Unlike structuralism, functionalism was not a formal school of psychological thought. Rather, it was a label (originally used by Titchener) applied to a general set of assumptions regarding the providence of psychology and a loosely connected set of principles regarding the psychology of consciousness. In many respects, functionalism was defined in terms of its opposition or contrast to structuralism. For example, functionalists believed that psy chology should focus on the functions of mental life (in contrast to the structuralist focus on elemental components); be concerned with using psychology for practical solutions to problems (structuralists were, at best, indifferent to this concern); study not only healthy adult humans (the main focus of attention of structuralists) but also nonhuman animals, children, and nonhealthy individuals; employ a wide range of methodologies to investigate psychological issues (structuralists relied almost totally on introspection); and examine individual differences, rather than being solely concerned, like the structuralists, with the establishment of universal (nomothetic) principles.

While structuralism was imported to the United States by a British scholar (Titchener) who received his psychological training in Germany (under Wundt), functionalism had a distinctly American flair. The American Zeitgeist at the time emphasized pragmatism and individuality. Such qualities made American psychologists especially receptive to the revolutionary work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) on evolution and its subsequent application (as "social Darwinism") by anthropologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) to education, business, government, and other social institutions. Other important developments that influenced functionalism include work by Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) on individual differences in mental abilities and the work on animal psychology by George Romanes (1848-1894) and C. Lloyd Morgan (1852-1936).

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