Last updated on 16 October 2017

Introspection is the examination of one's own conscious thoughts and feelings.[1] In psychology, the process of introspection relies exclusively on observation of one's mental state, while in a spiritual context it may refer to the examination of one's soul. Introspection is closely related to human self-reflection and is contrasted with external observation.

Introspection generally provides a privileged access to our own mental states,[2] not mediated by other sources of knowledge, so that individual experience of the mind is unique. Introspection can determine any number of mental states including: sensory, bodily, cognitive, emotional and so forth.[3]

Introspection has been a subject of philosophical discussion for thousands of years. The philosopher Plato asked, "…why should we not calmly and patiently review our own thoughts, and thoroughly examine and see what these appearances in us really are?"[4][5] While introspection is applicable to many facets of philosophical thought it is perhaps best known for its role in epistemology, in this context introspection is often compared with perception, reason, memory, and testimony as a source of knowledge.[6]

In psychology


It has often been claimed that Wilhelm Wundt, the father of modern psychology, was the first to adopt introspection to experimental psychology[1] though the methodological idea had been presented long before, as by 18th century German philosopher-psychologists such as Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten or Johann Nicolaus Tetens.[7] Also, Wundt's views on introspection must be approached with great care.[8] Wundt was influenced by notable physiologists, such as Gustav Fechner, who used a kind of controlled introspection as a means to study human sensory organs. Building upon the pre-existing use of introspection in physiology, Wundt imposed exacting control over the use of introspection in his experimental laboratory at the University of Leipzig[1] making it possible for other scientists to replicate his experiments elsewhere, a development that proved essential to the development of psychology as a modern, peer-reviewed scientific discipline.


Edward Titchener was an early pioneer in experimental psychology and student of Wilhelm Wundt.[1] After earning his doctorate under the tutelage of Wundt at the University of Leipzig, he made his way to Cornell University where he established his own laboratory and research.[1] When Titchener arrived at Cornell, psychology was still a fledgling discipline, especially in the United States, and Titchener was a key figure in bringing Wundt's ideas to America. However, Titchener misrepresented some of Wundt's ideas to the American psychological establishment, especially in his account of introspection which, Titchener taught, only served a purpose in the qualitative analysis of consciousness into its various parts,[1] while Wundt saw it as a means to quantitatively measure the whole of conscious experience.[1] Titchener was exclusively interested in the individual components that comprise conscious experience, while Wundt, seeing little purpose in the analysis of individual components, focused on synthesis of these components. Ultimately Titchener's ideas would form the basis of the short-lived psychological theory of structuralism.[1]

Historical misconceptions

American historiography of introspection, according to some authors,[9][10] is dominated by three misconceptions. In particular, historians of psychology tend to argue 1) that introspection once was the dominant method of psychological inquiry, 2) that behaviorism, and in particular John B. Watson, is responsible for discrediting introspection as a valid method, and 3) that scientific psychology completely abandoned introspection as a result of those critiques.[9] Yet, introspection has not been the dominant method. It is believed to be so because Edward Titchener's student Edwin G. Boring, in his influential historical accounts of experimental psychology privileged Titchener's views while giving little credit to original sources.[9] Introspection has been critiqued by many other psychologists, including Wilhelm Wundt, and Knight Dunlap who in his article "The Case Against Introspection", presents an argument against self-observation that is not primarily rooted in behaviorist epistemology. Introspection is still widely used in psychology, but under different names, such as self-report surveys, interviews and fMRIs.[10] It is not the method but rather its name that has been dropped from the dominant psychological vocabulary.

Recent developments

Partly as a result of Titchener's misrepresentation, the use of introspection diminished after his death and the subsequent decline of structuralism.[1] Later psychological movements, such as functionalism and behaviorism, rejected introspection for its lack of scientific reliability among other factors.[1] Functionalism originally arose in direct opposition to structuralism, opposing its narrow focus on the elements of consciousness[1] and emphasising the purpose of consciousness and other psychological behavior. Behaviorism's objection to introspection focused much more on its unreliability and subjectivity which conflicted with behaviorism's focus on measurable behavior.[1][11]

The more recently established cognitive psychology movement has to some extent accepted introspection's usefulness in the study of psychological phenomena, though generally only in experiments pertaining to internal thought conducted under experimental conditions. For example, in the "think aloud protocol", investigators cue participants to speak their thoughts aloud in order to study an active thought process without forcing an individual to comment on the process itself.[12]

Already in the 18th century authors had criticized the use of introspection, both for knowing one's own mind and as a method for psychology. David Hume pointed out that introspecting a mental state tends to alter the very state itself; a German author, Christian Gottfried Schütz, noted that introspection is often described as mere "inner sensation", but actually requires also attention, that introspection does not get at unconscious mental states, and that it cannot be used naively - one needs to know what to look for. Immanuel Kant added that, if they are understood too narrowly, introspective experiments are impossible. Introspection delivers, at best, hints about what goes on in the mind; it does not suffice to justify knowledge claims about the mind.[13] Similarly, the idea continued to be discussed between John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte. Recent 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 judgment. In some situations, these reports are clearly confabulated.[14] For example, people justify choices they have not in fact made.[15] 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.[14] However, it is hard to assess whether these results only apply to unusual experimental situations, or if they reveal something about everyday introspection.[16] 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.[17] Indeed, it is questionable how confident researchers can be in their own introspections.

