Harald Witt1 What is introspection?
This paper will
Introspection is the self-observation of inner processes. Its focus may aim at physical, cognitive, volitional or emotional actions in situations experienced consciously. While responding in situations a parallel process takes place: the own experiences/the own inner processes are recorded mentally. Introspection takes place deliberately or incidentally, ranging from short spells to long periods of time.
The genuine process of introspection has to be distinguished from the process of retrospection. The latter is applied after an introspection task to access the data of that introspection. In order to do this one has to recall the data from memory and make it overt by different means (speaking, writing, painting etc.). Only overt data is accessible by other persons and can then become the material for a scientific analysis.
Box 1 gives an example of a very short and accidental introspection event. It shows very clearly the autonomous and parallel process of generating introspection data. The retrospection and reporting was done immediately after the (introspection-) event: first keywords were noted down to extract the essential and elusive observations. Then complete sentences were formed from those keywords before adding the general set-up.
Wednesday, the 12th of February, I entered a self-service café in Lübeck. In the front part of the café I bought a mug of hot chocolate and a piece of raspberry cake. Carrying the piece of cake in my left hand and the mug of hot chocolate in my right hand, I went to the back of the café to look for a seat. This back part is furnished with padded chairs, blank tables and a tiled floor. Arriving at the back I looked around to find an empty seat in the corner. I still waver between two alternatives – both to the left – but already begin to turn to the left.
That’s when it happens: I slip on something on the tiled floor. It is at this moment of slipping that my introspection takes place. I step on something slippery. The left foot does something completely different from what it is meant to do, it somehow slides away.
I remember that at that moment I was certain I would fall lengthwise. Therefore I was exploring the terrain to find the best place to land. If I could have directed my fall straight to the left I would have fallen exactly in between the row of chairs belonging to the tables at the wall and the row of chairs belonging to the tables in the middle. I would have had a very long free fall, i.e. I wouldn’t have got stuck and I probably could have pushed my arms out to ease the fall.
While I was thinking all this something very different happened: some instinctive counter-movements occurred completely without any conscious effort on my part. I realised with relief: I wasn’t falling at all. On the contrary, all of a sudden I am securely standing on my feet again, sensing the evenly distributed weight, the well-balanced position and the resting weight in my feet.
”That was lucky” I think when all of a sudden I realise that my plate is empty and the mug is only a third full. I am still holding the plate and mug in my hands but the instinctive counterbalance must have been very strong. I find my cake on a padded chair and the chocolate distributed and splashed all over the floor, tables and chairs. I didn’t notice at all the counterbalance movements of hands, arms and body, I only perceived the movements of feet, legs and a little of the hips.
It must have taken some time to register the new situation because another customer asked me to get the service to clear up the mess. Yet, to myself, the entire incident seemed to have taken no longer than a fraction of a second.
I put this story to paper because of the fascinating fact that perception, cognition and planning on the one hand happened simultaneously and parallel to the instinctive movements on the other. All this happened very fast, in real time, and far beyond all capacity of contemplation or reflection. Nevertheless great parts of the incident are accessible by introspection and retrospection.
Introspection was used as a standard research method at the turn of the last century (about 1900) by many still renown researchers, ranging from Brentano (1874) and Wundt (1888, 1918) to Titchener (1907) and to the Würzburg Thought Psychology (Bühler, 1907). In those days, many variations of the method had already been in use, originating in different research topics or in the aim to compensate some weak points of the method.
Boxes 2 and 3 describe two experimental settings which were used at that time to investigate inner processes: One is based on the experiments by Wundt (Leipzig, about 1907) investigating sensations, the other on thought experiments by Bühler (Würzburg about 1907).
