Structuralism in Psychology: Edward B. Titchener

Take-home Messages

  • Structuralism is a theory of consciousness that seeks to analyze the elements of mental experiences, such as sensations, mental images, and feelings, and how these elements combine to form more complex experiences.
  • Structuralism was founded by Wilhelm Wundt, who used controlled methods, such as introspection,to break down consciousness to its basic elements without sacrificing any of the properties of the whole.
  • Structuralism was further developed by Wundt’s student, Edward B. Titchener.
  • Titchener proposed 3 elementary states of consciousness: Sensations (sights, sounds, tastes), Images (components of thoughts), and Affections (components of emotions).

What is Structuralism?

Structuralism proposes that the structure of conscious experience could be understood by analyzing the basic elements of thoughts and sensations.

Structuralism is considered the first school of thought in psychology, and was established in Germany by Wilhelm Wundt, and mainly associated with Edward B. Titchener.

Structuralism looked to examine the adult mind in terms of analyzing the basic elements of thoughts and sensations, and afterward to discover the manner by which these segments fit together in complex structures.

Wundt’s aim was to record thoughts and sensations, and to analyze them into their constituent elements, in much the same way as a chemist analyses chemical compounds, in order to get at the underlying structure. The school of psychology founded by Wundt is known as voluntarism, the process of organizing the mind.

Wundt’s theory was developed and promoted by his one-time student, Edward Titchener (1898), who described his system as Structuralism, or the analysis of the basic elements that constitute the mind.

Introspection: Structuralism’s Main Technique

Introspection is the process by which a person looks inward at their own mental processes to gain insight into how they work. It is the self-observation of one’s consciousness.

Wundt’s introspection was not a casual affair, but a highly practiced form of self-examination. He trained psychology students to make observations that were biased by personal interpretation or previous experience, and used the results to develop a theory of conscious thought.

Highly trained assistants would be given a stimulus such as a ticking metronome and would reflect on the experience. They would report what the stimulus made them think and feel. The same stimulus, physical surroundings and instructions were given to each person.

Wundt’s method of introspection did not remain a fundamental tool of psychological experimentation past the early 1920″s. His greatest contribution was to show that psychology could be a valid experimental science.

Titchener trained his students to become skilled at trained introspection, and to report only the sensations as they were experienced without reliance on “meaning words”, which he called a stimulus error.

Using this approach, Titchener’s students reported various visual, auditory, tactile, etc experiences: In An Outline of Psychology (1899), he reported over 44,000 elements of sensation, including 32,820 Visual, 11,600 Auditory, and 4 Taste.

Titchener’s Structuralism

Elements of the Mind

Titchener (1908) concluded that there were three kinds of mental components that could be considered to constitute conscious experience:

  1. Sensations (components of discernments),
  2. Images (components of thoughts),
  3. Affections (expressions of warmth which are components of emotions).

These components could be blockquoteated into their particular properties, which he decided were quality, intensity, duration, clearness, and extensity.

  • Quality – “cold” or “red”: distinguishes each element from the others.
  • Intensity – how strong, loud, bright etc. the sensation is.
  • Duration – course of a sensation over time; how long it lasts.
  • Clearness (attensity) – role of attention in consciousness – clearer if attention is directed toward it.

Pictures and expressions of warmth could be separated further into just bunches of sensations. It can therefore be concluded that by following this train of reasoning all of the thoughts in question were pictures, which being developed from rudimentary sensations implied that all perplexing thinking and thought could in the end be separated into simply the sensations which he could get at through introspection.

Interaction of Elements

The second issue in Titchener’s hypothesis of structuralism was the topic of how the psychological components consolidated and interfaced with one another to shape any type of conscious experience.

His decisions were generally founded on thoughts of associationism. Specifically, Titchener centers around the law of contiguity, which is the idea the elements combine together.

Titchener dismissed Wundt’s ideas of apperception and innovative blend (intentional activity), which were the premise of Wundt’s voluntarism. Titchener contended that consideration was essentially a sign of the “clearness” property inside sensation.

Physical and Mental Relationship

When Titchener distinguished the elements of the mind and the specific interactions that they make with each other, his theory was concerned with figuring out for what reason the components cooperate in the manner they do.

Specifically, Titchener was keen on the connection between the physical process and the conscious experience – he wanted to specifically discover what was it between the two of them that was responsible for most of the interactions between them.

Titchener accepted that physiological cycles give a nonstop foundation that give mental cycles a coherence they in any case would not have. As a result, the sensory system doesn”t cause any form of conscious experience, yet can be utilized to clarify a few attributes of mental occasions.

Influence on Psychology

Despite the fact that structuralism spoke to the development of psychology as a field separate from reasoning, the basic school lost significant impact when Titchener eventually passed away.

Over the years Titchener’s approach using introspection became more rigid and limited. By today’s scientific standards, the experimental methods used to study the structures of the mind were too subjective; the use of introspection led to a lack of reliability in results.

Other critics argue that structuralism was too concerned with internal behavior, which is not directly observable and cannot be accurately measured.

Also, because introspection itself is a conscious process it must interfere with the consciousness it aims to observe.

The development drove, nonetheless, to the advancement of a few countermovements that would in general respond firmly to European patterns in the field of exploratory psychology.

Conduct and character were past the degree considered by structuralism. In isolating significance from current realities of involvement, structuralism contradicted the phenomenological convention of Franz Brentano’s demonstration psychology and Gestalt psychology, just as the functionalist school and John B. Watson’s behaviorism .

Filling in as an impetus to functionalism, structuralism was consistently a minority school of psychology in America.


Titchener, E. B. (1898). The postulates of a structural psychology. The Philosophical Review, 7 (5), 449-465.

Titchener, E. B. (1908). Lectures on the elementary psychology of feeling and attention. Macmillan.

Titchener, E. B. (1899). An outline of psychology (New edition with additions). MacMillan Co

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

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Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Gabriel Lopez-Garrido

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Political Science and Psychology

Gabriel Lopez-Garrido is currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree with a minor in Psychology.