Introspection: Definition (in Psychology), Examples, and Questions
What is introspection, why is it important, and how do we become introspective? In this article, we'll give you the definition (and meaning) of introspection and the tools you need to do it.
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What Is Introspection? (A Definition)
Introspection is the examination or observation of one's own mental and emotional processes. Through introspection, we can gain knowledge about our inner workings. Introspection is sort of like perception, but also unlike perception in that it doesn't involve the five senses. We don't see, hear, smell, touch, or taste to gain insights.
Generally, introspection involves looking inward to try to understand ourselves. It does not involve looking outward. For example, we can learn about our internal states by asking other people to give us feedback or by looking in the mirror and seeing our facial expressions, but these are not considered forms of introspection (Schwitzgebel, 2012).
Introspection is also thought to mainly consist of mental ways of looking inward. We may think about, ponder on, or self-reflect on our inner experiences. This is distinguished from other forms of self-knowledge such as the physical experience of our body in space or felt knowledge of internal physical aches and pains.
What Is Introspection in Psychology?
Older articles suggest that introspection is the observation of consciousness (Boring, 1953). Given this can result in self-knowledge, introspection can sometimes get confused with other methods that are used for self-knowledge. For example, we sometimes view our own behavior and use that to gain insights about ourselves. We might listen to a particular type of music regularly and infer that we like that kind of music. Or we might fail to clean our room and infer that we are messy. Observing our behavior is a good way to gain self-knowledge, but it is not introspection as it is defined in psychology (Schwitzgebel, 2012).
Given psychology is all about the mind, introspection plays an important role in both psychological research and therapy. For example, if we are unable to identify our emotions, how are we supposed to report on them (for research), or manage them (as we might be asked to do in therapy)? Similarly, if we are unable to notice the thoughts that give rise to negative emotions, how are we to reroute these thoughts to create a happier, healthier mind?
Looking inward—introspecting—is what provides most of the material we need to improve our mental health and well-being. That makes introspection a key component of psychology as we know it.
What Does It Mean to Be Introspective?
An introspective person is someone who regularly looks inward to try to understand their mind, thoughts, feelings, and inner workings. They might engage in meditation or other contemplative practices. Or, they might just pause to self-reflect when something is bothering them, when they handled a situation poorly, or when they are just curious to learn more about themselves. "What was really going on?" they might ask themselves.
We probably all do this to varying degrees. Deeper or more frequent introspection can help us gain clarity that helps us move forward and live our lives more effectively. So being introspective is generally thought of as a good thing.
Video: Why Introspection Matters
What Is the Goal of Introspection?
When we are introspective, we can become aware of things we weren't previously aware of. We might discover thoughts or feelings, or we might form beliefs or judgments based on the information we learn. All of this information can be useful for understanding ourselves and improving our well-being.
How to Be Introspective
Scientists suggest that many states are accessible to us through introspection. These states include attitudes, beliefs, desires, evaluations, intentions, emotions, and sensory experiences (Schwitzgebel, 2012). On the other hand, it's thought that our personality traits are not available to us through introspection, largely because we often have a difficult time knowing precisely what our character traits are. I might argue that introspection need not result in a right answer—our beliefs about our personality traits are useful information too—but I won't digress here.
Given we all experience these states, introspection is a tool that is available to all of us. With practice and effort, we can improve our ability to introspect, better understand ourselves, and use this knowledge to create the life we desire. So how does one gain (or improve) their ability to look inward?
The first thing we might consider is what information exists in conscious awareness, what information could be brought to conscious awareness, and what information remains out of our consciousness (in the unconscious). To improve introspection, we have to find ways to make information more accessible, that is, to bring it toward consciousness (Vermersch, 1999). So let's talk about methods to do that.
Method of Introspection: Self-Monitoring
One theory of introspection is that it is self-monitoring—it is a simple scanning process that involves simply noticing what's going on in our minds (Schwitzgebel, 2012). If this is true, it would require relatively little effort and would likely be aided by psychological tools like mindful meditation.
Mindfulness is a technique that simply involves observing without judgment. Thoughts, emotions, and other information flow through your mind and you simply notice. You might also imagine these thoughts floating away like clouds in the sky. By quieting your mind, you give yourself the opportunity to observe, learn, and gain insights into your inner workings.
Method of Introspection: Multi-Process Self-Detection
Introspection may also be viewed as self-detection that uses multiple processes. In this view, we pay attention to our internal states and processes. Then we form judgments about them (Schwitzgebel, 2012). In this sense, introspection is a process where our active, cognitive mind may observe or it may interact with the information in our minds. For example, let's say I introspect and notice myself getting really anxious before I have to give a speech. I might judge that this is a bad thing, and suddenly my anxiety starts increasing. Introspecting has just changed my inner processes.
Indeed, there is lots of other research showing that paying attention to our negative thoughts and emotions tends to amplify them. So we do need to be careful when looking inward. Be careful to notice how you respond to what you learn. The mindful approach, which is non-judgmental, may indeed be the safest route to self-discovery.
Video: An Example of Using Introspection
What Is Self-Introspection?