Wundt (1832 – 1920) and his students conducted a multitude of experiments in the famous laboratory in Leipzig, based on the experimental approaches of natural sciences. In particular he follows the approach of chemistry in emphasising the elements of the consciousness. To obtain controllable exposition and response conditions he used optical shutters and electrically controlled devices to measure time. As a prototype of these experiments the set-up of Scripture (1907, pp. 51 ff) is reported, because it contains as an exception the description of the external conditions as well. He used optical, acoustical and tactile stimuli, exposed as a rule for 4 seconds. The exposition was announced by the word „now” (”jetzt”) 2 seconds in advance. During the exposition the subject was asked to report all associated mental imageries (Vorstellungen). During the experiments the subject was sitting in a box, darkened by cloth. Terms were presented as written words, as spoken words or as images. Objects had to be explored by touch in the dark. The research question in these association experiments was: what is the associational sequence of mental imageries (Verlauf von Vorstellungen)?
Stimulus: Spoken word: palm tree (Palme)
Association: „Reminiscent of a tropical landscape, originates from a picture”.
Stimulus: Touch impression of a hair pin.
Association: „First came the touch impression, joined later by the touch and imagery idea (Tast- und Gesichtsvorstellung) of a bent wire. The visual image gradually became stronger and the touch idea disappeared very quickly. Finally the idea had changed from a wire to a hair pin”.
The experimental findings resulted in statements concerning the content and course of mental imageries (Vorstellungen), the relation of stimuli and percept (psychophysics) and the distinction of interdependent imageries (perceptions, intuitions and percepts) and free or independent imageries. Wundt tried to solve two of his central problems: What are the elements of consciousness? And: Which combinations/compositions do these elements establish and which rules of combination can be discovered?
The experiments of Karl Bühler (1879-1963) were very different. He conducted thought experiments within his post doctorate studies in Würzburg. The director of the institute – O. Külpe – and other colleagues often acted as his subjects. His research question was: What do we experience during the process of thinking? The topics/objects were the complex realms of consciousness.
The most concise description of his experiments is made by Wundt: „The experimenter reads a sentence of an author who fits best the taste and mind of his subject (i.e. Nietzsche, Ebner-Eschenbach, Rückert). The subject has to answer either yes or no. According to their prior arrangement this means that he has understood or not understood the meaning of the sentence or that he does agree or does not agree. After each test the phenomena, which occurred during self observation, are registered. Additionally the time that passed between question and answer is recorded.” (Wundt, 1907, p. 304).
The subject sat at a table, the experimenter sat nearby. Generally the questions or aphorisms were difficult, the answers could take their time (i.e. about 45 sec.), but often were – even following difficult questions – astonishingly short.
Example 1: „Is it possible to catch the essence of thought by thought ?”
Response: „Yes (6 sec.). – At first the question seemed strange. I thought it was a picture puzzle. Then I remembered what Hegel accused Kant of and I said decisively: yes. The thought of Hegel’s accusation was poignant, I knew at the moment exactly what matters, I did not speak at that point and did not imagine anything, only the word ’Hegel’ resounded for some time after (acoustical-motorical).” (Bühler, 1907, p.. 304).
Example 2: „Can you calculate the speed of a free falling body?”
Response: „Yes (5 sec). – Got the sentence at once. Thought at once of the formula and knew that I don’t have it at present in extenso (I did not visualise anything). I felt uncomfortable at the same time. Then came the memory of M…(name), very complex, speaking only M. Then the awareness, I could bring it to my mind if I tried hard. A moment I dithered, then at once: yes.” (Bühler, 1907, p. 304).
The results of the experiments were statements concerning the elements and the structure of thought processes (thoughts and types of thoughts) as well as statements concerning the constitution of these elements (thoughts = parts of thought experiences; types of thought are the awareness of rules and the awareness of connections and the intention, Bühler, 1907, p. 314 ff).
Wundt and Bühler fiercely criticised each others experiments. Wundt contrasted experimental introspection with pure introspection (incidentally, spontaneously and not provoked). To solve a problem and at the same time to observe the inner processes he considered not to be possible, to be error-prone and to be not controllable (Wundt, 1918).
Bühler, on the other hand, did not see the possibility to investigate complex inner processes under Wundt’s conditions of controlled laboratory experiments. He considered Wundt’s elementary psychology to be a deadlock (Bühler, 1908).