One of the central implications of dissociations between consciousness and meta-consciousness is that individuals, presumably including researchers, can misrepresent their experiences to themselves. Jack and Roepstorff assert, '...there is also a sense in which subjects simply cannot be wrong about their own experiential states.' Presumably they arrived at this conclusion by drawing on the seemingly self-evident quality of their own introspections, and assumed that it must equally apply to others. However, when we consider research on the topic, this conclusion seems less self-evident. If, for example, extensive introspection can cause people to make decisions that they later regret, then one very reasonable possibility is that the introspection caused them to 'lose touch with their feelings'. In short, empirical studies suggest that people can fail to appraise adequately (i.e. are wrong about) their own experiential states.

Another question in regards to the veracious accountability of introspection is if researchers lack the confidence in their own introspections and those of their participants, then how can it gain legitimacy? Three strategies are accountable: identifying behaviors that establish credibility, finding common ground that enables mutual understanding, and developing a trust that allows one to know when to give the benefit of the doubt. That is to say, that words are only meaningful if validated by one's actions; When people report strategies, feelings or beliefs, their behaviors must correspond with these statements if they are to be believed.[18]

Even when their introspections are uninformative, people still give confident descriptions of their mental processes, being "unaware of their unawareness".[19] This phenomenon has been termed the introspection illusion and has been used to explain some cognitive biases[20] and belief in some paranormal phenomena.[21] When making judgements about themselves, subjects treat their own introspections as reliable, whereas they judge other people based on their behavior.[22] 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.[23] Another reliable finding is that people generally see themselves as less biased than everyone else, because they are not likely to introspect any biased thought processes.[22] 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.[22] 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.[22]

In religion


In Eastern Christianity some concepts addressing human needs, such as sober introspection (nepsis), require watchfulness of the human heart and the conflicts of the human nous, heart or mind. Noetic understanding can not be achieved by rational or discursive thought (i.e. systemization).


The early church fathers wrote extensively on the aspects of the gnosis, which, if God, as Plato and other philosophers including Descartes determined, the later asserting 'God is pure consciousness'. Thus, by definition, if God was made 'mind' the gnostic religion (or gnosticism in particular) becomes a psychology.[24] Hippolytus wrote on the subject that 'gnosis', effectively throughout the mythology of Gnosticism came to terms with introspection via the emanation of the 'first cause'. As described by Mead in his book Fragments of a faith forgotten, The problematic conceptions of a god capable of first cause emanation without a body led the early Gnostics to elaborate a cosmogony far removed from its literal meaning. The "Boundless One" the Pythagoreans, Essenes, Platonists and gnostics theosophists argued was called the monad, the 'single pointedness', was incomprehensible, the emanation of himself, Sophia (wisdom) who, being created seemingly spontaneously without cause, led (almost a thousand years previously) the early Hindus of Rig Veda in their "creation hymn" to assert 'only He knows' why, even to the extent of admitting that there is a likelihood that the universal wisdom knew not even of Himself. This theology denounced such "a posteriori" proclamations due to the lack of an empirical body and the apparent fact with no material there is no information and thus no reflection, it was either brought forth "a priory" or not at all - to use Kant's definitions of epistemology. This led many Hindus simply to deny the existence of god(s). And many an existentialist to assert a strong difference between human consciousness and gods omniscience simply because human reality has a literal reflection of self - the body (the material world many gnostics most notably the Manacheans believed was evil, we are "deamons in the mud"), gods incorporeality made 'reflection' limited to being thought - of self - a priory, because in gnostic theology Sophia was but a 'word'. This word, without a parchment was not only incomprehensible but also limited in empirical knowledge of experience. Via 'ecstasy' - to stand outside oneself, the original 'eidein' idea became manifest - 'eidein' the masculine noun to the feminine 'gnosis' or 'gnoses' giving us 'idea' in English from the Greek. This idea preceded something physical much like the creation of Heaven did Earth. Not only was it considered impossible by many atheists to many existentialist believers it was plausible given the infinite amount of time. This confusion led many gnostics to assert first cause introspection may have taken place unbeknown to the boundless one, "deism" and "idealism" in the making. And ultimately led many others to believe the material world was created by a 'demiurge' or 'lesser god' whom they often called the craftsman.


Jains practise pratikraman (Sanskrit "introspection"), a process of repentance of wrongdoings during their daily life, and remind themselves to refrain from doing so again. Devout Jains often do Pratikraman at least twice a day.


Introspection is encouraged in schools such as Advaita Vedanta; in order for one to know their own true nature, they need to reflect and introspect on their true nature -- which is what meditation is. Especially, Swami Chinmayananda emphasised the role of introspection in five stages, outlined in his book "Self Unfoldment."

