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Introspection

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Introspection

Introspection emerged as the first method used to study psychology. In fact, till the early part of the 20th century, introspection was the primary method of scientific research in the newly formed discipline of psychology.

  • What is introspection in psychology?
  • Who contributed to our knowledge of introspection?
  • What are shortcomings of instrospection?

What is Introspection?

Introspection originates from the Latin roots intro, or within, and spect, or looking. In other words, introspection means to "look within".

Introspection is a process by which a subject, as objectively as possible, examines and explains the components of their conscious experience.

Philosophical Origins of Introspective Thinking

Introspection was not a new concept when psychology was first being formed. Greek philosophers had a long history of using introspection in their method.

Socrates believed the most important thing was self-knowledge, memorialised in his exhortation: "Know thyself." He believed that moral truth can be discovered most effectively by examining one's innermost thoughts and feelings. Socrates' student, Plato, took this concept one step further. He suggested that the human ability to reason and form conscious logical thoughts was the pathway to discovering truth.

Introspection, portrait of Greek philosopher Socrates, StudySmarterSocrates believed that truth was discovered only through "knowing thyself". Pixabay.com

What is Introspection in Psychology?

Introspection psychology uses introspection as a means of understanding and studying the mind and its basic processes.

Wilhelm Wundt

Wilhelm Wundt, the "Father of Psychology", primarily used introspection as a research method in his laboratory experiments. Wundt's research was the very first example of experimental psychology. The goal of his experiments was to quantify the basic components of human consciousness; his approach is also referred to as structuralism.

Structuralism is a school of thought that seeks to understand the structures of the human mind by observing the basic components of consciousness.

Wundt's Introspection Method

Introspection's most common criticism is that it is too subjective. Responses would vary too greatly between test subjects to be able to identify any objective information. To combat this, Wundt outlined very specific requirements for introspection to be a successful research method. He required observers to be heavily trained in methods of observation, and able to report their reactions immediately. He would often use his students as observers and assist in training them in these methods.

Wundt also had requirements for the environmental conditions of his studies. Any stimuli used in observation had to be repeatable and carefully controlled. Finally, he often only asked yes/no questions, or would ask observers to press a telegraph key to answer.

Wundt would measure an observer's reaction time to an external stimulus such as a flash of light or sound.

Key Players in Introspection Psychology

Edward B. Titchener, a student of Wilhelm Wundt, and Mary Whiton Calkins used introspection psychology as a cornerstone to their research.

Edward B. Titchener

Edward Titchener was a student of Wundt's, and was the first to formally use structuralism as a term. While Titchener supported his use of introspection as a primary investigative tool, he did not fully agree with Wundt's method. Titchener thought that quantifying consciousness was too difficult a task. Instead, he focused on observation and analysis by having individuals describe their conscious experiences. He focused on three states of consciousness: sensation, ideas, and emotion. Observers would then be asked to describe the properties of their consciousness. Titchener was the last to use introspection as a primary method in experimental psychology. After his passing, the practice became less popular due to its being criticized for being too subjective and unreliable.

Introspection Psychology Example

Say you are an observer in a research study using introspection as a primary source of evidence. In this study, you are asked to sit in an extremely cold room for 15 minutes. The research might then ask you to describe your thoughts while in that room. What sensations did your body experience? What emotions did you experience while in the room?

Introspection, Cold person in Jacket, StudySmarter
An observer might report feeling scared and exhausted while in a cold room. Freepik.com

Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins, the first woman to serve as president of the American Psychological Association, was one of the psychologists that did not give up on the use of introspection in her research.

Calkins studied under William James, the founder of a school of thought called functionalism. While Calkins earned her Ph.D. from Harvard, the university refused to award her degree, because they did not accept women at the time.

Although Calkins did not use introspection as a primary investigative method, she disagreed with other schools of thought, such as Behaviorism, that completely dismissed introspection as a whole. In her autobiography, she stated:

Now no introspectionist will deny the difficulty or the fallibility of introspection. But he will stoutly urge against the behaviorist, first, that this argument is a boomerang telling against “the firmly grounded natural sciences” as well as against psychology. For the physical sciences themselves are based in the end on the introspections of scientists — in other words, the physical sciences, far from being wholly free of ‘subjectivity’ must describe their phenomena in the sometimes diverse terms of what different observers see, hear, and touch." (Calkins, 1930)1

Calkins believed that the conscious self should be the foundation for psychological study. This led to her developing personalistic introspective psychology for a large part of her career.

In personalistic introspective psychology, consciousness and experience of the self are studied as they relates to others.

Evaluating Introspection

While introspection was the first method used in experimental psychology, it was ultimately a dead-end due to its many shortcomings as a reliable form of research.

Shortcomings of Introspection Psychology

  • Observers, regardless of their rigorous training, can still respond to the same stimuli in very different ways.

  • Introspection was limited, and could not adequately explore more complex subjects such as mental disorders, learning, and development.

  • It would be very difficult to use children as subjects, and would be impossible to use on animals.

  • The very act of thinking about thinking can affect the conscious experience of the subject.