A third variation were the introspection experiments by Brentano. He distinguished two kinds of introspection: the inner perception and the inner observation. The inner perception takes place, in a way, incidentally, it aims at mental processes in action- and thought-sequences (which can be the aim of reflection and analysis later on). In contrast to that the inner observation requires the conscious direction and concentration of attention to the inner processes in question. Central to inner observation is the detailed recording of inner processes. This is much more than simply taking notice of something by chance. It requires the splitting of the consciousness into an observing/acting part and into an experiencing part.
The distinction of introspection from other methods aiming at inner processes is not a simple task. Some alternative methods are listed below:
There were various kinds of critique of the method of introspection. While critique from their own ranks led to improvements and variations of the method, the strong critique of behaviourism resulted in the rigorous elimination from the accepted research methods (v. Burkart, 1999, 2010a, Städtler, 1998, Traxel, 1964).
In the following paragraphs only critique relating to introspection will be discussed, not that which relates also to other research methods (e.g. contradicting results, unreliable or non-valid results, limited applicability etc.).
These specific objections are a) the splitting argument, b) the reactivity and c) the lack of verifiability.
The splitting argument emphasises the above mentioned problem of splitting the attention: one part of the attention has to be paid to the experience, another to the observation. This would not be possible because it implies a splitting of consciousness in an experiencing part and an observing part.
This argument means that the subject is – at the same time – object of the observation and observer, i.e. the activity of observation will modify the object of observation.
This is the behavioural argument. Behaviourism only accepts data that is accessible from the outside and that is measurable. Because introspection data is accessible only by the subject itself, it is not accepted by the behavioural position. Instead behaviourism assumes that inner processes do have external and observable attributes as well and that these attributes make the inner processes accessible. In other words, behaviourism claims that introspection data not only is unacceptable but moreover that it is unnecessary. „Behavior which is of such small magnitude that it is not ordinarily observed may be amplified. Covert verbal behavior may be detected in slight movements of the speech apparatus [...]. The problem of privacy may therefore be solved by technical advances” (Skinner, 1965, cited in Lyons, 1986, p. 43).
Karl Marbe and Narziss Ach tried at an early stage to counteract the objections: Marbe (1901) separated observer and researcher and collected the data immediately after the experience, Ach (1905) added some technical equipment to his laboratory. Still the method of introspection was banished.
All three objections are undoubtedly justified. The question is, are they so grave that the whole method has to be abandoned? Or are there ways and means to deal with these objections, to minimise or control them?
A research workshop at the University of Hamburg, an interdisciplinary group of psychologists, sociologists and teachers, has developed a method for group-based dialogic introspection. It is a procedure for the production of subjective data of experiences of individuals. The procedure is embedded in the methodology of qualitative heuristic (Kleining, 1982) and is characterised by a systematic approach to experimental design, data gain and data analysis.
It goes back to the introspection method, how it was comprehensively used in the beginnings of scientific psychology. However it expands on this procedure by the components of the group and the dialogue. It is assumed that with these components methodical objections, which were raised against the early forms of introspection, are taken up and considered.
Thus, a new procedure is developed, which uses the large advantages of introspective data – like access to subjective experiencing, richness and complexity of data and ease of collection – and turns or refutes the objections – like non-observability, subjectivity and reactivity. The procedure is carried out within the group and thereby makes the support of individual intro- and retrospection possible. It therefore, amongst other things, improves the verifiability of data.
In the following the procedure is described on the basis of an example (alarm clock experiment, Witt and Kleining (2010)).
It concerns an (prototypical) experiment, in which several persons participate at the same time. However, each person experiences for himself an event (the experimental event). After the presentation of the experimental event the group goes into action, in order to support the individual data gain, thus improving the quality of the data (accuracy, extent, depth and differentiation). This does not concern group experiments in the traditional sense, where the group acts as a group, but an experimental arrangement in which the group is used as a research instrument.
In the experiment, while the group is engaged in a task, a hidden alarm clock unexpectedly goes off loudly.
