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What is Introspection?

Updated on January 2, 2011

Introspection is the observation and analysis of one's own mental states and activities. Psychologists of the late 19th century defined the subject matter of psychology as the study of the content of the mind, and introspection was accordingly regarded as the fundamental method of psychological research. Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of modern experimental psychology, made introspection the basis of his efforts to isolate the simple elements of conscious experience and to determine the structure of consciousness. In America, Wundt's structuralist psychology was promulgated by his student E. B. Titchener and attained its greatest influence about 1910.

The structuralists emphasized the importance of careful training in introspection. The introspector, during experiments, had to be in good physical and mental condition, attentive, objective, and free of preconceptions, and he had to distinguish carefully between mental experiences as such and the things experienced. Even then, according to Wundt, introspective observation could yield information only about sensations, images, and feelings, and not about the higher mental processes of thinking and willing. Experiments characteristically involved the analysis of sensations into their components. Thus the experimenter might pour chilled talcum powder on the back of the observer's hand, whereupon the observer might report a sensation of wetness. The observer would then introspect his mental content for the sensation and might report such component sensations as coolness and very light pressure on the skin.

Introspection as a method of research lost its preeminence in psychology when investigators began to report conflicting results from identical experiments. These discrepancies underlined the subjective nature of introspective data and thus accelerated the rise of behaviorism, the purely objective psychology introduced by J. B. Watson. The behaviorists virtually negated consciousness, concentrating instead on physical processes and behavior. Later, however, largely through the influence of Gestalt psychology, verbal reports of mental states and processes came to be accepted as valid data in such fields as developmental psychology and psychophysics; in other fields, notably psychiatry and psychoanalysis, they are indispensable.

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