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Introspection entails the inward-looking self-observation of conscious thoughts.

Introspection is the self-observation and reporting of conscious inner thoughts, desires and sensations. It is a conscious mental and usually purposive process relying on thinking, reasoning, and examining one's own thoughts, feelings, and, in more spiritual cases, one's soul. It can also be called contemplation of one's self, and is contrasted with extrospection, the observation of things external to one's self. Introspection may be used synonymously with self-reflection and used in a similar way.

As a method in science[]

Behaviorists claimed that introspection was unreliable and that the subject matter of scientific psychology should be strictly operationalized in an objective and measurable way. This then led psychology to focus on measurable behavior rather than consciousness or sensation.[1] Cognitive psychology accepts the use of the scientific method, but often rejects introspection as a valid method of investigation for this reason, especially concerning the causes of behavior and choice. Herbert Simon and Allen Newell identified the 'thinking-aloud' protocol, in which investigators view a subject engaged in a task, and who speaks his thoughts aloud, thus allowing study of his thought process without forcing the subject to comment on his thinking.

On the other hand, introspection can be considered a valid tool for the development of scientific hypotheses and theoretical models, in particular in cognitive sciences and engineering. In practice, functional (goal-oriented) computational modeling and computer simulation design of meta-reasoning and metacognition are closely connected with the introspective experiences of researchers and engineers.

Introspection was used by German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt in the experimental psychology laboratory he had founded in Leipzig in 1879. Wundt believed that by using introspection in his experiments he would gather information into how the subjects' minds were working, thus he wanted to examine the mind into its basic elements. Wundt did not invent this way of looking into an individual's mind through their experiences; rather, it can date to Socrates. Wundt's distinctive contribution was to take this method into the experimental arena and thus into the newly formed field of psychology.

Inaccessible mental processes and confabulation[]

Main article: Introspection illusion

Psychological research on cognition and attribution has asked people to report on their mental processes, for instance to say why they made a particular choice or how they arrived at a judgement. In some situations, these reports are clearly confabulated.[2] For example, people justify choices they have not in fact made.[3] Such results undermine the idea that those verbal reports are based on direct introspective access to mental content. Instead, judgements about one's own mind seem to be inferences from overt behavior, similar to judgements made about another person.[2] However, it is hard to assess whether these results only apply to unusual experimental situations, or if they reveal something about everyday introspection.[4] The theory of the adaptive unconscious suggests that a very large proportion of mental processes, even "high-level" processes like goal-setting and decision-making, are inaccessible to introspection.[5]

Even when their introspections are uninformative, people still give confident descriptions of their mental processes, being "unaware of their unawareness".[6] This phenomenon has been termed the introspection illusion and has been used to explain some cognitive biases[7] and belief in some paranormal phenomena.[8] When making judgements about themselves, subjects treat their own introspections as reliable, whereas they judge other people based on their behavior.[9] This can lead to illusions of superiority. For example, people generally see themselves as less conformist than others, and this seems to be because they do not introspect any urge to conform.[10] Another reliable finding is that people generally see themselves as less biased than everyone else, because they do not introspect any biased thought processes.[9] These introspections are misleading, however, because biases work sub-consciously. One experiment tried to give their subjects access to others' introspections. They made audio recordings of subjects who had been told to say whatever came into their heads as they answered a question about their own bias.[9] Although subjects persuaded themselves they were unlikely to be biased, their introspective reports did not sway the assessments of observers. When subjects were explicitly told to avoid relying on introspection, their assessments of their own bias became more realistic.[9]

See also[]

References & Bibliography[]

Key texts[]


  • Adam Wiegner, Izabella Nowakowa (Eds), Katarzyna Paprzycka (Trans)(2002)Observation, Hypothesis, Introspection. Editions Rodopi B.V.ISBN 9042017260
  • (2003) Anthony Jack, Andreas Roepstorff Trusting the subject?: the use of introspective evidence in cognitive science, Imprint Academic.
  • Wilson, Timothy (2002). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, Cambridge: Belknap Press.
  • Wilson, Timothy D. Wilson; Sara D. Hodges (1992). "Attitudes as Temporary Constructions" Leonard L. Martin, Abraham Tesser The Construction of social judgments, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


  • Boring, Edwin G. (1953). A history of introspection. Psychological Bulletin 50 (3): 169–189.
  • Knight Dunlap (1912) The Case Against Introspection. Psychological Review, 19, 404-413 Fulltext
  • Titchener, E. B. (1912)The Schema of Introspection.American Journal of Psychology, 23, 485-508 Fulltext

Additional material[]


  • Schultz, D. P. & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A history of modern psychology (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  • Degroot, A.D. (1978) Thought and choice in chess. New York, NY: Walter de Gruyter. (original in Dutch: 1946)


External links[]

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
  1. Wilson, Robert Andrew; Keil, Frank C. (Eds.) (2001). The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (MITECS), Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. Cf. p.xx
  2. 2.0 2.1 Nisbett, Richard E., Timothy D. Wilson (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 8: 231–259., reprinted in (2005) David Lewis Hamilton Social cognition: key readings, Psychology Press.
  3. Johansson, Petter, Lars Hall, Sverker Sikström, Betty Tärning, Andreas Lind (2006). How something can be said about telling more than we can know: On choice blindness and introspection. Consciousness and Cognition 15 (4): 673–692.
  4. White, Peter A. (1988). Knowing more about what we can tell: 'Introspective access' and causal report accuracy 10 years later. British Journal of Psychology 79 (1): 13–45.
  5. Wilson, Timothy D., Elizabeth W. Dunn (2004). Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value, and Potential for Improvement. Annual Review of Psychology 55: 493–518.
  6. Wilson, Timothy D., Yoav Bar-Anan (August 22, 2008). The Unseen Mind. Science 321 (5892): 1046–1047.
  7. Pronin, Emily (January 2007). Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11 (1): 37–43.
  8. Wegner, Daniel M. (2008). "Self is Magic" John Baer, James C. Kaufman, Roy F. Baumeister Are we free?: psychology and free will, New York: Oxford University Press. URL accessed 2008-07-02.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Pronin, Emily, Matthew B. Kugler (July 2007). Valuing thoughts, ignoring behavior: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blind spot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43 (4): 565–578.
  10. Pronin, Emily, Jonah Berger, Sarah Molouki (2007). Alone in a Crowd of Sheep: Asymmetric Perceptions of Conformity and Their Roots in an Introspection Illusion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92 (4): 585–595.