Introspective method in psychology: type and operation

Since the birth of psychology as a science, a large number of different theories and techniques that seek to account for the analysis and study of the human psyche. Different theories have focused on different aspects and methods from which to work, such as working on unconscious aspects or directly observable behaviors.

One of the various methods developed throughout history, and in fact the one proposed and used by the father of scientific psychology Wilhelm Wundt, is the introspective method.

    The introspective method: basic theory

    An introspective method is a procedure by which a subject focuses his attention on mental contents and processes. In other words, in introspection, the subject analyzes what is going on in his mind without interfering with the stimulation.

    This introspection is then expressed verballyIt is therefore the subject himself who reflects and externalizes thought by trying to be as objective as possible and without modifying or contaminating the content of thought with explanations or speculations about it.

    The introspective method is one of the first methods used in the study of the psyche. While similar approaches can be found in classical philosophy, it would only be from Wundt that this methodology would be systematized and begin to be used scientifically. By this method, it is expected to find the structure and characteristics of the different strata of the mind.

      Classic kind of introspection

      Introspection is a methodology that it was developed throughout the early history of psychology and that after having been partially abandoned (despite a certain presence in the various theoretical currents), it would be recovered in contemporaneity.

      Most of all we can find it two main types of introspection in the classical period, Experimental and systematic or phenomenological introspection.

      1. Experimental introspection

      The first of these and that of Wundt and his followers is experimental introspection, which it aims to focus on mental processes in an objective and scientific way by manipulating the stimulation to which the subject under study has been subjected. He seeks to capture the expression of the psyche as it arises to analyze it.

      Thus, in addition to the patient’s verbal record, measurements are taken of his electrophysiological records, the number of misjudgments, muscle tension or heart rate. With these measurements and information, it is possible to study the presence and functioning of attention, will or emotion, but not more complex elements.

      The subject was trained to distinguish the experienced from cognition in this regard, performing the experiment as many times as necessary and be able to scale the stimulation received, And report the sensations immediately so that they are not contaminated by thoughts and cognitions.

      2. Systematic introspection

      Another subtype of introspection is the so-called systematic introspection, which would be used by the so-called Würzburg school. It was intended to access the psyche through the resolution of a situation and the subsequent description of the steps taken to do so. In this case, a process is carried out through the memory of the treatment, with what is called retrospective introspection. One of the figures linked to the emergence of this variety of introspection is Brentano, a critical figure with Wundt’s methodological proposal.

      One of the authors who stands out in this regard is Ach, who has divided the experiment to be performed into the stages of preparation, emergence of stimuli, search for suitable alternatives and response). The tasks employed tended to be more complex and intellectual than those employed in experimental introspection.

      This type of introspection will be applied later in theoretical currents such as psychodynamics, retrospective introspection being an integral part of both psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theory and practice. They also served as inspiration for the Gestalt school.

      Criticisms of the introspective method

      The introspective method was widely criticized at the time. One of the biggest critics in this regard was Franz Brentano, Who considered that the experimental introspection proposed by Wundt aimed to reduce to a temporal instant something fluid that cannot be cut.

      The psyche cannot be observed at the same time from the psyche itself, because this observation already changes the answer given. Furthermore, the mind continues to function at all timesIt is therefore not possible to limit its operation to a single experimental moment.

      He would also be criticized by classical behaviorism, which held that he only allowed speculation and that it could not be considered scientific because it did not allow experimental replication, as well as the fact that no objective data was obtained but subjective and biased.

      Another criticism of introspection is based on the difficulty of being able to reproduce the same results by different experimenters. Also the fact that part of the cognitive phenomena studied ended up being automated, so that the processes carried out ended up becoming foreign to consciousness.

      Introspection today

      Although introspection is not used in practice as a method in itself, we can find a great influence from it in the professional practice of psychology.

      And it is that of cognitivism they were often used self-registration and self-monitoring procedures both in assessment and therapy, for example to assess the thoughts and feelings that patients say they feel. Thus, much of the protocols used today rely heavily on identifying and perceiving one’s own thinking, which is done through the practice of introspection.

      Likewise, psychoanalysis and the various schools of psychodynamics have also been included by introspection, as can be seen in the application of methods such as word association. In this way retrospective introspection is particularly used.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Alonso-Fernández, F. (1968). Fundamentals of Contemporary Psychiatry, 1. Madrid.
      • Mora, C. (2007). Introspection: past and present. Second period (Vol, XXVI), 2. School of Psychology, UCV

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