Historically, psychological understanding was largely gained by introspection: the philosopher observed the workings of his own mind and deduced the principles of the human psyche from that.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century this approach has slowly been superseded by principles of objective measurement that were developed in physics and the natural sciences. The question, if psychological measurement is possible, has not been conclusively answered, nevertheless it has become the standard practice and is, along with the experiment and statistical analysis, the main prerequisite for psychological research today.

But has introspection been completely banished from the canon of psychological methodologies, or does it still have a place in serious academic research?

  • $\begingroup$ do you mean psychology in general, or cognitive psychology? $\endgroup$
    – marsei
    Jul 29, 2013 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ In general, i.e. including cognitive psychology. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Jul 29, 2013 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ It hinges on what you want to call “introspection” and also on whether or not you intend “having a place” to be a descriptive or a normative statement. Self-experimentation and introspection about one's own mental processes (as opposed to structured or unstructured self-report of states, beliefs, feelings…) certainly aren't common anymore. $\endgroup$
    – Gala
    Jul 29, 2013 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ "having a place" = being used as a method for scientific progress. As for what I want to call "introspection", I'm open for anything that looks like introspection to you. I'd rather not attempt a definition that by accident does not include what you are thinking of and thus prevent you from answering here. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Jul 29, 2013 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ Your definition still doesn't clarify things: the “scientific progress” bit seems to bring in a lot of heavy philosophical notions I am loath to comment upon, the “being used” part suggests an empirical question about what people in psychology departments actually do. My answer to the latter interpretation of the question is contained in the last sentence of my previous comment: People don't do “introspection” the way it was understood at the beginnings of psychology anymore, self-report is common. $\endgroup$
    – Gala
    Jul 30, 2013 at 12:05

1 Answer 1


Okay, let's see if I can tackle this...

Almost all of my answer to this question is being drawn from the first chapter of Michael Posner's Foundations of Cognitive Science. I, myself, am just a rising freshman at a decently ranked American university who has been studying the cognitive science literature on my own for the last few years.

Here I will attempt to explain one (and perhaps the most significant) example of introspections in modern cognitive science: protocol analysis.

I've only recently learned about it, but with the book here in front of me, I'm sure I can manage to give a good summary of it.

Protocol analysis, simply put, is the use of verbal reports of mental activity as data. It's not quite the same as the introspection of early psychology. From Posner, "Although verbal reports date back to the introspectionists, the use of such reports as data should not be misconstrued as introspection. Introspection took subjects' verbalizations at face value as constituting a valid theory of their own thought processes. Protocol analysis today, however, treats verbal reports as a source of data to be accounted for with an experimenter-generated theory, perhaps in the form of a computer simulation.”

The instructions given to subjects about how to report their introspections seems to have a great impact on the content of verbal reports. Here are some examples:

  • You could ask someone to "Think aloud" as they are performing some task. ("25 plus 25. 2 plus 2 is 4, and 5 plus 5 is 10, so carry the one and the total is 50.")
  • You could ask them to report their mental processes as they are performing their tasks. These tend to elicit more theoretical answers ("I am now visually processing..."), especially since you're probably questioning college psychology students. These answers are usually not preferred by modern psychologists.
  • You could ask the subjects questions. ("How did you decide to do that?")

And so forth. The verbal reports get transcript-ed and then the experimenter then segments the report into parts that can be encoded (translated into a formal language, like mathematics) independently. Reliability of the data becomes higher the more simple and precise your coding scheme is. In fact, some systems have been invented for the automatic coding of segmented protocols, though they don't rival human experts quite yet.

After analyzing many subjects' narratives in this way, you have loads of rich data about how people think through a given task. Since we aren't introspectionists, of course, we don't interpret this data at face value. So how do we interpret it?

“Verbal protocols generally provide explicit information about the knowledge and information heeded in solving a problem rather than about the processes used. Consequently it is usually necessary to infer the processes from the verbal reports of information heeded instead of attempting to code processes directly.”

So protocol analysis is most useful for understanding the knowledge consulted when one is thinking through a task. The verbs that participants use to describe their thoughts often provide useful clues about the processes involved in completing a task. For example, the tenses of verbs can distinguish between the retrieval of information from memory and the planning of future actions.

Since we are cognitive scientists, after all, our interpretation of verbal reports are usually informed by information-processing theories of thinking aloud. In other words, our science of introspection improves our ability to derive correct conclusions from introspective data.

But yeah. As a tool for guiding the creation of more precise hypothesis of human thinking (with computational models), introspection is still quite useful. Today it's more diffident and rigorous and better informed, but still alive.

You also can't understate the role introspection probably informally plays in driving the hypothesizing of cognitive scientists. This has less rigor, however, and may even be holding us back.

I keep saying "us" like I'm a scientist already. I'm not. >_<

  • $\begingroup$ Written like a scientist anyway! :) FWIW, I think you qualify. $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2014 at 8:20

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