Technically, all introspection is self-introspection, but sometimes it helps to think of it this way. We are looking into ourselves, after all. So if it's easier for you to think about the concepts we've been talking about as self-introspection, feel free to do so.
Questions to Ask Yourself to Be Introspective
Remember, introspection can be used to better understand our attitudes, beliefs, desires, evaluations, intentions, emotions, and sensory experiences. So what exactly, do we do?
Personally, I struggle (as many people do) to just sit in meditation and learn about myself. My silly brain is always wandering off. If this sounds like you, consider kicking off your contemplation or meditation with a question.
Here are some questions to guide your introspection:
After asking each question, just sit with the question and try to notice, without judgment, what thoughts come to mind. If it's helpful to you, you may want to get an introspection journal to take notes and record reflections.
Not sure exactly what information is supposed to bubble to the surface when you're being introspective? Well, it's different for everyone, and it'll depend on how much conscious information is available to you or whether you are able to pull up previously hidden information from the unconscious.
To give you some introspection examples, I did this exercise to see what I could find inside me. Each time I asked a question, there was a little pause, almost as if my shy side was nervous about revealing itself. Then, I heard a thought or inner voice offer me some information. Then, I reflected on the information briefly. I'm sure I only scratched the surface. We can all learn more if we introspect more often.
Here are my examples. Hopefully, this can help you get a sense of what you might find inside yourself when you use introspection.
Who am I?
I got two clear answers.
My self-reflection: I guess I didn't really realize that fear is such a big part of who I think I am, but it does indeed occupy a large part of my thoughts. On the other hand, people frequently describe me as creative, so this was less surprising.
Who do I want to be?
I want to be a person who lives in the moment—someone who enjoys the little things and doesn't worry so much about the future. I want to be someone who spends the day doing things that inspire and calm me.
My self-reflection: I've been striving for this for a while. I suppose that doing this exercise made me realize that worry and fear are probably the biggest blockers to being this person.
What do I really want in life?
Peace, calm, contentment, and to feel connected to something bigger than myself.
My self-reflection: I was surprised a bit by the desire to feel connected. I'm not even really sure what that means, but it sounds amazing.
How do I really feel about myself?
I got this vision of myself hanging on by my fingertips inside a deep, dark hole. People all around we're bustling by, not noticing that I am about to plunge to drop (sorry for the bleak image). The words that came to mind were invisible and self-reliant.
My self-reflection: Unlike many millennials, I prefer to be behind the scenes. I'd rather not be noticed or talk to people. I've always been this way, painfully shy since I was a child. But I do think it affects how I see myself. It's not that I have low self-esteem, nor do I have high self-esteem. It sometimes feels like I have no esteem at all—I'm not good, not bad, just nothing. Perhaps I think of myself like air or daylight—present but hard to grasp. Hmm... Introspection on this topic really brought some new things to light for me.
What are my beliefs?
I believe that we each have a path in life. I don't know if it's predetermined or if we choose from an infinite number of paths, but something about this feels true to me.
My self-reflection: I was surprised at how few beliefs I truly have. I try to be open to all possibilities and am fine with changing my mind when I discover new information. But I think reflecting more on beliefs would likely help me feel more stable.
What do I value?
Freedom and kindness. The freedom to live life as I see fit and the kindness to let others do the same.
My self-reflection: I've reflected on values lots of times for other exercises, so there is not much new information here for me to uncover.
What matters most to me?
My self-reflection: After putting work above my relationship for years and nearly losing my marriage, I now know that love is what matters most to me.
What is the right next step for me?
To spend more time in contemplation, practicing being present.
My self-reflection: After all the other information was revealed, this makes sense. I think shifting my mind away from worry and into the moment would be extremely valuable for my well-being.
Other insights from these introspection examples
While doing this activity, I noticed some resistance to certain questions. Those turned out to be the most valuable questions for self-learning. So pay attention to any subtle resistance to reflecting on a given topic. That may be the exact topic that will help you in your self-discovery.
Is There a Downside to Introspection?
Introspection, when done carefully, can help us learn about ourselves. But we do have to be cautious that well-intentioned introspection doesn't turn into rumination. Rumination is where we turn thoughts over and over again in our minds, continuing to think about something we said—or did or even about who we are—in an effort to solve a problem that can't be solved.
If you find that introspection is making you feel anxious or getting you stuck in your thoughts, then you've gone astray. Take a step back and try to remember to let thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky or leaves in a river. Also, be careful not to judge yourself or your discoveries. If introspection leads us to learn difficult things about ourselves, it can be hard to stay objective. So if you're finding it to be unproductive, seeking the help of a therapist may be helpful.
Activities to Help You With Introspection
We have lots of activities and articles on this site that can help you introspect on various inner processes. Here are a few to try:
Books on Introspection
Do you still want to learn more about introspection? Here a few books that can help you keep digging deeper.
Introspection is a valuable tool that can help us gain self-insight, enabling us to understand ourselves better. With this information, we can hopefully change our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in ways that help us grow our happiness and well-being.