Directly following this incident – after a short time of freight, irritation and new orientation – the group members are requested to intro- /retrospect the time of the event. The instruction read about as follows: „Please note down everything that went through your mind and, as well as everything you thought and felt at the time the alarm went off and for the period directly after that incident.”.
Taking notes takes approximately 5-10 minutes. Then the recordings are reported in turn. The others listen and abstain from all comments.
A second round follows. In this round each group member can add to his presentations, elaborating on those aspects he was reminded of while listening to the contributions of the others. Only after that second round can discussion statements, comments and other observations be contributed.
All verbal reports are recorded on audio media. They are the material for the following analysis, which does not take place in the group, but is carried out by a single group member (e.g. the experimenter) at a later time.
The whole procedure, which was carried out in similar form in a number of different experiments, can be divided into a set of phases.
The first phase is the generation of data. During the experiment data originates in the mind. They are – more or less clearly – part of our conscious experiencing at the moment, e.g., of the fright, and are at the same time the object of introspection, i.e. I am experiencing something, thinking about and feeling it, at the same time registering all this by introspection.
One assumes that in experiencing a situation, a second process always takes place simultaneously. This second process makes it possible for us to observe our own experiencing, so that we can call up again these observation data while bringing to mind the situation at a later point in time. This parallel observation can take place both casually and deliberately, depending on the respective test conditions, which can be alternated in various ways.
Fig. 1: Individual and separate introspection data of persons A and B (schematically).
A second phase concerns the recording of the experience that was registered through introspection, to verbalise it and to put it into writing. This has to be done after the request of the experimenter. As mentioned above, it now concerns retrospection, because the recording concerns those elements, which after the event are still memorable, which are regarded as worthy to be noted down and which can be translated into language.
However these two aspects (intro and retrospection) can not be fully distinguished. This is because during retrospection, parts of the experiencing are revitalised again, thus allowing for further introspection to take place during the phase of retrospection. This interdependence is also the prerequisite for the phenomenon of resonance described later on.
The notes are usually put to paper very fast (5-10 minutes), usually with a clear feeling of „that’s it”, „there was nothing else going through my mind „, „finished, the rest in not important, banal or elusive”.
Fig. 2: Individual and separate introspection data of persons A and B (schematically) and the parts which are recorded.
In the third phase the group is used. Individual recordings are presented to the group. They can be presented either by reading out the written recordings or by reporting orally – based on the written notes. The verbal reports differ to some extent from the own recordings: either they are elaborated on, supplemented and made more precise or they are reduced, if the narrative flow takes another direction. During the speaking and listening, further memories – by the reporting person and by the listening persons – are mobilised.
With astonishing confidence, the individual group members are able to recognise statements of another person as part of their own experiencing or are able to reject them as not being part of their own experiencing. Again each group member is requested to take notes, forming the material for the so-called second round. This phase is the crucial part in using the group, covering the following points:
The individual memories can be extended. In the statement of another person I recognise my own experience content, which I did not mention because to me it seemed, for example, too banal or it was very elusive and I did not manage to recall it while recording the experience. Another reason may be that I felt unable to communicate my experience because it’s socially not acceptable or not compatible with my self-image.
The individual memories can be specified and differentiated by recognising components from the reports of other participants, which were similar to mine but nevertheless different. This difference, however, becomes only clear by the exact presentation of other participants.
Furthermore, my own memories can also be distinguished from those of other members by experiencing and classifying them as clearly different from my own. This discrepancy contributes much to the rounding off of my own recollection and also clearly marks the boundaries of my own experiencing data.
By using the group, the experiments of the Hamburger Forschungswerkstatt differ significantly from the classical introspection experiments, which were all conducted as single person experiments (Mayer, 2010a). Since the researchers at that time all knew each other well, they will have discussed the experiments, but probably outside of the experimental setting and not systematically.
Using a group in this setting is unusual, as in groups there is always the worry of influencing each other. In the described procedure, however the group has exactly the opposite effect: the individual introspection is enriched, specified and differentiated by contributions from the group, without the danger of mixing experiences with that of others. Or rather, without the danger of incorporating something into my memory that I did not actually experience.
