What Is Introspection?

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Introspection is a psychological process that involves looking inward to examine one's own thoughts, emotions, judgments, and perceptions.

In psychology, introspection refers to the informal process of exploring one's own mental and emotional states. Although, historically, the term also applies to a more formalized process that was once used as an experimental technique. Learn more about uses for introspection, a few examples, and how to be more introspective.

Uses for Introspection

Introspection is important for several reasons. Among them are that it helps us engage in reflection, it assists with research, and it can be a valuable tool in mental health treatments involving psychotherapy.

Reflection

One way to use introspection is for reflection, which involves consciously examining our internal psychological processes. When we reflect on our thoughts, emotions, and memories and examine what they mean, we are engaged in introspection.

Doing a reflective dive into our own psychology can help improve our levels of self-awareness. Being self-aware and gaining self-insight through the act of reflection is connected with higher levels of resilience and lower levels of stress. In this way, introspective reflection aids in personal growth.

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Research Technique

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.

Some historians suggest that introspection is not the most accurate term to refer to the methods that Wundt utilized. They contend that introspection implies a level of armchair soul-searching, but the methods that Wundt used were a much more highly controlled and rigid experimental technique.

In everyday use, introspection is a way of looking inward and examining one's internal thoughts and feelings. As a research tool, however, the process was much more controlled and structured.

Psychotherapy

Introspection can also be useful in psychotherapy sessions. When both practitioners and patients have the ability to be introspective, this aids in the development of the therapeutic relationship and can even affect treatment outcomes.

Engaging in introspection-based activities has been found beneficial for certain mental health conditions. For example, when people with depression engaged in emotional introspection, they were able to downregulate activity in their amygdala—an area of the brain associated with emotion regulation.

Recap

The term introspection can be used to describe both an informal reflection process and a more formalized experimental approach that was used early on in psychology's history. It's also used in psychotherapy sessions.

History of Introspection in Psychology

The process that Wundt used is what set his methods apart from casual introspection. In Wundt's lab, highly trained observers were presented with carefully controlled sensory 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 its structure or elements. Instead, it was essential to look at the processes and activities that occur as people experience the world around them.

Wundt focused on making the introspection process as structured and precise as possible. Observers were highly trained and the process itself was rigid and highly controlled.

In many instances, respondents were asked to simply respond with a "yes" or "no." In some cases, observers pressed a telegraph key to give their response. The goal of this process was to make introspection as scientific as possible.

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 and asked individuals to describe their mental experiences of events.

Benefits of Introspection

While introspection has fallen out of favor as a research technique, there are many potential benefits to this sort of self-reflection and self-analysis. Among them are:

  • Introspection can be a great source of personal knowledge, enabling you to better recognize and understand what you're thinking and feeling. This leads to a higher level of self-awareness, which can help promote mental health and increase our happiness.
  • The introspective process provides knowledge that is not possible in any other way; there is no other process or approach that can provide this information. The only way to understand why you think or feel a certain way is through self-analysis or reflection.
  • Introspection can help people make connections between different experiences and their responses. For example, when engaging in self-reflection after a disagreement with your spouse, you may recognize that you responded defensively because you felt belittled or disrespected.
  • Introspection can improve our capacity for empathy. The more we understand ourselves, the easier it becomes to understand others. We're able to put ourselves "in their shoes" and empathize with how they may feel.
  • Introspection makes us stronger leaders. While some believe that being a good leader requires self-confidence, others contend that self-awareness is more important. People who understand themselves internally are able to lead others effectively, also often making better decisions.

Drawbacks of Introspection

Introspection is not a perfect process. So, it can come with a few drawbacks.

Bias

People often give greater weight to introspection about themselves while judging others on their outward behavior. This can result in bias without recognizing that a bias exists.

Even when their introspections don't provide useful or accurate information, people often remain confident that their interpretations are correct. This is a phenomenon known as the introspection illusion.

Cognitive biases are a good example of how people are often unaware of their own thoughts and biases. Despite this, people tend to be very confident in their introspections.

Bias can also exist during research studies using introspection. Because observers have to first be trained by researchers, there is always the possibility that this training introduces a bias to the results.

This bias can influence what they observe. Put another way, observers engaged in introspection might be thinking or feeling things because of how they have been influenced and trained by the experimenters.

Rumination

Rumination involves obsessing over things or having them run through your mind over and over again. When trying to figure out the inner workings of the mind, one can end up ruminating on their "discoveries." This can have negative impacts mentally.

For example, in a study of adolescents with depression, researchers found that these teens tended to have maladaptive introspection with high levels of rumination, thus contributing to the worsening of their symptoms.

Subjectivity

While Wundt's experimental techniques did a great deal to advance psychology as a more scientific discipline, the introspective method had a number of notable limitations. One is that the process is subjective, making it impossible to examine or repeat the results.

When using introspection in research, different observers often provided significantly different responses to the exact same stimuli. Even the most highly trained observers were not consistent in their responses.

Limited Use

Another problem with introspection as a research technique is its limited use. Complex subjects such as learning, personality, mental disorders, and development are difficult or even impossible to study with this technique. This technique is also difficult to use with children and impossible to use with animals.

Because observers have to first be trained by researchers, there is always the possibility that this training introduces a bias to the results. Those engaged in introspection might be thinking or feeling things because of how they have been influenced and trained by the experimenters.

Examples of Introspection

Sometimes, seeing examples can help increase your understanding of a particular concept or idea. Some examples of introspection in everyday life include:

  • Engaging in mindfulness activities designed to increase self-awareness
  • Journaling your thoughts and feelings
  • Practicing meditation to better understand your inner self
  • Reflecting on a situation and how you feel about it
  • Talking with a mental health professional while exploring your mental and emotional states

How to Be Introspective

If you want to be more introspective, there are a few things you can do to assist with this.

  • Ask yourself "what" questions. When trying to figure out our thoughts and emotions, we often ask ourselves "why" we feel the way we do. However, research indicates that "what" questions are more effective for improving introspection. For instance, instead of asking why you feel sad, ask what makes you feel sad. This can help provide more insight into yourself internally.
  • Be more mindful. Introspection is a thoughtful exploration of what you're thinking and feeling at the moment. This requires being present, or more mindful. Greater mindfulness can be achieved in many different ways, some of which include journaling and meditation.
  • Expand your curiosity. Curiosity about your inner self can help you better understand your emotions, reflect on your past, and explore your identity and purpose. Get in touch with your curious side. With curiosity comes exploration, providing a clearer understanding of your psychological workings.
  • Spend some time alone, doing nothing. If the world is always busy around you, it can be difficult to quiet your mind enough to explore its inner workings. Make time regularly to spend some time alone, removing all distractions in your surroundings. This can help create an environment in which you're able to do a deeper dive into your psychological processes.

A Word From Verywell

The use of introspection as a tool for looking inward is an important part of self-awareness and is even used in psychotherapy as a way to help clients gain insight into their own feelings and behavior.

While Wundt's efforts contributed a great deal to the development and advancement of experimental psychology, researchers now recognize the numerous limitations and pitfalls of using introspection as an experimental technique.

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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.