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In this lesson, we’ll go over functionalism, which argues that mental states are determined by the function of a behavior. We’ll also discuss how feminist psychologists disputed claims that women are biologically inferior to men.

Mental States & Functionalism

What makes a mental state a mental state? This might seem like an odd question, but it’s one that functionalist psychologists spent a lot of time exploring. Functionalism is a perspective developed in the ninteenth century in American psychology that seeks to explain our mental states as resulting from the particular role they might play in society.

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Functionalism developed in many ways as a response to structuralism, which was an effort to understand consciousness. Functionalists thought that the data and methods structuralists used to understand the basic components of our consciousness were unreliable. How can you really study something you can’t see, like consciousness?

Role of Behavior

According to functionalism, you need to observe particular behaviors to understand mental states. This is because functionalists believed that the point of understanding consciousness is to understand the behavior that a mental state produces. According to this perspective, each behavior serves a particular role. So, to get back to the question about what makes a mental state a mental state: functionalists believe a thought is a thought because of its cognitive function.

Confusing? Let’s look at an example. Functionalism would suggest that feeling happy is determined by a need to express happiness to someone in a particular situation. Their goal was to understand the purpose of a behavior or a mental state, not its internal structure.So what does this have to do with gender inequality? During the time that functionalists were writing, some dominant ideas and theories about women often assumed they were inferior when compared to men.

Gender Roles and Inequality

Popularized by physician and writer Havelock Ellis in the late nineteenth century, the variability hypothesis proposed that men are more likely to demonstrate greater variation in their range of abilities compared to women. This means that men are more likely than women to be extremely intelligent, while also more likely to be mentally handicapped. According to Ellis, this wide range made men biologically superior to women.

This is what accounts for their different roles in societies and explains why women are unequal.This perspective, which was also reinforced by leading scientists of the time like Charles Darwin, helped to reinforce women’s inferior position in society. As women were not as capable as men, their primary roles were that of wife and mother. So what did female scientists have to say about this? Let’s look at some of the reactions from leading female psychologists at the time.

Leading Female Psychologists

Perhaps one of the most important challengers to the variability hypothesis was Leta Stetter Hollingworth. Hollingworth was interested in debunking certain ideas that stemmed from the variability hypothesis.

In the mid-1900s, during the time she was in graduate school completing her doctorate, she conducted experiments that refuted parts of the variability hypothesis. In one such study, she measured male and female babies and found them to be very similar in physical size.Others had previously hypothesized that males exhibited more variability in size which related to their greater mental abilities.

But, Hollingworth demonstrated that there were also social and cultural factors that explained differences between men and women, such as how women’s roles as wives and mothers limited their chances to be equal with men.Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley, another important figure in feminist psychology, was also writing in the early 1900s. Like Hollingworth, Woolley conducted research that challenged dominant views about women at the time. Woolley felt that existing research on sex differences did not have the data to support the arguments.

So, she set out to conduct some of her own experiments. She performed a number of different tests, ranging from motor to cognitive ability and found little difference between men and women. One of her biggest contributions to psychology was challenging biological determinism. This is the tendency to view women and men as biologically different, with men superior in all mental and physical abilities.Likewise, Mary Whiton Calkins, a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, disputed the validity of the variability hypothesis.

Although Harvard University officially refused to grant Calkins a Ph.D. degree, she went on to work as a psychologist in the university setting. Along with one of her graduate students, Calkins conducted an experiment to determine whether or not men had more variability in their choice of words, a premise of the variability hypothesis.

Using undergraduate students at Wellesley as research subjects, Calkins found that female students did not show any less variability in vocabulary choice than men.Importantly, she also argued that even if there were differences, we would need to understand the social, cultural, and environmental factors that might have produced this variability. This was an effort to debunk assumptions that women were biologically inferior to men.

Calkins would eventually become the first female president of the American Psychological Association in 1905.

Lesson Summary

The perspective of functionalism in psychology was a nineteenth century framework for understanding consciousness and mental states. It developed in response to structuralism, which was a paradigm in psychology that sought to understand consciousness.

Functionalists argued in favor of studying something more concrete, such as the function and purpose of a behavior rather than something we can’t see, like consciousness. The functionalist perspective assumed that men and women had different roles and positions in society, much of which was determined by inherent biological differences.The variability hypothesis was developed by Havelock Ellis and suggested that men had a greater variability in their abilities compared to women.

This meant that men were more likely to be extremely intelligent or mentally handicapped: the result of their superior biology.Feminist psychologist Leta Stetter Hollingworth challenged the variability hypothesis when she conducted experiments that showed male and female babies were basically the same size at birth. Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley helped to refute biological determinism when she conducted experiments that found very few differences between men and women in terms of their skills.

Mary Whiton Calkins and her graduate students conducted experiments that demonstrated very little variability among men and women in their vocabulary choices. As a whole, these three female psychologists made important inroads in addressing gender inequality at a time when it wasn’t very easy to do so.

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