This confidence in recognising one’s own memories or in rejecting the ones of others is a common experience within various experiments of this kind. It clearly contradicts the conformity experiments à la Asch (1956) and others. However, this can easily be explained by looking at the type of experimental setting.
It can even be assumed that the extent of the redefinition of the data from the original introspection – as would be expected while recording – is reduced by the presentation in the group.
The basis of the completion in the group seems to be a phenomenon of resonance, a feeling of being emotionally involved or of going along with the report of another group member’s introspection. This requires similar experiences of the group members, so that they can empathise with the reported situation and reported experiencing. On this basis similar feelings can be re-activated and communicated. Each group member for himself can check for conformity or difference to his own experiencing.
Fig. 3: Individual and separate introspection data of persons A and B (schematically), the parts which are recorded and their intersections (after phase 3: the presentation).
A fourth phase is the second round which serves to differentiate, specify and expand the memorised details. This is done by completing one’s own elaboration on details which were evoked by resonance processes in the first round.
In this second round a certain pressure of justification may take place, if a certain experiencing proves to be a minority position. Here the good will and the openness of the group members are needed in order to avoid conformity pressure. Apart from that the procedure corresponds to the one of the first round: the group members in turn complete their first report on the basis of their notes from the first round.
A fifth phase concerns the analysis of the data. It can take place in several stages:
During the presentation of the individual recordings – and even more obviously, during commentating and discussion – patterns become visible. These can be named and focusssed on in the group: e.g. the alarm clock experiment showed that the seating position relative to the alarm clock played a role and thereby different freight types could be explained.
Those sitting with the back to the hidden alarm clock needed a longer time to reorientate themselves. They therefore had a more intensive experiencing, more uncertainty and a more violent frightening, than those who could discover the alarm clock by simply lifting their head, identifying the situation very fast as harmless and non-threatening.
These patterns move as data into the next stage, the analysis of similarities. This analysis requires a lot of time and does not work well within a group – it is better done outside the group.
Analysis of similarities: After the group meeting, each group member for himself can screen and interpret the data and elaborate on connections as well as similarities: Furthermore, he can identify topics which were named during the group meeting in connection with the ringing of the alarm clock. Alternatively, one person alone can analyse the data for everyone. In each case the procedure follows the rules of the heuristic social research, which focusses on the analysis of similarities.
In the alarm clock experiment, general patterns of reactions to disturbances could be found. Attempts of a fast re-orientation as well as emotional participation, uncertainty, annoyance and relief and/or release after successful re-orientation were found. Also, physical side effects and their changes as well as involuntary though not remembered verbal expressions and the perception of the others could be reconstructed fairly accurately (Witt & Kleining, 2010).
The smooth running of the procedures involved in data gain, data adjustment as well as data analysis are likely to depend on some basic conditions. However, these have not yet been varied systematically.
The task of the individual group members is different in the phases described. However, the basis of the whole procedure is that in phase 1 - parallel to the event - introspection actually takes place and that this introspection is differentiated and can be remembered and communicated. The different interaction processes within this procedure constitute the dialogic approach. The considerable improvement of data gain, linked to this dialogic approach, can partly negate the critique of subjectivity and non-verifiability, but of course can not completely resolve the issue.
It is the task of the group to allow an exchange, to extend the range of issues that arise and to stimulate and encourage each other. It is especially very elusive introspection, not put down by most participants, that is lifted above the threshold of the remembered once it has been brought up. It enriches the data spectrum considerably and is - with the help of the group - relatively easy to access despite its elusive nature. The group also helps to avoid diverting from the issue and being arbitrary. Through the contributions of others, group members are repeatedly reminded of the fact that here their own inner experiencing is requested, not associations on the subject or intellectual reflections based on wide background knowledge.
Furthermore, this is not about inducing some kind of group experience or collective introspection. Introspection refers to the individual and, in this case, to the brief moment of self-perception in the experimental fright incident.
