Verbal report data: psychologists may be skeptical, but clinicians are more practical

clinical neurophenomenology, cognitive science, introspection, medicine, symptom reports

Cognitive neuroscience and psychology needs to account for  verbal report data from people about their body states. In perceptual psychology and psychophysics experiments, in cognitive studies of human problem-solving, in clinical trials of drug efficacy and safety, in phenomenological-psychological investigations into the thematics of body experience, researchers routinely ask subjects or patients to answer questions. This is so common that its significance is perhaps under-appreciated. Science, at least in a narrow sense,  is conventionally understood to be based on objectively observable facts, not subjective opinions. But certain phenomena can not only be observed from the outside, as part of a system, but can also be reported on by people from the inside, as perceived or experiential events.

This regular use of the human self-reporting capacity is more remarkable in the light of intellectual history.  “Orthodox” cognitive science developed in the era of behaviorist dominance, and inherited certain skepticism about the trustworthiness of verbal reports, which are viewed as being sources of data, but not “privileged.” This stance indicates a rejection of older philosophical and psychological traditions that emphasized the use of introspection. Nonetheless, even in the time of behaviorist hegemony, psychologists still asked subjects questions in perception experiments, and clinicians have always used patient assessments to gain insight (Nahmias, 2002). While certain path-breaking cognitive scientists and psychologists explored the nature of introspection, and worked out the circumstances in which verbal reports could be authoritative and true accounts of aspects of cognitive processes (Erickson and Simon, 1991), (Ericsson, Chase, and Simon, 1979), the results of other widely cited experiments have been interpreted to denigrate introspective data, especially that of Nisbett and Wilson’s (1977) “Telling More than we can know” paper. Their research has been interpreted to indicate, for instance, that subjects made demonstrably inaccurate judgments about their underlying mental states because human beings apparently have little or no direct introspective access to the underlying cognitive processes of the mind (pg. 233):

The accuracy of subjective reports is so poor as to suggest that any introspective access that may exist is not sufficient to produce generally correct or reliable reports.”

The interpretation of their data featured assertions that are now influential:  subjects lack  introspective access to the causal relationship between stimuli controlled by the experimenter and the verbal reports they produce. They are unable to accurately report which stimuli affected their responses. Rather, these verbal reports of effects of stimuli are based on unvalidated belief (such as naïve “folk psychological” theories about the causal connections between the stimuli and their response). Furthermore, if the reports on stimulus-response relationships are correct, it is because their naïve theories happen to be correct, and not because introspection gave them any privileged access to information. The upshot can be summarized as: subjects in situations with variables controlled by scientists make introspective judgments about why they behave in a particular manner or think a certain way, they state this explanation verbally to an experimenter, who can show the explanation to be false: (pg. 243)

“In order to test subject ability to report influences on their associative behavior, we had 81 male introductory psychology students memorize a list of word pairs. Some of these word pairs were intended to generate associative processes that would elicit certain target words in a word association task to be performed at a later point in the experiment. For example, subjects memorized the word pair “ocean-moon” with the expectation that when they were later asked to name a detergent, they would be more likely to give the target “Tide” than would subjects who had not previously been exposed to the word pairs….Immediately following the word association task, subjects were asked in open-ended form why they thought they had given each of their responses in the word association task. Despite the fact that nearly all subjects could recall nearly all of the words pairs, subjects almost never mentioned a word pair cue as a reason for giving a particular target response. Instead subjects focused on some distinctive feature of the target (“Tide is the best-known detergent”), some personal meaning of it (“My mother uses tide”), or an affective reaction to it (“I like the Tide box”).

The influence of this research has had the practical effect of renewing suspicions among psychologists and other researchers about introspective data, even if such methods continue to be used (Jack and Roepstorff, 2003) and despite the balanced view of Nisbett and Wilson where introspection has some utility regarding “sensations and/or private facts”, which takes into consideration the longtime use of introspective data as a method in psychology. Cognitive scientists, psychologists, physicians, and others can adopt their pragmatic distinction between the contents of cognition, such as sensations and emotions which can indeed be known and verbally reported, and the underlying causes, the information-processing or cognitive processes, which remain epistemologically inscrutable to introspection.

Yet while clinical medicine often regards introspective data with caution, it nonetheless uses it pragmatically. For instance, the standard neuropsychology text Clinical Neuropsychology (Heilman and Valenstein, 2003) states (pg.5)

at times, patients’ observations of their own mental state may not only be helpful but necessary.”

This implies that it is a standard clinical methodology to use introspective data, and that patients have some useful access to their own minds.

This data-collection method of asking subjects and patients for self-reports is routinely used, according to psychologist Arthur Stone (Stone, 2000) (pg. 297):

“In both clinical practice and in research, the primary method of obtaining information about physical symptomology is through self-reports. Every day, thousands upon thousands of health care providers ask their patients to describe how they are generally feeling and too discuss specific symptoms. Patients present their doctors with panoply of global states (“I feel lousy,” “I am fatigued,” “I don’t feel right”) to very concrete descriptions (“I have a sharp pain in my right knee that is worse on awakening”). Information from these interviews, along with various medical tests, provides the basis for treatment and for the evaluation of its efficacy. In medical research, information of the same sort is obtained with questionnaires and structured interviews. These data-collection methods may provide a more systematic way of gathering physical symptom information, but regardless of the mode of data collection, the information is self-reported. Thus, reports of physical symptoms may be considered the mainstay of medical practice and research”


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