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Introspection: It Has Some Problems

Introspection: It Has Some Problems

A preferential therapeutic intervention used by addiction counselors over the years may have some problems. That intervention is called introspection. Many addiction counselors rely on this concept to encourage clients to psychologically examine themselves, their life, and the issues that brought them to addiction therapy. The general target of all this introspection is to get clients to admit they have a problem. “Take a long look at yourself,” “Open your eyes,” “Time to take stock of your life” or similar phrases are favored entreaties. The overriding therapy contention is that introspection will somehow add to clients’ self-knowledge or that some special insight will be found.


Yet, research on the accuracy of introspection has not been kind to this process. So, we need to take a closer look at this concept. For our purposes, we will first define introspection, examine some predominate problems with it, and suggest some recommendations to get better results. 


Introspection Described


Depending on who or what sources you reference, introspection has a few varying descriptions. Philosophers since the time of Socrates and numerous religions have advocated humans to examine their thoughts and souls. With the advent of modern psychology introspection definitions have gone through some twists and turns. Generally speaking introspection is as an examination of one’s thoughts and feelings (Schultz & Schultz, 2011). Others refer to it as looking inside yourself and describing that internal process (Stearns, 2010). Still others see it as a self-reflection process with the aim of gaining self-knowledge (Sze, 2015). Essentially, it is thinking about your thinking in order to discover what’s going on inside your head, and then making some kind of judgment as to whether such discoveries sit well with who you are. Science has even located the general vicinity in our brain where we do this introspection. It is in the prefrontal cortex just behind our eyes (Fleming, Weil, Nagy, Dolan, & Rees, 2010).


In all these conditions, the introspection process is often understood to produce direct insight of one’s mental process. There is a general feeling of high confidence that this internal exploration is accurate (Stearns, 2010), but that is the problem with introspection. 


Introspection Troubles


One main introspection problem is that of the natural state of human false reasoning. The knowledge that numerous reasoning errors occur in humans dates back to the 1970s, if not further. One of the first to closely examine judgment problems was the notable team of Tversky and Kahneman (1974). They identified three heuristics or short-cuts in thinking—representativeness, anchoring, and adjustment—that make all human minds susceptible to systematic errors. Einhorn and Hogarth (1978) noted that there is a considerable lack of decision-making ability and judgment by both experts and nonexperts, yet these same individuals continue to retain a strong confidence with their fallible judgments. 


More recent research reinforces the findings previously noted. Vazire and Mehl (2008) found that self-knowledge is more limited than most people assume. People are not always their own best expert. Additionally, others may know a person as well, or in some cases better, than the person him- or herself. Despite these limitations, our confidence in self-knowledge remains strong.


Additional problems with the introspection process center on the human failure to know or apply useful inferential rules such as deduction and reason. Simply, people often go with their gut and have no rational measures by which to accurately assess themselves. Without solid inference skills or similar processes, all kinds of mental contaminations ensue. Once contaminated, the cleaning of such contamination is difficult to accomplish—a metaphor for many human biases. Essentially, we see ourselves through rose-colored glasses, which undermine our willingness to do something to correct our biases (Brooks, 2012; Wilson & Brekke, 1994).


Limited Ability to Recognize Biases


So, what is it with humans that limit our ability to see biases that impair our capacity to make accurate self-assessments? There are a number of recent books and corresponding research that point to a number of hidden biased elements in our brain. Jumping to conclusions and making rapid judgments that give us simple rules are just some of the hidden brain impediments that impede accurate outside and inside appraisals (Vedantam, 2010). Then there are blind spots that all of us cart around (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013). In terms of blind spots, it has been determined that there is an automatic side to our mind, which in some ways makes this automatic element a stranger to ourselves. These automatic ingrained habits are called “mindbugs,” and they lead to all kinds of errors in our perceptions, memory, and our decision-making ability. They can be strong enough to produce a greater recall of things that did not occur in our lives than things that have (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013). 


Then there is the issue of the unconscious or that which is just out of reach of everyday awareness. Today’s concept of unconscious has evolved well beyond the theories of the Freudian and neo-Freudian days. Authors and researchers now suggest that a central function of our unconscious is to “fill in the blanks” when we have incomplete information about ourselves. This filling-in process leaves open the question of how accurate and truthful that filled-in picture is (Mlodinow, 2013). Trivers (2011) openly claims that humans constantly create false personal narratives. We enhance ourselves as being more moral, more attractive, among others, than we actually are. Much of this seems to happen at an unconscious level. Trivers suggests that self-deception appears to be an inherent human trait (2011). We selectively recall information favorable to us, and create better justifications for our behavior. In other words, we walk around with a head full of bias, not facts, and are just vaguely aware of it all.


The signature issue in all this is that that introspection will not grant you or your clients some clear self-understanding. There are just too many layers of bias present in our mind. This has been called the “introspection illusion” (Stearns, 2010). 


What to Do


Introspection problems do not mean we throw the whole process out the window. However, there are few things to consider before employing this intervention. 


The first big thing to keep in mind is that your entreaties for clients to take a hard look at themselves are going to come back a little distorted. It just is for all the reasons previously listed. This requires a bit of skepticism as to the introspection findings your clients may reveal. Simply, introspection has limitations, and may produce inconsistences, and as a practitioner you need to be aware of this. Second, to get a clearer picture of introspection, encourage clients to take the time and energy to do this process well. One should not be engaging in introspection while playing video games or fatigued, or only giving this task a half-hearted effort. Next, should clients come back with “I don’t know,” the response might be accurate. Remember that blind spots, mindbugs, and self-deceptions float around not only in the minds of clients, but in all of us. Clearer self-discoveries, especially in the early part of a recovery, are going to take time to emerge. Essentially, clients may not gather much useful information at first, so don’t get upset with a response of “I don’t know.” Further, don’t rely on introspection as a lone source of accurate client self-knowledge. As most of you do, gather collateral information. Lastly, it might be helpful if clients keep a personal daily log about general thoughts and feelings. Rereading that log later in the recovery process might allow past reflections to mix with newer ones. That process, in turn, could set the stage for more accurate introspection results to emerge.


In Sum


The column is not saying you should dispense with introspection as a therapeutic intervention; just know that it is not an infallible source of self-information. You have to be more cautious about using it from now on.




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