Contributions of Introspection Psychology

While the use of introspection to collect psychological evidence has proven to be flawed, one cannot ignore introspection's contributions to the study of psychology as a whole. Nor can we deny its impact on experimental psychology, as it was the first of its kind. The use of introspection can be an effective way to access self-knowledge and self-awareness in many forms of therapy used today. Oftentimes, this knowledge could not be accessed through any other means.

Furthermore, several present-day psychological disciplines use introspection as a supplementary approach to research and treatment, including:

  • Cognitive psychology

  • Psychoanalysis

  • Experimental psychology

  • Social psychology

In the words of psychologist and historian, Edwin G. Boring:

Introspective Observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always." 2

Introspection - Key takeaways

  • In the 19th and early 20th centuries, introspection was the primary method of scientific research in the newly formed discipline of psychology.
  • Wilhelm Wundt primarily used introspection as a research method in his laboratory experiments, laying the foundation for all experimental psychology to follow.
  • Edward B. Titchener thought that quantifying consciousness was too difficult a task, and focused instead on having individuals describe their conscious experiences.
  • Mary Whiton Calkins was the first woman to serve as president of the American Psychological Association. She formed an approach called personalistic introspective psychology.
  • One of the biggest opponents to introspection was behaviorism. Proponents of that approach did not believe the conscious mind could be measured and observed.

Frequently Asked Questions about Introspection

Introspection is a process by which a subject, as objectively as possible, examines and explains the components of their conscious experience.

In the introspection method in psychology, observers are required to be heavily trained in their methods of observation, and must be able to report their reaction immediately. Additionally, any stimuli used in observation must be repeatable and carefully controlled.

 The use of introspection can be an effective way to access self-knowledge and self-awareness in many forms of therapy used today. Furthermore, several present-day psychological disciplines use introspection as a supplementary approach to research and treatment, including: 

  • Cognitive psychology

  • Psychoanalysis 

  • Experimental psychology

  • Social psychology

Structuralism, an early school of psychology, primarily used introspection as a research method in laboratory experiments.

Wilhelm Wundt would measure an observer's reaction time to an external stimulus such as a flash of light or sound.

Final Introspection Quiz

Question

Who is considered the "Father of Psychology"?

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Answer

Wilhelm Wundt

Show question

Question

Which two Greek philosophers considered the act of introspection?

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Answer

Socrates and Plato

Show question

Question

Define structuralism. 

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Answer

Structuralism is a school of thought that seeks to understand the structures of the human mind by observing the basic components of consciousness.

Show question

Question

Wundt used untrained observers for his introspection experiments. True or False? 

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Wundt required that any stimuli used in experiments had to be:


Show answer

Answer

Repeatable and carefully controlled

Show question

Question

How did Titchener's introspection method differ from Wundt's?

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Answer

Titchener thought consciousness was too difficult to quantify and instead focused on observation and analysis.

Show question

Question

Define introspection.


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Answer

Introspection is a process by which a subject, as objectively as possible, examines and explains the components of their conscious experience.

Show question

Question

What is the Latin meaning of the word "introspection" (intro-spect)?

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Answer

Look within

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Question

Wundt would often avoid using yes or no questions in his research. True or False? 


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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Wundt would measure an observer's reaction time to an external stimulus such as a flash of light or sound. True or False? 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Who developed the discipline of personalistic introspective psychology? 


Show answer

Answer

Mary Whiton Calkins

Show question

Question

Which of the following statements is not true about Mary Whiton Calkins? 

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Answer

Harvard awarded Calkins her PhD even though she was a woman.

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Question

Which of the follow was a shortcoming of using introspection as a primary research method?

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Answer

All of these are shortcomings.

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Question

Which of the following was not influenced by introspection psychology? 

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Answer

Behaviorism

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Question

In Wundt's introspection method, he required that observers be able to respond immediately. True or False? 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What were Titchener's three states of consciousness? 

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Answer

Sensation, ideas, and emotion.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: ____________ believed the most important thing was self-knowledge, memorialized in his exhortation: "Know thyself."  

Show answer

Answer

Socrates 

Show question

Question

Who believed that moral truth can be discovered most effectively by examining one's innermost thoughts and feelings? 

Show answer

Answer

Socrates 

Show question

Question

Who suggested that the human ability to reason and form conscious logical thoughts was the pathway to discovering truth? 

Show answer

Answer

Plato 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: Wundt's research was the very first example of _________ psychology.  

Show answer

Answer

experimental 

Show question

Question

True or False: Introspection's most common criticism is that it is too subjective. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Who was the first psychologist to formally use structuralism as a term? 

Show answer

Answer

Edward Titchener  

Show question

Question

Who taught Edward B. Titchener? (Who was Edward B. Titchener's teacher/mentor?) 

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Answer

Wilhelm Wundt

Show question

Question

Who believed that the conscious self should be the foundation for psychological study? 

Show answer

Answer

Mary Whiton Calkins 

Show question

Question

True or False: While introspection was the first method used in experimental psychology, it was ultimately a dead-end due to its many shortcomings as a reliable form of research. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Who believed that psychology should only focus on that which can be measured and observed like all other sciences? 

Show answer

Answer

John Watson 

Show question

Question

True or False: The use of introspection can be an effective way to access self-knowledge and self-awareness in many forms of therapy used today.   

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

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