Research Topic

The Challenges and Opportunities of Introspection in Psychology: Theory and Method

About this Research Topic

Psychology is often described as the study of behavior and experience. Behavior refers to outer activities accessible to third-person observation, while experience refers to inner (mental) processes of a more private character. While psychologists have developed an ingenuous methodological repertoire to research human behavior via third-person methods, the toolbox for dealing with the experiential domain and its ultimate first-person character – the so-called qualia component – is underdeveloped. The first-person character of qualia experience can only be captured through first-person research, but psychology has a turbulent relationship to the first-person science of introspection – and quite understandably so because a naïve and untrained form of introspection is prone to a host of confounds.

But just as third-person experimentation has been cultivated and developed into a rigorous and systematic method, introspection can also be cultivated and developed. It would have been an opportunity for the young discipline to advance and cultivate a solid form of introspection to address phenomena that can – because of their first-person nature – only be captured from a first-person perspective (e.g., the qualia aspect of self or consciousness). But because the naïve and spontaneous introspective methods were unreliable, they did not produce solid results. Instead of advancing introspection to better address this, first-person aspects of psychological phenomena are often disregarded as being merely epiphenomenal. They are dismissed from the scope of enquiry altogether –not because they are in principle inaccessible or non-existing, but because they are inaccessible with the conventional methods that we use.

This Research Topic seeks to provide an overview over the challenges and opportunities of introspection in theory and method. On the one hand, we seek to address ongoing epistemological debates in the psychological and philosophical literature. This includes the general question about the legitimacy of introspection as a meaningful research method. It also includes a distinction of different types of introspection (e.g., introspection on the results vs. the processes of cognition) – and what these can achieve vs. not achieve (cf., the account of auto- vs. heterophenomenology). Moreover, it includes a dialogue on how research on introspection in the philosophical and psychological domains can inform each other.

On the other hand, we also seek to study the methodological and theoretical implications of introspective research with a particular emphasis on specific phenomena in psychological research (e.g., memory, thought, etc.). Different approaches exist: at one extreme, introspection is used to study the first-person characteristics of psychological phenomena; at the other extreme, introspection is used to refine and guide the study of third-person characteristics of psychological phenomena. In this Research Topic we seek to compile contributions from both ends, seeking to enquire into the method of introspection proper, as well using and advancing the method to research psychological phenomena. Introspection is virtually non-existent as an approach in the sense that the researcher studies her own mental state to advance the theory of psychological phenomena. As outlined above, however, it is exactly this which is needed – and we are certain the dialogue around this will trigger an intense debate.


Keywords: introspection, first-person research, methodology, consciousness research, qualitative research


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

Psychology is often described as the study of behavior and experience. Behavior refers to outer activities accessible to third-person observation, while experience refers to inner (mental) processes of a more private character. While psychologists have developed an ingenuous methodological repertoire to research human behavior via third-person methods, the toolbox for dealing with the experiential domain and its ultimate first-person character – the so-called qualia component – is underdeveloped. The first-person character of qualia experience can only be captured through first-person research, but psychology has a turbulent relationship to the first-person science of introspection – and quite understandably so because a naïve and untrained form of introspection is prone to a host of confounds.

But just as third-person experimentation has been cultivated and developed into a rigorous and systematic method, introspection can also be cultivated and developed. It would have been an opportunity for the young discipline to advance and cultivate a solid form of introspection to address phenomena that can – because of their first-person nature – only be captured from a first-person perspective (e.g., the qualia aspect of self or consciousness). But because the naïve and spontaneous introspective methods were unreliable, they did not produce solid results. Instead of advancing introspection to better address this, first-person aspects of psychological phenomena are often disregarded as being merely epiphenomenal. They are dismissed from the scope of enquiry altogether –not because they are in principle inaccessible or non-existing, but because they are inaccessible with the conventional methods that we use.

This Research Topic seeks to provide an overview over the challenges and opportunities of introspection in theory and method. On the one hand, we seek to address ongoing epistemological debates in the psychological and philosophical literature. This includes the general question about the legitimacy of introspection as a meaningful research method. It also includes a distinction of different types of introspection (e.g., introspection on the results vs. the processes of cognition) – and what these can achieve vs. not achieve (cf., the account of auto- vs. heterophenomenology). Moreover, it includes a dialogue on how research on introspection in the philosophical and psychological domains can inform each other.

On the other hand, we also seek to study the methodological and theoretical implications of introspective research with a particular emphasis on specific phenomena in psychological research (e.g., memory, thought, etc.). Different approaches exist: at one extreme, introspection is used to study the first-person characteristics of psychological phenomena; at the other extreme, introspection is used to refine and guide the study of third-person characteristics of psychological phenomena. In this Research Topic we seek to compile contributions from both ends, seeking to enquire into the method of introspection proper, as well using and advancing the method to research psychological phenomena. Introspection is virtually non-existent as an approach in the sense that the researcher studies her own mental state to advance the theory of psychological phenomena. As outlined above, however, it is exactly this which is needed – and we are certain the dialogue around this will trigger an intense debate.


Keywords: introspection, first-person research, methodology, consciousness research, qualitative research


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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01 October 2017 Manuscript

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Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

01 October 2017 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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