Wilhelm Wundt and Introspection

First Attempts to Study to Cognition

The first person to apply empirical principles to mental phenomena was Wilhelm Wundt. He is the “father of psychology”. He first made his lab in the fall of 1879 inLeipzig, Germany. Wundt’s methodology: he pioneeredintrospection. Introspection is the precise reporting of subjective experiences. Wundt realized that there was a limit to what you could observe. Subjects were extensively trained to make consistent and accurate reports. You might be shown an object and asked to describe how you are perceiving it. Wundt believed that these immediate experiences were the building blocks of cognition. He used chemistry as a model. These building blocks were like the elements in chemistry to Wundt.

Drawbacks to introspection

(1) trained observers sometimes disagree (Do two people really ever experience something in the same way? We can agree that people probably have similar perceptions but not precisely the same.)

(2) some cognitive activities may not involve introspection (things in the mind that introspection cannot reveal; demonstration: think of an animal name that begins with the letter “i” (only three words satisfy both – iguana, impala, ibex). Many don’t have a good sense of how they answer it. It just popped into mind. Kind of like an iceberg. Can describe certain things that people do with cognition but not everything.


It may be the case that much (if not most) of our cognitive processing takes place outside of awareness. We may be consciously aware of the products of cognition (oh, iguana) but we can’t introspect and describe the machinery and what it does to produce iguana.  Aware of the products but not the process.

By early twentieth century, psychologists were dissatisfied with introspection.

Related articles
  • Psychology Notes Part 2 (andrewhoff.com)
  • History of Cognition (andrewhoff.com)
  • Modern Cognitive Psychology (andrewhoff.com)
  • Challenge to Introspection (andrewhoff.com)
  • Three Critiques of Cognitive Psychology (andrewhoff.com)
  • Perception and Sensory Memory (andrewhoff.com)

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