The accessibility of very elusive introspection data with the help of the group we consider an argument against the objection of the splitting of attention: A relevant part of the attention does not have to be taken from the normal activities and be directed upon the introspection. Instead the introspection process takes place automatically, usually without the subject/person being fully aware of this as large parts of it are very elusive. If they are not retrieved by supporting methods, they simply disappear again.
At least this seems to apply to the very short sequences described here. Also with longer introspection situations, e.g. the viewing of a short film or the news on television, the attention can be relieved of the double task by noting down keywords. These can later serve as an anchor to support retrospection and can then be completed easily by additional notes.
At first reactivity seems to be a serious problem with introspection experiments. However, taking a closer look it appears that – e.g. with a media reception – the request to view a short film attentively leads to a media reception that is different to the everyday viewing of the same film.
In the example discussed, therefore, reactivity is predominantly a problem related to the media reception, not the introspection. However, writing down keywords during the reception interrupts the observation process and impairs both: observation and introspection.
The considerable improvement of data gain – made possible by the multi-layered and group-supported procedure described above – can partly defuse the critique of subjectivity and lack of verifiability, but of course it can not negate it completely.
The resonance phenomenon, which is possible in the group, improves the inter-subjectivity of the data. However verification of the comparability of results with the same introspection situations and different groups are still pending.
The Hamburger Forschungswerkstatt has carried out a number of experiments to test the procedure:
The Hamburger Forschungswerkstatt has also considered areas, as yet unexplored, the method could be used in.
All authors come to the conclusion that - with more or lesser restrictions - group based dialogic introspection could be used in the areas discussed. Other fields not mentioned here would still need to be discussed, e.g. industrial psychology, software ergonomics, criminal justice etc.
Presumably the Hamburger Forschungswerkstatt is the first (Kleining, Schulze, Krotz, Witt and Burkart, 1999), but not the only group which has recently tried to use the method of introspection again. In an article by Deterding (2008) four actual procedures using the introspection method are described:
In addition to thinking aloud in its classical form (see section 3 above) mindtaping is mentioned here. On the basis of video recordings of the behaviour corresponding consciousness content is verbalised. Apart from the fact that this procedure is not related to thinking aloud, it is a procedure that works well. It can be used where there are observable (and recordable) actions, as for example operating computers or machine tools (see Schulze, 2001).
Here it is attempted to collect random moments in the everyday life of test persons: an apparatus - carried on the body - requests in irregular intervals (through a beep) to note down consciousness content from immediately before the beep tone. After six episodes the recordings are described in detail through an expositional interview (similar: Pulver, 1999).
This procedure aims to capture of tacit experiences and actions (see Schulze, 2001). With the appearance of a certain phenomenon the subject is asked to continue his action as per usual, but to observe attentively and to take down notes immediately afterwards. This procedure corresponds to the experiment mentioned above anger and other emotions. The difference is that at the Hamburger Forschungswerkstatt it deals with emotions, while here it concerns actions.
The procedures 1 to 3 only work as single person procedures, although they could easily be used with group support.
To contradict Boring (1953): The introspection method has by no means disappeared from the scene. At many places the method is applied again. The method of group based dialogic introspection described here however differs from the classical forms and from other forms published in the literature in several ways:
- the quality of the individual data (accuracy, amount, depth and differentiation) is improved and
- the group members themselves relate their individual data to the data of the others. This implies the possibility to identify boundaries, overlappings, relations or blank spaces.
Ease of application, comprehensive results and the range of topics suggest renewed taking up of the method of introspection. Despite remaining doubts it should be propagated and used within the scope of psychological, sociological or educational approaches.
With the help of the rules for application every interested reader should be able to use group based dialogic introspection in his own research. Furthermore, the descriptions of experimental designs of the Hamburger Forschungswerkstatt give an insight into the range of possible variations. These variations allow the adaptation of the procedure to specific topics and to the changes of the problem view in the course of the experiments. For the purpose of qualitative heuristics these variations and adaptations are necessary and possible.
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