What’s the Difference Between Functionalism and Behaviorism?

Functionalism and behaviorism are among the most influential theories that have emerged from psychology. However, these two approaches have major differences from each other.

In this article, we will examine these two paradigms, try to understand how they differ, and explore the important and practical differences between functionalism and behaviorism.

What Is Functionalism?

Functionalism is a school of psychology that focuses on the individual and how their behaviors affect them and others around them. Functionalists believe that we are born with an innate need to perform certain functions in our lives, such as eating and sleeping. When needs are not met, we can become anxious or depressed, which in turn affects our ability to function properly in society.

The main idea behind functionalism is that people have free will – that they can choose to act the way they want – but they do so because they want to fulfill their needs or desires.

For example, if a person does not have enough money to buy food, they may steal to get what they need so they can continue to function normally without feeling guilty for not working hard for their money before.

What Is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism is a school of thought in psychology that focuses on the study of observable behavior. It doesn’t attempt to explain why people behave the way they do, but how they behave and how their behavior can be changed through conditioning. Behaviorists believe that all human behaviors are learned through reinforcement or reward and punishment.

In general, behaviorists believe that all learning occurs through rewards and punishments from the environment. For example, if someone rewards us when we do something they like or punishes us when we do something they do not like, we learn how to respond appropriately to receive either a reward or punishment in the future.

Functionalism Looks at the Whole Person, Behaviorism Breaks Down Human Actions Into Simple Stimulus and Response Pairs

Functionalism looks at the social context of human actions and how they fit into society as a whole. In this view, there are actions that contribute to or hinder social cohesion. Functionalists believe that by understanding how these actions interact, one can understand what changes them – and how they might be improved.

Behaviorism, on the other hand, is a school of thought that believes only in observable things like stimuli and responses. In this view, there is no room for anything else: no emotions, thoughts, feelings, or relationships between people – just a stimulus and the corresponding response.

Behaviorists want to understand how behaviors arise and how they change over time. They do not believe that there is anything else in human behavior besides these simple stimulus-response pairs.

For example, a functionalist might look at a group of people and try to understand how their individual behavior contributes to the overall functioning of the group. They would be interested, for example, in why people adhere to social norms or how different types of leadership emerge. A behaviorist would look at the same group of people and try to understand what stimuli elicit what responses in them.

Functionalism Considers Environmental Factors, Behaviorism Considers Internal Motivations

Functionalism is a theory of psychology that states that people’s behavior is determined by their needs and their environment. For example, if you have to go to work, you will probably drive your car. If you do not have a car and use public transportation instead, your behavior will be determined by your environment.

Behaviorism, on the other hand, believes that people’s actions are determined entirely by their genetic makeup and their internal motivations (which can also influenced by genetics).

For example, a behaviorist would say that you drive to work because you have a genetic disposition to want to get to work on time. They would not consider the environmental factor of whether or not you have a car.

Functionalism Allows the Study of Unobservable Phenomena, Behaviorism Observes Only What Can Be Seen and Measured

This means that functionalists can study things like motivation that cannot be directly observed but can be inferred through behavioral observation. On the other hand, it also means that functionalists may not study everything they would like to study because they cannot observe it directly.

Behaviorists, on the other hand, only observe what can be seen and measured because they focus on observable behaviors rather than unobservable ones like thoughts or feelings.

This means that they can study things like learning processes or conditioned responses more easily than functionalists because they do not have to draw inferences from their observations.

However, it also means that behaviorists may not study everything they would like to study because they cannot observe it directly.

Functionalists Focus on the Needs and Goals, Behaviorists Focus on Modifying the Environment

Functionalists focus on understanding how individuals work to meet their needs and goals. This may mean looking at things like the individual’s motivation, emotions, and thoughts.

Functionalists also believe that it is important to examine how people interact with their environment. Understanding how a person functions in their environment can help identify problems and find solutions.

Behaviorists take a different approach. They focus on modifying the environment so that desired behavioral changes occur. This may mean, for example, changing the way rewards are given or discouraging undesirable behavior through punishment.

Behaviorists believe that it is important to examine how a person behaves in different situations and to try to create an environment in which positive behaviors are more likely to occur.

Functionalism Believes That the Mind Has an Innate Structure, Behaviorism Believes That the Mind Is a Blank Slate at Birth

Functionalism is a view within psychology that believes that the mind has an innate structure. This means that our brains are endowed with certain abilities and tendencies before birth. Functionalists believe that the mind is like a computer with various programs running in the background that enable us to function in the world.

Behaviorism is a view within psychology that holds that the mind is a blank slate at birth. This means that we have no innate abilities or tendencies until we are exposed to the world. Behaviorists believe that the mind is like a piece of paper – it can be described and changed by the things we experience in life.

For example, a functionalist might believe that we are born with the ability to learn a language, while a behaviorist believes that we learn language by being exposed to it.

Functionalism Is Interested in How People Adapt to Their Environment, Behaviorism Is Interested in How People Learn New Behaviors

Functionalism is an approach to psychology that focuses on the biological and environmental factors that help people adapt to their environment. This can include anything from physical health to social interactions and relationships.

Functionalism views these interactions as important to survival and well-being and studies them by observing what happens when a factor in a person’s life changes or disappears.

 In contrast, behaviorists would focus more on studying how the brain learns new behaviors based on experiences and other stimuli, such as rewards or punishments.

Thus, if a person grew up in a household where talking about feelings was discouraged, a behaviorist would be more interested in how the person learned that behavior (through conditioning or social learning) rather than why they might have difficulty expressing their feelings later in life.