In fiction

Introspection (also referred to as Rufus dialogue, interior monologue, self-talk) is the fiction-writing mode used to convey a character's thoughts. As explained by Renni Browne and Dave King, "One of the great gifts of literature is that it allows for the expression of unexpressed thoughts…"[25]

According to Nancy Kress, a character's thoughts can greatly enhance a story: deepening characterization, increasing tension, and widening the scope of a story.[26] As outlined by Jack M. Bickham, thought plays a critical role in both scene and sequel.[27]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Schultz, D. P.; Schultz, S. E. (2012). A history of modern psychology (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. pp. 67–77, 88–100. ISBN 978-1-133-31624-4.
  2. ^ W. Seager,Encyclopedia of Consciousness' '
  3. ^ W. Seager,Encyclopedia of Consciousness
  4. ^ Theaetetus, 155
  5. ^ J Perner et al (2007). "Introspection & remembering". Synthese. Springer.
  6. ^ Epistemology. (2005). In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from
  7. ^ Cf. Thomas Sturm, Kant und die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Paderborn: Mentis, 2009), ch. 2.
  8. ^ Danziger, Kurt (1980). "The History of Introspection Reconsidered". Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 16: 241–262. doi:10.1002/1520-6696(198007)16:3<241::aid-jhbs2300160306>;2-o.
  9. ^ a b c Costal, A (2006). "‘Introspectionism’ and the mythical origins of scientific psychology". Consciousness and Cognition. 15: 634–654. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2006.09.008.
  10. ^ a b Clegg, Joshua (2013). Self-observation in the social science. New Jersey: Transaction.
  11. ^ Wilson, Robert Andrew; Keil, Frank C. (eds.). The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  12. ^ Hayes, S. C. (1986). "The case of the silent dog—Verbal reports and the analysis of rules: A review of Ericsson and Simon's Protocol Analysis: Verbal Reports as Data1". Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 45 (3): 351–363. doi:10.1901/jeab.1986.45-351.
  13. ^ Cf. Thomas Sturm, Kant und die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Paderborn: Mentis, 2009), ch.s 2 and 4.
  14. ^ a b Nisbett, Richard E.; Timothy D. Wilson (1977). "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes". Psychological Review. 84: 231–259. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.84.3.231., reprinted in David Lewis Hamilton, ed. (2005). Social cognition: key readings. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-86377-591-8.
  15. ^ 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. Elsevier. 15 (4): 673–692. PMID 17049881. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2006.09.004.
  16. ^ White, Peter A. (1988). "Knowing more about what we can tell: 'Introspective access' and causal report accuracy 10 years later". British Journal of Psychology. British Psychological Society. 79 (1): 13–45. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1988.tb02271.x.
  17. ^ Wilson, Timothy D.; Elizabeth W. Dunn (2004). "Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value, and Potential for Improvement". Annual Review of Psychology. 55: 493–518. PMID 14744224. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141954.
  18. ^ "Establishing a legitimate relationship with introspection". Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 6: 371–372. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(02)01970-8.
  19. ^ Wilson, Timothy D.; Yoav Bar-Anan (August 22, 2008). "The Unseen Mind". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 321 (5892): 1046–1047. PMID 18719269. doi:10.1126/science.1163029.
  20. ^ Pronin, Emily (January 2007). "Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment". Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Elsevier. 11 (1): 37–43. ISSN 1364-6613. PMID 17129749. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2006.11.001.
  21. ^ Wegner, Daniel M. (2008). "Self is Magic". In John Baer; James C. Kaufman; Roy F. Baumeister. Are we free?: psychology and free will (PDF). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-518963-6. Retrieved 2008-07-02.
  22. ^ a b c d 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. Elsevier. 43 (4): 565–578. ISSN 0022-1031. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.011.
  23. ^ 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. American Psychological Association. 92 (4): 585–595. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 17469946. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.4.585.
  24. ^ see C. G. Jung for references
  25. ^ Browne, Renni; King, David (2004). Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. ISBN 0-06-054569-0.
  26. ^ Kress, Nancy (2003). "Make "Em Think". Writer's Digest (August): 38.
  27. ^ Bickham, Jack M. (1993). Scene & Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books. pp. 12–22, 50–58. ISBN 0-89879-551-6.

Further reading

  • Boring, Edwin G. (1953). "A history of introspection" (PDF). Psychological Bulletin. 50 (3): 169–189. PMID 13056096. doi:10.1037/h0090793. Retrieved 2009-07-17.
  • Gillespie, Alex (2006). "Descartes’ demon: A dialogical analysis of ‘Meditations on First Philosophy". Theory & Psychology. 16 (6): 761–781. doi:10.1177/0959354306070527.
  • Gillespie, Alex (2007). Valsiner, Jaan; Rosa, Alberto, eds. The social basis of self-reflection. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 678–691.
  • Jack, Anthony; Roepstorff, Andreas, eds. (2003). Trusting the subject?: The use of introspective evidence in cognitive science. Imprint Academic. ISBN 978-0-907845-56-0.
  • Wilson, Timothy (2002). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge: Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-00936-3.
  • Wilson, Timothy D. Wilson; Sara D. Hodges (1992). "Attitudes as Temporary Constructions". In Leonard L. Martin; Abraham Tesser. The Construction of social judgments. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 978-0-8058-1149-0.

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