What’s the Difference Between Functionalism and Behaviorism?

Have you ever wondered why we think and behave the way we do? Psychology has many answers, and two of the big ideas in this field are functionalism and behaviorism.

Functionalism digs into the ‘why’ behind our thoughts — like why we remember certain things or feel certain emotions. Behaviorism, on the other hand, doesn’t worry about what’s going on inside our heads. It looks at what we do and how our environment plays a part in shaping those actions.

So, what happens when these two theories collide in real life? Can understanding them help us improve ourselves or change our habits? Let’s find out.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to serve as professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have concerns about your mental health or behavior, please consult a qualified healthcare provider.

What is Functionalism?

Functionalism is a way of looking at the mind that focuses on what mental processes do for us. It’s like considering a car not just as a machine with parts, but thinking about what it does for us — like getting us from one place to another. Functionalism suggests that our thoughts, feelings, and memories have a purpose: they help us adapt and survive in our world.

The Roots of Functionalism

Think of functionalism as a tree that grew from the seeds of earlier ideas. It started in the late 19th century in the United States, and thinkers like William James and John Dewey were like the gardeners, helping it grow. They didn’t just ask what the mind is made of; they asked what it does for us. They were inspired by Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution and how creatures change over time to better fit their environments.

Key Principles of Functionalism

  • The mind is fluid and constantly changing, much like a stream.
  • Mental processes, like learning and thinking, are tools for helping us solve problems and adapt to new situations.
  • Consciousness is not just something that happens; it has a function and helps us navigate our daily lives.

Functionalism in everyday life: Imagine you’re learning to cook. Functionalism would say that your ability to remember recipes, your feeling of hunger that motivates you to start cooking, and your thought process as you adjust flavors are all mental activities that serve a purpose. They help you feed yourself and enjoy your meal, which is vital for your well-being.

For further reading into functionalism, you can visit this page: APA PsycNet.

What is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism is like looking at someone’s actions rather than trying to guess what they’re thinking. It’s a psychological theory that focuses on what people do and says that all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment.

The Story of Behaviorism

The roots of behaviorism stretch back to the early 20th century, with figures like John B. Watson advocating for a shift towards a more observable and scientific approach in psychology. They aimed to place psychology on equal footing with the natural sciences by focusing solely on what could be seen and precisely measured: people’s actions.

Behaviorism’s Key Ideas

  • Behavior is the result of stimulus and response. For example, a student studies hard (response) because they want good grades (stimulus).
  • Learning is a result of conditioning. This means we learn to behave in certain ways because we’ve been rewarded or punished for our actions in the past.
  • The environment shapes behavior. Our surroundings, including the people around us, influence how we act.

Behaviorism in the real world: Let’s say you’re trying to get into shape. A behaviorist would look at your exercise routine not as a result of your motivation or willpower but as a behavior shaped by specific rewards or consequences. Maybe you run every morning because you feel great afterward (a reward), or perhaps you’re trying to avoid health issues (avoiding a negative consequence).

For further reading into behaviorism, you can visit this page: APA PsycNet.

Functionalism vs Behaviorism: What’s the Difference?

FocusPurpose of mental processesObservable behavior
Key QuestionWhat do our thoughts and feelings do for us?How do we act, and what influences our behavior?
Study MethodsIntrospection, observation of mental processesControlled experiments, observation of behavior
View on ConsciousnessImportant and functionalNot relevant or useful for scientific study
Learning TheoryAdaptation and problem-solvingConditioning and reinforcement
Educational ImpactProgressive education, learning by doingReward systems, behavior modification
Philosophical StandHolistic, evolutionary perspectiveMechanistic, environmental determinism


  • Functionalism: This approach looks at the mental processes and asks why they exist. It considers thoughts, emotions, and internal mental processes as important functions that help individuals adapt to their environment.
  • Behaviorism: In contrast, behaviorism focuses solely on actions that can be observed. It does not concern itself with what is happening inside the mind or the reasons behind these actions.