Functionalism Is a Top-Down Perspective, Behaviorism Is a Bottom-Up Perspective

Functionalism starts at the top of the pyramid and works its way down. This means that it starts with general principles and then applies them to specific cases.

For example, a functionalist might start with the principle that people need food, and then examine how that need manifests itself in different people in different situations.

In contrast, behaviorists start at the bottom of the pyramid and work their way up. This means that they study specific cases and then try to find general principles that can explain those cases.

For example, a behaviorist might start by looking at how different people respond to different kinds of rewards and then try to formulate a general principle about how people learn new behaviors.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the two forms of behaviorism?

Radical Behaviorism

Radical behaviorism is a school of thought that believes all human behavior can be explained by rewards and punishments. This is a radical departure from other schools of thought that focus on the influence of internal mental states (such as thoughts or feelings) on behavior.

According to radical behaviorists, there are three basic ways to influence or change behavior: (1) reward, (2) punishment, or (3) ignoring. This view is sometimes referred to as operant conditioning.

Unlike many other schools of thought, radical behaviorism does not consider ideas such as instinct, free will, or an unconscious mind to be important in explaining human behavior.

Radical behaviorists even argue that these ideas are not scientific and should be avoided in scientific studies because they are vague and difficult to test scientifically.

Methodological Behaviorism

Methodological behaviorism holds that psychology should be a science of behavior and that the proper subject matter of psychology is the behavior of organisms. This means that psychologists should focus on the observable actions of an organism, rather than on internal mental states.

Methodological behaviorists believe that a person’s thoughts and behavior are influenced by his or her environment. However, they reject the idea that behavior is caused by internal factors such as consciousness or memory. Instead, they believe that all behaviors can be explained by external factors such as reinforcement and punishment.

A methodological behaviorist would argue that it is impossible to measure or study consciousness because it cannot be directly observed; instead, they would prefer to focus on observable behaviors such as eye movements or facial expressions.

How is behaviorism applied today?

Behaviorism is used today in a variety of ways such as in psychology. Behaviorism is also commonly used in schools to teach children basic skills such as reading and writing. Behaviorism is also used in the business world to train employees and motivate them to achieve certain goals.

One of the most common uses of behaviorism is in marketing, where companies want to understand how consumers think and act so they can design advertisements that appeal to them.

For example, if a company wants to sell more shampoo, it might create an ad campaign using behavioral insights to figure out what kind of messages will appeal most to its target customers: if it’s mostly women, they may want to focus on how their hair will look after using the product; if it’s mostly men, they may want an ad that focuses on how much better they’ll smell after using the product (since women may put less emphasis on smelling good).

What is the importance of behaviorism?

Behaviorism is important because it emphasizes observable behaviors and their consequences, which means that we can see how different behaviors affect people and their experiences. This approach has helped us understand how people develop over time, how we learn from our experiences, and how we can change our behavior for the better.

In addition, behaviorism has been used to develop effective treatments for psychological disorders. Behavior therapy is a form of treatment that uses the principles of behaviorism to help people change their problematic behaviors.

In general, behaviorism has helped us understand the complex interactions between people and their environment and how we can use this knowledge to improve our lives.

What are the criticisms of behaviorism?

Behaviorism is a theory of psychology that has been criticized. Critics argue that the theory is reductionist and deterministic and ignores important factors such as cognition and emotion.

Reductionist: Behaviorism reduces complex phenomena to their simplest elements or causes. For example, behaviorists believe that all behaviors can be explained by stimulus and response.

Deterministic: Behaviorism is deterministic because it assumes that all behaviors are determined by environmental stimuli. This means that people are not responsible for their actions because they are merely responding to their environment.

Ignores Cognition and Emotion: Critics also argue that behaviorism ignores important factors such as cognition (thoughts) and emotions. They claim that these factors are essential to understanding human behavior.

What are the criticisms of the functionalist theory on education?

The functionalist theory is criticized for not focusing on the individual student. Critics argue that the functionalist perspective overemphasizes the role of institutions and social structures in shaping educational outcomes and undervalues the role of the student’s own characteristics and experiences.

Another criticism is that the functionalist perspective tends to be overly deterministic, assuming that educational outcomes are predetermined by social structures and institutions. This can lead to a lack of appreciation for how students can creatively adapt to their environment and create their own meanings within them.

Finally, functionalists have been criticized for not paying enough attention to issues of power and privilege in education. Critics argue that functionalists tend to downplay or ignore the ways in which social institutions can reproduce inequalities in society.

How did functionalism influence behaviorism?

The functionalists were heavily influenced by the behaviorists when they developed their theories! They used many of the same methods as behaviorists. For example, observing animals in a controlled environment to figure out how systems interact to produce behaviors in humans. Today, functionalism still relies heavily on research methods first developed by behaviorists.

Functionalism also influenced behaviorism because it was one of the first schools of thought to take a scientific approach to psychology and to show how psychology could be studied using scientific methods.

Behaviorism was influenced by it because it helped provide a basis for understanding human behavior without assuming anything about how people think or feel.


It is important to understand the difference between functionalism and behaviorism when studying psychology. Behaviorism is concerned with observable behaviors, while functionalism studies how mental states or functions give rise to those behaviors.

Each perspective has its strengths and weaknesses that we can learn from to better understand human psychology. Both perspectives have contributed much to our understanding of psychology and continue to influence psychological research today.

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