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Difference Between Functionalism and Behaviorism

Functionalism and behaviorism are two schools of thought associated with psychology.  They are different ways of understanding how the mind works and what activates mental reactions to different stimuli.  In simple terms functionalism looks at how the mind functions in different psychological situations.  Behaviorism looks at how behavior is related to the study of the mind. Functionalism is about the mind and mental processes and behaviorism centers on external forces being responsible for behaviors.  Both of these philosophies are related to the mind and behavior, but have their differences determined by their analysis and approaches to psychological behavior. 

What is Functionalism?

Functionalism is focused on the mental processes of the mind.  These functions include consciousness, memory, perception and feelings.  Functionalists believe that it is possible to assess mental activity.  Through this mental activity they would be able to understand how a person would adapt.  Functionalism states that psychology should primarily look at the functioning of the mind.  Functionalism plays a part in psychology, sociology, and economics. Functionalists see human emotional output can be the result of outward behavioral influences or internal mental states. Several different types of functionalism help to shed light on the extent of this form of psychological study.

Edward L Thorndike was well known for investigating the way humans think.  He was interested in the biological processes of consciousness.  Thorndike is known as the father of Educational Psychology and a pioneer of the law of effect.   Through his experiments with cats he was able to study what he called operant conditioning.  The consciousness of the cat learning to operate a lever, to release the cat from its cage, to fetch some fish was monitored.  Once the cat realized how the mechanism worked, and the resulting treat, it was conscious of how to get the reward.  Thorndike made an enormous contribution to educational psychology with his theories of praising good and ignoring bad behaviors.  He showed praise encouraged desired behavior and increased the correct educational responses from pupils.  He showed ‘planned ignoring’ or not paying attention to a negative behavior allowed the student to realize the negative behavior did not get the right attention.  It was a conscious decision.  

 Functionalists focused on the purpose of consciousness and how it could adapt behavior.  The struggle with this theory was the difficulty of observing an abstract behavior of consciousness.  Functionalists introduced psychological measures like questionnaires and mental tests to help the progression of their theories.

What is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism studies human behavior to understand how this affects the mind and reactions.  Behaviorists were not fully convinced that the mind could be studied because it could not be observed.  The focus of behaviorism was on nurture as opposed to nature.  The behaviorists followed observational behaviors as opposed to an internal feeling or mental response.  They wanted to predict the outcome to a given stimulus.  The other focus for the behaviorist was if they knew the reaction, they should be able to work out what caused that reaction.  It was a philosophy built around observation of behaviors.  Behaviorism, as a part of psychology is built around observation, a natural science used to predict and control behavior.

Pavlov is one of the most well-known behaviorists.  He worked with dogs to prove the theory that animal behavior could be controlled by an outside stimulus.  He used food and the ringing of a bell to prompt dogs into salivating and wanting food.  Initially the dogs responded to the food as it was offered with the sound of a bell.  Later, when they had been conditioned to the sound of the bell the dogs salivated even though there was no food and just the sound of the bell.  In this way Pavlov showed there was a behavior that activated a response from the dogs.  Behaviorists as a group had their journals and societies all investigating and advancing the philosophy of behaviorism.  They encouraged behavior therapy and studied animal behavior to prove their theories.  

Behaviorists stressed the observation of outward behavior and its relationship with the environment.  Their theories could be tested with experiments and led to being known as the science of psychology.

What different aspects of Functionalism are included in psychology?

  • Machine state functionalism:

Believers and supporters of this form of functionalism believe any creature with a mind can go into a machine state of psychology.  The ‘machine’ receives some information, and input, and processes that input.  The machine state processes the input and follows with an output based on the thinking process.  For example.  The machine state believes it is getting cold because of a cold wind and rain.  The idea is processed and the output of getting raincoat or warmer clothes is the response and the output.

  • Psycho-functionalism:

The followers of this trend of thought rely on cognitive psychological theories.  This is the belief that internal states become mental states.  The theory was assessing a mental state allowed mental processes to be evaluated.  

  • Analytical functionalism:

The theory behind analytical functionalism is that an analysis of stimuli and states contribute to the outcome of the psychological behavior.  The aim of analytical functionalism helps to give an account and meaning to a mental state.  Analysis is an important part of connecting mental states with stimuli and responses to circumstances.  It upholds the theory that mental states are physical states of the brain.

What different aspects of Behaviorism are included in psychology?

  • Radical Behaviorism:

The study of radical behaviorism has its belief system in behavior rather than mental states.  Relationships and psychological study is based on observational stimuli and the response to these stimuli.  Radical behaviorism takes the belief in the science of behavior a step further to say that the science of behavior can be a natural science.  The science of radical behaviorism believes that what people think, and feel is dependent on their experiences and their environment.

  • Methodological Behaviorism:

This form of behaviorism focused on the cause and effect leading to reactions without the mental behavior and intellectual capacity of the subject

Functionalism and Behaviorism are affected by antecedents in different ways?

Antecedents are stimuli or incidents that cause a certain behavior or reaction.  When an antecedent is perceived it activates a certain response in the brain.  Antecedents come before a behavioral response and behaviorism and functionalism react differently to antecedents.   Antecedents can provoke negative or positive behavior.  Antecedents of low self-esteem and indecision are linked to procrastination for example as part of studies in functionalism.    These negative mental states were seen to impact on student’s work ethic and caused procrastination.  The negative antecedents came before the functional psychological behaviors.  Positive antecedents like rewards influence behavior and help shape people’s reactions to the antecedent of a reward offered for improved behavior.

Functionalism Vs Behaviorism: Comparison Chart 

Summary of information affecting both Functionalism and Behaviorism

  • Functionalism and behaviorism are two different ways of understanding how the mind works.  Is it the effect of internal states or the external reactions to outside stimuli.
  • Functionalism looks at the mental processes of the mind.  Conscientiousness, memory, perception and feelings.  Behaviorism looks at the mind and its response to actions. How does the reaction to a stimuli affect the mind.
  • Behaviorism believes mental states depend on how a creature behaves in response to a stimuli it is exposed to.
  • Behaviorism takes a scientific approach to reaching conclusions.  It is an empirical approach, meaning the evidence is gained through observing behavior, and through controlled experimental activities.
  • Functional behaviorism could be the terminology that relates to a well-working mind.  It is able to use mental processes of the mind together with reactions to outside stimuli. 
  • Behaviorism was easier to observe because it depended on outputs and reactions to external scientific experiments.  
  • Functionalism focused on the link between stimuli and the response to that stimuli through conscious associations.
  • The functionalist looks at how mental activities help a creature fitted into its environment and how it behaved under those circumstances.
  • Behaviorism looks at the response to the stimuli offered by the environment through a process known as conditioning.
  • Both these schools of thought have played a part in forming the way psychologists have developed their practice today.  Functionalism played a significant role in educational psychology and teaching children on a psychological level they are ready for.
Christina Wither

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References :


[0]Shanjendu Nath. July 2013. www.jhssi.org. Is Functionalism an alternative to Behaviorism/papers/International Journal of Social Science Invention.

[1]Levin Janet. July 20th 2018. www.plato.stanford.ed/entries/functionalism. Published Stanford Centre for the study of language and information.

[2]Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Psychological_behaviorism.jpg

[3]Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:General_Diagram_of_Structural-Functionalism.png

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