Introspection is considered an inherently human ability. While external observation allows us to understand the world around us, internal contemplation allows us to examine our own thoughts and feelings to foster self-reflection and self-discovery.
The practice may be as old as humanity itself. Thousands of years ago, Plato asked: “Why should we not calmly and patiently review our own thoughts, and thoroughly examine and see what these appearances in us really are?”
Most spiritual traditions throughout the ages and across the planet include some form of introspection, whether it is the nepsis (Greek for “sober introspection”) of Orthodox Christian theology, the pratikraman (Sanskrit for “introspection”) of Jainism, or the muḥāsaba (Arabic for “self-interrogation) of Islam.
Today, journaling and other methods of introspection are commonly encouraged by mental health practitioners to help people manage their thoughts and emotions, better understand their actions, and make more deliberate decisions.
Which bears the question: is introspection always good, and does more introspection automatically lead to increased well-being?
Times of introspection
Whether we want it or not, life is full of moments of introspection. Some are forced upon us, for instance when we encounter failure or when we lose a loved one. Our attention is violently pulled inward, towards our internal mental and emotional states, without much control over the process. The cadence of these forced moments of introspection is by definition uncontrollable.
Other times, we decide to sit down and make space for introspection. It may be because we are considering an important choice or feel like we need to better understand an experience, or because we have committed to an artificial cadence of introspection.
You could have a daily journaling practice, a weekly review, or conduct a year-end retrospective. All of these practices have in common that they follow a fixed frequency, where you commit to regularly reflect on your thoughts, your emotions, and your progress towards your goals.
You would think that such a habitual practice would be good in and of itself. But, as often with psychological processes, the reality is a little bit more complicated than that. Research has shown that introspection, when not practiced properly, can lead to many unintended consequences.
In one of the most famous studies on the consequences of introspection, psychologist Anthony Grant discovered that introspection was negatively correlated with insight. The more participants practiced self-reflection, the less self-knowledge they had. Their results suggest that you could spend an infinite amount of time in introspection without emerging with any more insight than before you started. What is happening here?
This phenomenon is called the introspection trap. We basically think that introspection will automatically give us the answers we need, and we go for the most obvious answers — the ones that feel simple and plausible. This often results in confirmation bias, our natural tendency to interpret and remember information in a way that confirms our prior hypotheses or personal beliefs.
Another way we tend to go for the easiest answers is by only considering the most recent information, a form of memory bias known as the recency effect. This is particularly the case when we practice self-reflection right after an event, instead of giving our mind some time to process the experience.
For instance, let’s say that you had a fight with a colleague. You decide to grab your journal or to open your daily notes to write about the conversation and how it made you feel. In that scenario, you are likely to seek justifications for why your colleague was wrong, and to be influenced by the strong emotions you are still feeling after the fight that just happened.
In contrast, if you wait until the next morning to practice self-reflection, you will create more distance between your present self who is journaling and your past self who went through the unpleasant event, which will allow you to consider your experience more objectively.
As you can see, the crucial aspect of temporality when it comes to introspection is not about how often you sit down to contemplate your thoughts and emotions. It’s about when you do it.
Turning introspection into insight
The two main cognitive biases that can reduce the benefits of introspection are the confirmation bias and the memory bias.
If you jump to conclusions, you will simply validate your existing beliefs and you won’t be able to find the actual answer to your questions. If you systematically turn to introspection without allowing enough time for unconscious processing to happen in your mind, you won’t be able to turn introspection into insight.
It doesn’t matter how often you practice journal or proactively review your experiences if you let these cognitive biases get in the way of generating helpful insights. Fortunately, there are some simple principles you can apply to avoid falling into the introspection trap.
- Make space for unconscious processing. If you just experienced a difficult or puzzling event, wait for a while before grabbing your notebook. You’ve probably noticed that we often have “aha” moments while showering — which we aptly call shower thoughts. It’s because we often don’t try to do any hard thinking in the shower. Your brain is capable of processing lots of information in the background through diffused thinking, but it requires that you temporarily let go of the steering wheel.
- Practice second-level thinking. Avoid jumping to conclusions by exploring alternative explanations beyond the most likely one. A quick way to practice second-level thinking to make better decisions is to use the 10-10-10 questions: “How will I feel about it 10 minutes from now? How will I feel about it 10 months from now? How will I feel about it 10 years from now?”
- Experiment with structured introspection. To make sure you don’t fall prey to cognitive biases, you can try using a self-reflection template with questions that encourage you to dig deeper. This could be asking “why?” five times to get to the core of the problem, or it could be a personal template that includes some of your most common blindspots. For instance, if you know that you tend to fall prey to the recency effect, you could add a question asking how the most recent instance connects to past experiences.
- Embrace moments of forced introspection. There will be times where life will throw unexpected challenges at you that force you to consider your thoughts and emotions. It may be tempting to avoid these painful moments of introspection, but they can be an incredible source of personal growth. Instead of turning away, try to lean into the discomfort to expand your self-knowledge.
- Harness the power of collective intelligence. Finally, it may sound counterintuitive, but you don’t have to do it all alone. Researchers call “group-based dialogic introspection”, where participants first spend some time examining their thoughts and emotions on their own, then discuss them with the group. While it doesn’t have to be as formal as in a research setting, you could try the exercise with a trusted friend so you can add a layer of objectivity to your self-reflection process.
Albert Camus once wrote: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion”. However, the way we engage with our inner world will affect how useful this process can be. Without care, we can easily fall prey to the introspection trap.
Like any other tool, introspection can be misused. Increasing your cadence of introspection won’t help you unlock more insights. Rather, you need to make room for unconscious processing of your experiences and try to reduce the impact of cognitive biases. A structured format or reflecting as part of a small group can be helpful to turn introspection into insights.