Key Question

  • Functionalism: The central question for functionalism is about the purpose of mental activities: “What do our thoughts and feelings do for us?” It seeks to understand how mental processes like memory, perception, and problem-solving work to aid in our adaptation to various situations.
  • Behaviorism: Behaviorism asks, “How do we act, and what influences our behavior?” It is less concerned with the ‘whys’ of our internal mental state and more with the ‘hows’ of our actions.

Study Methods

  • Functionalism: Functionalists use a variety of methods to study the mind, including introspection, where individuals report their thoughts and feelings. They also observe mental processes in a natural setting and consider evolutionary history to understand how mental functions have developed to adapt to the environment.
  • Behaviorism: Behaviorists rely on controlled experiments where they can observe and measure behavior in response to specific conditions. They often use animals to study learning and behavior because they are looking for universal principles that apply across species.

Learning Theory

  • Functionalism: Functionalism views learning as a process that helps individuals adapt to their environment. It suggests that mental processes such as thinking, memory, and perception have evolved to solve problems and aid survival. Learning is seen as a natural activity that the mind is equipped to do in order to function effectively in the world.
  • Behaviorism: Behaviorism defines learning as a change in behavior due to the acquisition, reinforcement, and application of associations between stimuli and responses. This is often achieved through conditioning — either classical, where a neutral stimulus becomes associated with a reflex, or operant, where behaviors are shaped by rewards or punishments.

Educational Impact

  • Functionalism: The functionalist perspective has influenced educational practices by promoting the idea that learning should be active and student-centered. It has led to the development of progressive education models that prioritize ‘learning by doing‘ and encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Behaviorism: Behaviorism has had a significant impact on education through the application of behavior modification techniques. This has resulted in teaching methods that use reward systems, such as token economies and positive reinforcement, to encourage desired behaviors and discourage unwanted ones.

Philosophical Stand

  • Functionalism: The philosophical stance of functionalism is holistic and evolutionary. Functionalism considers the mind’s complexity and its integrative role in how we interact with the world, suggesting that mental processes have developed as a result of evolutionary pressures to solve specific problems and enhance survival.
  • Behaviorism: Behaviorism takes a more mechanistic and deterministic view, likening behavior to the output of a machine in response to external stimuli. It posits that behavior is fully determined by environmental factors, with little to no room for free will or an inner life. Behaviorists believe that by understanding and manipulating the environmental variables that control behavior, they can predict and control it with precision.

Implications in Various Fields

When we dive into the world of psychology, we find that theories like functionalism and behaviorism don’t just stay on the pages of textbooks — they reach out and touch different parts of our lives. Let’s explore how these two theories have made their mark in various fields.

Functionalism (Understanding the Mind’s Purpose)

Functionalism has given us a framework for understanding the ‘why’ behind our mental processes. Here’s where it has made a difference:

  • In Psychology: It has provided a foundation for exploring how our mental processes help us navigate life’s complexities. For instance, understanding the role of emotions in decision-making can help therapists guide clients through tough choices.
  • In Education: Functionalism has inspired teaching strategies that engage students in hands-on learning. It’s not just about reading from a book; it’s about experiencing and applying knowledge to solve real problems.
  • In the Workplace: This theory has informed the design of training programs that enhance employees’ problem-solving skills, making them more adaptable and innovative in the face of workplace challenges.

Behaviorism (Shaping Actions and Attitudes)

Behaviorism teaches us that our environment has a profound impact on how we act. Its applications include:

  • In Therapy: Behaviorist methods are widely used to help individuals change behaviors, such as using a reward system to support someone in their journey to quit smoking.
  • In Education: The theory has led to techniques like positive reinforcement, where students are rewarded for good behavior, encouraging them to repeat it. This approach can be as simple as giving verbal praise or as structured as a token economy in the classroom.
  • In Animal Training: Behaviorism has revolutionized animal training, with trainers using rewards and signals to teach animals new tricks or help them adapt to living with humans.

Real-Life Applications

Psychological theories aren’t just for academics; they have everyday applications that can benefit us all. Let’s explore how functionalism and behaviorism can be applied to personal growth and self-improvement.


