Empirical methods

In most of the research discussed in this book, cognitive processes and structures were inferred from participants' behaviour (e.g., speed and/or accuracy of performance) obtained under well controlled conditions. This approach has proved to be very useful, and the data thus obtained have been used in the development and subsequent testing of most theories in cognitive psychology. However, there are two major potential problems with the use of such data:

1. Measures of the speed and accuracy of performance provide only indirect information about the internal processes and structures of central interest to cognitive psychologists.

2. Behavioural data are usually gathered in the artificial surroundings of the laboratory. The ways in which people behave in the laboratory may differ greatly from the ways they behave in everyday life (see Chapter 19).

Cognitive psychologists do not rely solely on behavioural data to obtain useful information from their participants. An alternative way of studying cognitive processes is by making use of introspection, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "examination or observation of one's own mental processes". Introspection depends on conscious experience, and each individual's conscious experience is personal and private. In spite of this, it is often assumed that introspection can provide useful evidence about some mental processes.

Nisbett and Wilson (1977) argued that introspection is practically worthless, supporting their argument with examples. In one study, participants were presented with a display of five essentially identical pairs of stockings, and decided which pair was the best. After they had made their choice, they indicated why they had chosen that particular pair. Most participants chose the rightmost pair, and so their decisions were actually affected by relative spatial position. However, the participants strongly denied that spatial position had played any part in their decision, referring instead to slight differences in colour, texture, and so on among the pairs of stockings as having been important.

Nisbett and Wilson (1977, p. 248) claimed that people are generally unaware of the processes influencing their behaviour: "When people are asked to report how a particular stimulus influenced a particular response, they do so not by consulting a memory of the mediating process, but by applying or generating causal theories about the effects of that type of stimulus on that type of response." This view was supported by the discovery that an individual's introspections about what is determining his or her behaviour are often no more accurate than the guesses made by others.

The limitations of introspective evidence are becoming increasingly clear. For example, consider research on implicit learning, which involves learning complex material without the ability to verbalise what has been learned. There is reasonable evidence for the existence of implicit learning (see Chapter 7). There is even stronger evidence for implicit memory, which involves memory in the absence of conscious recollection. Normal and brain-damaged individuals can exhibit excellent memory performance even when they show no relevant introspective evidence (see Chapter 7).

Ericsson and Simon (1980, 1984) argued that Nisbett and Wilson (1977) had overstated the case against introspection. They proposed various criteria for distinguishing between valid and invalid uses of introspection:

• It is preferable to obtain introspective reports during the performance of a task rather than retrospectively, because of the fallibility of memory.

• Participants are more likely to produce accurate introspections when describing what they are attending to, or thinking about, than when required to interpret a situation or their own thought processes.

• People cannot usefully introspect about several kinds of processes (e.g., neuronal processes; recognition processes).

Careful consideration of the studies that Nisbett and Wilson (1977) regarded as striking evidence of the worthlessness of introspection reveals that participants generally provided retrospective interpretations about information that had probably never been fully attended to. Thus, their findings are consistent with the proposed guidelines for the use of introspection (Crutcher, 1994; Ericsson & Simon, 1984).

A flowchart of a bad theory about how we understand sentences.

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