Titchener’s students, Margaret Floy Washburn, became the first woman ever to receive a doctorate in psychology.
Titchener was a charismatic speaker and strict authoritarian who was adored by his students. His notoriety quickly spread until he became recognized in his day as the foremost experimental psychologist in America.
Although best known for his structuralism, Titchener’s contributions to experimental psychology can still be found in psychology practice today. Many of his psychological theories differed from his mentor, Wilhelm Wundt, but one area they completely agreed on was experimental psychology, the scientific study of psychological processes. Prior to the introduction of experimental psychology, most of the world considered psychology to be pure philosophy, or in other words, unproven theories.
To be accepted as a science, Titchener knew it was essential that psychology theories be testable and the results measurable.
He relied heavily on introspection, the process of examining one’s own thoughts, as his primary tool for measuring outcomes. He trained his subjects to report the elements or sensations of thoughts, rather than name the object itself. For Titchener, simply calling the object an ‘apple’ was a grievous mistake and he referred to this as stimulus error.During his career, Titchener was considered by his peers to be the foremost authority on experimental psychology. He literally wrote the book on experimental practices (several books in fact), and his books and lectures were translated into numerous languages. Although he freely admitted he had no desire to explore practical applications for psychology, his work in experimental psychology is considered by many to be his greatest contribution to psychology today.
An Internet search for his work will reward you with numerous reprints of his books.
The Death of Structuralism
It could be said that Titchener was single-handedly responsible for the popularity and acceptance of structuralism, and when Titchener died in 1927, so did his structuralism. Concerned only with describing mental experience, structuralists had no interest in abnormal behavior, personality theory, the study of learning, or any of the other increasingly popular applications for psychology. Structuralism was eventually replaced by functionalism, the study of the functions of the mind. Modern psychologists consider that nothing of Titchener’s structuralism has survived him.
Edward Titchener was a prominent psychologist in the United States at an early age. Born in England in the 1860s, he moved to the states and founded the idea of structuralism, the idea that all thoughts are structured by basic elements, specifically sensations. He helped to establish psychology as a science using experimental psychology. Though structuralism mostly gives way to functionalism and other theories, Titchener laid the foundation for psychology as an experimental science.