Functionalism helps us see the value in our mental activities. It’s like having an inner guide that helps us navigate through life’s ups and downs.

  • Understanding Emotions: When we feel sad or happy, functionalism encourages us to ask ourselves, “What’s the reason for this feeling?” Maybe happiness comes from spending time with friends, suggesting we’re social creatures who thrive on connection.
  • Learning from Experience: Every experience, good or bad, teaches us something. Functionalism tells us that our ability to remember and think about these experiences helps us make better choices in the future.


Behaviorism is all about the actions we take and the habits we form. It shows us how our environment can help us build new, positive behaviors.

  • Starting Small: Want to start a new habit? Behaviorism says to begin with small steps. If you want to be tidier, start by making your bed each morning. Over time, this small action can lead to bigger changes.
  • Rewarding Progress: Every time you do something towards your new habit, give yourself a pat on the back. This could be a literal pat, a smile in the mirror, or a checkmark on a calendar. These little rewards can motivate us to keep going.

By applying the principles of functionalism and behaviorism, we can better understand our thoughts and behaviors and use this knowledge to improve our daily lives.

Let’s consider the words of Dr. Angela Duckworth, a renowned psychologist and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” This quote emphasizes the importance of understanding our mental capabilities (a key aspect of functionalism) and then taking action (a behaviorist approach) to realize our full potential.

Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.

– Dr. Angela Duckworth

Therapy Approach

In the world of therapy, the theories of functionalism and behaviorism come to life through practical approaches that help individuals overcome challenges. Let’s explore these therapies to understand how they work.

Therapy Inspired by Functionalism

  • Cognitive Therapy: Imagine someone who gets extremely nervous before public speaking. Cognitive therapy would help this person identify the negative thoughts that fuel their anxiety, like “I’m going to mess up,” and replace them with more positive and realistic ones, such as “I’m well-prepared and can handle this.” It’s about reshaping the way we think to improve how we feel and act.

Therapies Inspired by Behaviorism

  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): For a child with autism who struggles with communication, ABA therapy might involve learning to ask for a favorite toy by using pictures or words, with the child receiving praise or playtime with the toy as a reward. Over time, these positive reinforcements help the child learn new skills.
  • Systematic Desensitization: Picture someone who is terrified of flying. This therapy would start by teaching them relaxation techniques. Then, they would gradually face their fear in a step-by-step process, perhaps starting by talking about airplanes, then watching videos of flights, and eventually taking short flights, all while using relaxation to stay calm.

By using these therapies, people can either change the way they think and feel about their problems (functionalism) or directly change their behavior in response to those problems (behaviorism). Each therapy has its own strengths and is suited to different types of challenges, but both aim to help people live happier, more productive lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do functionalism and behaviorism impact education?

Functionalism has influenced education to be more interactive and focused on developing problem-solving skills. Behaviorism has led to the use of rewards and positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior and learning in students.

Can behaviorism and functionalism be applied together in therapy?

While they have different approaches, elements of both can be used together in therapy. For instance, a therapist might help a client understand the function of their behavior (functionalism) and then use behavior modification techniques to change it (behaviorism).

Which theory is better for understanding human behavior, functionalism or behaviorism?

Neither is “better” as they offer different perspectives. Functionalism is useful for understanding the purpose behind behaviors, and behaviorism is effective for analyzing and changing observable actions. The best approach depends on the context and goals of the analysis.

Final Thoughts

In closing, think of functionalism and behaviorism as two different tools in a toolbox. Functionalism helps us understand the ‘why’ behind our thoughts and feelings, giving us clues about what makes us tick inside. Behaviorism, on the other hand, is like a guide for changing what we do, showing us how the world around us can shape our habits.

Both ideas from psychology are useful in their own ways. They help us see ourselves and the world a little clearer. So, whether you’re curious about the mind’s secrets or you want to change something in your life, remember these two paths. They’re here to help us on our journey to becoming better and happier people.

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Leah is a creative soul with a passion for telling stories that matter. She channels her natural curiosity and imagination into thought-provoking articles and inspiring content. She is also a registered nurse dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact.