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Introspection
refers to the authoritative privileged access to one’s self, including knowledge
of internal system states, perceived sensory data, self-reflective observations
of behavioral patterns, self-ascribed preferences, the coordination of action
and intention in personal behavior (Carter 2013). Introspection has been used broadly
to describe a wide range of phenomena including, memory, decision making and
perception. However, it has been well documented that there are limitations to
this process such as heuristics and biases as shown initially in the research
of Kahneman & Tversky (2003) demonstrating that “It is the result of thinking, not the process
of thinking, that appears spontaneously in consciousness” (Miller, 1962,
p. 56).

This essay will make the argument that’s
introspection is a not only a limited faculty but moreover the mere act of the act of asking people to
introspect and report their findings can often uncover non-factual reports.

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Empirical research has increasingly documented the
role of nonconscious mental processing (Nisbett & Wilson 1977, Wilson
2002). New thinking on unconscious processing is markedly different from that of
Freud’s psychoanalytic version. Presenting the mind as a number of processing
modules operating efficiently outside of conscious awareness. These processes
are involved in perception, attention, learning, evaluation, emotion, and
motivation. Wilson (2002) referred to these nonconscious processes as the
“adaptive un- conscious” and argues that large aspects of mental functioning
are simply inaccessible to conscious awareness, regardless of the level of
introspection.

 

Kahneman (2011) gave us dual
process theories, which suggest that there are two systems of cognitive
processing. System 1 is the fast, automatic, and intuitive processes. System 2
is slower, deliberative, and analytic (Evans & Stanovich, 2013; Kahneman,
2011; Kahneman & Frederick, 2002; Stanovich, 1999). The central
characteristic of system 1 processing is its automaticity—processes that do not
make much demand on working memory and are not governed by what Evans and
Stanovich, (2013, p. 236) call “controlled attention.” Because system 1 has
such rapid processing this often does not reach consciousness; associative
processing that reacts to stimuli with minimal cognitive load; and processing
that relies on thoughts that are most readily available and dependent on
personal experience. Many of the heuristics and resulting biases are therefore
predominantly associated with system 1 processing, though system 2 processing
can also result in systematic biases. Biases are attributed to an over-reliance
on system 1 processing (Evans, 2007; Evans & Stanovich, 2013; Kahneman &
Frederick, 2002). System
1 processing is the default type of processing because of its high level
of efficiency. Kahneman (2011) goes on to say that If system 2
processing is lazy, negligent, distracted, or overly focused on the self,
biases will go unnoticed.

In
1974 Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman presented us with three
heuristics that are employed in making judgements under uncertainty: (a)
representativeness, usually employed when people are asked to judge the
probability that an object or event A belongs to class or process B; (b) availability,
often employed when people are asked to assess the frequency of a class or the
probability of an event; and (c) adjustment and anchoring, usually employed in
numerical prediction when a relevant value is available. These heuristics are
highly economical and usually effective, but they lead to systematic and
predictable errors. A better understanding of these heuristics and of the
biases to which they lead could improve judgements and decisions in situations
of uncertainty.

 

The
representativeness heuristic is employed when people are asked to answer probabilistic
questions. An example of judgment by representativeness is shown in an
experiment by Tversky & Kahneman (1974) where people were asked to assess
the probability of the occupation of ‘Steve’ based upon the following
description; “Steve is very shy and
withdraw, invariably helpful, but with little interest in people or the world
of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure and a
passion for detail”. They were then given a list of possibilities (e.g.

farmer, salesman, airline pilot, librarian or physician) and asked to order
them from most to least likely. By using the representative heuristic, the probability
that ‘Steve’ is a librarian is assessed by the degree to which he
representative of this stereotype. This approach to the judgement of
probabilities leads to serious errors, as it negates the use of several factors
which should affect judgements of probability. These include; insensitivity to
prior probability of outcomes, sample size, insensitivity to predictability,
the illusion of validity and misconceptions of regression.

 

 

People appear to make estimates by
starting from an initial value which is then adjusted to yield the final
answer. This initial value may be suggested by the formulation of the problem, or
be the result of partial computation. In either case, adjustments are typically
insufficient…that is, different starting points yield different estimates,
which are biased toward the initial values. One particularly interesting
demonstration of this is shown by Ariely, Loewenstien, Prelec (2003) where people
were influenced by the seemingly arbitrary anchor of their social security
number. People with high social security numbers paid up to 346% more than
those with low numbers. People with numbers from 80 to 99 paid on average
$26 for the trackball, while those with 00 to 19 paid around $9.

 

There is considerable evidence that people have
limited access to the reasons for their evaluations and that the process of
generating reasons can have negative consequences. Analyzing reasons has been
shown to lower people’s satisfaction with their choices (Wilson et al. 1993), lower
people’s ability to predict their own behavior (Wilson & LaFleur 1995), lower
the correlation between people’s expressed feelings and their later behavior
(Wilson & Dunn 1986, Wilson et al. 1984),

When
people are asked to asked to make judgements about the frequency of a class or
probability of an event they will often reach conclusion based upon the ease
with which such instances or occurrences come to mind, thus employing the availability
heuristic. However, this mental shortcut is subject to many shortcomings such
as; biases due to retrievability, biases of imaginability and illusory
correlation (Chapman & Chapman, 1967).

 

Valins (1966), for example, asked men to view pictures
of scantily clad women while listening to the amplified sound of their heart
beating. During some pictures, the men heard their heart rate increase rapidly,
and they inferred that these were the pictures that they especially liked. In
fact, the sounds they heard were not their heart rates but a prerecording.

Thus, the men were induced to infer an internal state (preferences for certain
pictures) that had not previously existed.

Nisbett
and Wilson (1977) have shown that subjects are often mistaken about their own
motivations in acting, and about the sources of their own preferences and
biases. This suggests that we lack introspective access to the fact that one
particular desire, rather than another, prompted an action. There is evidence
that these errors are systematic: for introspection seems to identify the
conscious rationale for a choice, but this rationale is often constructed after
the choice is made, and so is not the actual cause of the choice. (Libet 1985) In that case, what is
introspected is only one’s current thoughts about the likely cause, which may be affected by one’s assumptions about
what sort of reasons would justify the choice.

Roediger and McDermott’s (1995) work on false memory demonstrated
robust rates of false recall and recognition across numerous studies. Commonly
known as the Deese–Roediger–McDermott (DRM) paradigm, participants are
presented with word lists composed of the strongest associates of a critical
non-presented word, as determined by word association norms. On subsequent
recall and recognition tests, participants tend to intrude the nonpresented
critical word as having been studied previously. In experiment 2 in their 1995
paper Creating False Memories: Remembering Words Not Presented in Lists where participants
were presented with 15 words and demonstrated false recall on 55% of occasions.

Goethels & Reckman (1973) conducted
an experiment in which high
school students were asked their opinions on a number of social issues,
including on how children should be bussed to school and whether it would help
with racial integration. Participants were later invited back to discuss the
bussing issue. They were divided into three groups (one pro-, one anti-busing
and one control). The three groups then began discussions about the bussing
issue, however, a confederate had been inserted in the group armed with a
number of highly persuasive arguments designed to change the participants
opinions (i.e. turn the pro group anti and visa versa).  The confederates turned out to be highly successful
in this task, with the anti- group showing highly moderated views and the pro-
group converted to anti-bussing. Then Gothethls & reckman (1973) asked
participant to recall their original views, reiterating that the experimenters
were in possession of the results and would cross reference, both groups ‘recalled’
their views and being vastly closer to their ‘new’ opinion then they actually
were. Importantly, the control group was able to accurately recall their original
view.

Latané and Darley (1970) have, on numerous occasions, been
able to demonstrate the ‘bystander effect’ in which people are increasingly
less likely to help other in distress as the number of bystanders increases. Interestingly,
when probed subjects persistently claimed that their behavior was not
influenced by the number of people present, maintaining this stance even when presented
with results to the contrary.

 

Nisbitt and Wilson (1977) conducted and experiment in which
passersby (52 subjects) were invited to evaluate either four identical pairs of
tights or nightgowns and ultimately asked to decide which they believed to be
the best quality. Once they had reached a decision they were probed further as
to why they had chosen the article they had. There was a pronounced left-to-right
position effect in that the right most object was most frequently chosen
(greatest effect shown in the stocking experiment, with this right-most
stocking yielding favoritism by a factor of four to one). When providing
reasons for their decision, not a single subject mentioned the position of the
article and when asked directly if it had contributed to their choice virtually
all subjects denied it.

 

Nisbett and
Wilson (1977) have shown that subjects are often mistaken about their own
motivations in acting, and about the sources of their own preferences and
biases. This suggests that we lack introspective access to the fact that one
particular desire, rather than another, prompted an action. There is evidence
that these errors are systematic: for introspection seems to identify the
conscious rationale for a choice, but this rationale is often constructed after
the choice is made, and so is not the actual cause of the choice. (Libet 1985) In that case, what is
introspected is only one’s current thoughts about the likely cause, which may be affected by one’s assumptions about
what sort of reasons would justify the choice.

Many
studies have shown very low correlation between implicit and explicit measures
of perception, behaviour and attitude. Nosek & Banaji (2002) argue that a
reason for this might be that people may in fact have only one attitude to an
attitude object but are often culturally motivated to distort or disguise this when
asked to report about their feeling towards said stimuli.

This is consistent with the idea that
introspection is often a constructive process, people do not have complete
access to the actual reasons behind their feelings, attitudes, and judgment and
thus generate reasons that are consistent with cultural and personal theories
that are accessible in memory (Nisbett & Wilson 1977). But, people do not
recognize that the reasons they have just generated are incomplete or
inaccurate, and thus assume that their attitude is the one implied by these
reasons. Put differently, people construct a new attitude, at least
temporarily, that is consistent with the reasons that happen to come to mind,
but which might not correspond to their implicit attitudes (Wilson et al. 1989,
1995, 2000).

 

From the evidence provided above it can be concluded that
introspection is an incredibly limited faculty and the reports provided are often
erroneous in nature. This work demonstrates that there are vast portions of
memory which are opaque to introspection. It suggests that people are often
unable to report even the existence of important stimuli, suggesting that people
may have little ability to provide accurate reports on their cognitive
processes. Summarising
that unconscious processes exist and influence people’s thoughts, feelings, or
behavior, independent of conscious processes which are simply inaccessible to
conscious scrutiny.

 

 

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