Introspection Psychology Philosophy

The use of introspection as a technique began in the formative days of psychology. Introspection as a psychological and philosophical tool provides subjective insight into recent states of mind and cognitive processes.

Introspection though subjective in nature is often assumed to be an accurate assessment of sensory knowledge. Introspective knowledge is contextual in that it reveals only the inner world of the individual. The inner cognitive world cannot be measured through empirical methods. Part of the inner world of the mind is perceptions, presuppositions, and beliefs.

Introspection as a technique includes three components.

  • Self-focused knowledge
  • First-person oriented
  • In-the-moment reporting

1. Self-focused knowledge 

First, introspection generates information about mental states and not conditions outside of the mind. Some describe this process as “directness of the condition.” The challenge is to keep separate introspective knowledge or perceptions from actual or factual conditions. Another challenge is to separate intuition and reactivity to stimuli from knowledge considered to be commonsensical.

Commonsensical information is pre-learned beliefs or assumptions that can influence perceptions but may not reveal true cognitions about the stimuli and may simply reveal conformity of thought to social norms related to the stimuli. Introspection wants to uncover true sensory knowledge and cognitive process free from external influence if possible.

2. First-person oriented 

Second, introspective knowledge begins with the self-reports and observations of the individual. Each person’s knowledge base reflects unique content combining previous learning and experiences. The presuppositions about information are inescapable but need to be restricted to the inner world of the individual. In other words, external judgments of the presuppositions of others are not welcomed in introspection.

Second, introspection should be first-person oriented since introspective knowledge is limited to the cognitive and experiential processes of the individual. Generalizations of perceptions to stimuli might be possible through research such as surveys, but generalizations to a population based on one individual’s perception should only be done with great caution.

3. In-the-moment reporting 

Third, introspection seeks to capture mental states and processes in the moment or in the near past. Another term for this requirement is “detection condition.” Introspection requires distinguishing between mental states that are pre-existing and those that are occurring in response to stimuli. One of dangers with this point is that subjects engaged in self-reporting in the moment may resist transparency with their true perceptions and feelings. The accuracy of the information they offer would be suspect given the overriding desire to save face.

Psychological Application

Introspection was the primary technique used by all of the founding theories of twentieth century psychology. Introspection was prominent in Structuralism, Functionalism, and Psychoanalysis as well as the theories of Carl Jung and Alfred Adler. The premises of introspection’s value appear in cognitive-behavioral psychology as well as in the Humanistic/Existential traditions.