What Is Introspection?

Wundt's Experimental Technique

Wilhelm Wundt pioneered the use of a technique known as introspection. Getty Images

The term introspection can be used to describe both an informal reflection process and a more formalized experimental approach.

The first meaning is the one that most people are probably the most familiar with, which involves informally examining our own internal thoughts and feelings. When we reflect on our thoughts, emotions, and memories and examine what they mean, we are engaging in introspection.

The term introspection is also used to describe a research technique that was first developed by psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. Also known as experimental self-observation, Wundt's technique involved training people to carefully and objectively as possible analyze the content of their own thoughts.

"Introspection has been the word most frequently used to describe Wundt's method," explains author David Hothersall in his text History of Psychology. "The choice is unfortunate, for it may be taken to imply a type of armchair speculation, which was certainly not what Wundt meant… Wundt's introspection was a rigidly controlled, arduous experimental procedure."

How did this experimental process work?

In Wundt's lab, highly trained observers were presented with carefully controlled sensory events. These individuals were then asked to describe their mental experiences of these events. Wundt believed that the observers needed to be in a state of high attention to the stimulus and in control of the situation.

The observations were also repeated numerous times.

What was the purpose of these observations? Wundt believed that there were two key components that make up the contents of the human mind: sensations and feelings. In order to understand the mind, Wundt believed that researchers needed to do more than simply identify the structure or elements of the mind.

Instead, it was essential to look at the processes and activities that occur as people experience the world around them.

Edward Titchener, a student of Wundt's, also utilized this technique although he has been accused of misrepresenting many of Wundt's original ideas. While Wundt was interested in looking at the conscious experience as a whole, Titchener instead focused on breaking down mental experiences into individual components.

The use of introspection as an experimental technique was often criticized, particularly Titchener's use of the method. Schools of thought including functionalism and behaviorism believed that introspection lacked scientific reliability and objectivity.

Observations

  • "Experimental introspection made use of laboratory instruments to vary the conditions and hence make the results of internal perception more precise, as the psychophysical experiments initiated by Fechner or in the sense-perception experiments of Helmholtz. In most instances saying "yes" or "no" to an event was all that was needed, without any descriptions of inner events. Sometimes the subject responded by pressing a telegraph key. The ideal was to make introspection, in the form of internal perception, as precise as external perception."
    (Hilgard, 1987)
  • "As noted by Wundt and other scientists, introspection had significant limitations. First, introspection was an unreliable method of investigation. Different subjects often provided very different introspective reports about the same stimulus. Even subjects well trained in introspection varied in their responses to the same stimulus from trial to trial. Second, introspection could not be used to study children or animals. Third, complex topics, such as learning, development, mental disorders, and personality, could not be investigated using introspection."
    (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2006)

Sources

Hilgard, E. R. (1987). Psychology in America: A historical survey. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

Hockenbury, D. H. & Hockenbury, S. E. (2006). Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.

Hothersall, D. (1995). History of Psychology, 3rd ed., New York: Mcgraw-Hill.

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