1. attempts, individuals, predominantly philosophers, applied basic


History of verbal reports

Verbal reports in cognitive sciences

For decades, human
beings were interested about inner processes ongoing in their minds.
The first attempts to investigate the inner workings of human’s mind
were highly speculative, and were not overly concered about providing
sufficient empirical support for their findings. In early attempts,
individuals, predominantly philosophers, applied basic introspective
methods in order to try to elicit data about mechanisms and
structures of their minds. Only in later centuries, bigger emphasis
on applying scientific methods to investigate human mind and
behaviour has been put. In cognitive psychology and in other sciences
significant efforts have been made in order to find agreement
regarding reliability of observations and disambiguate and what may
be deemed as „indisputable evidence”, and what may not (Ericsson
& Simon, 1993: 48-49).

Franciscus Donders
can be regarded as one of the pioneers of analysing cognitive
processes and played a significant role in the development of modern
cognitive sciences. In his studies, by observing latencies, he
measured reaction time of the subjects. Donders differentiated three
types of reactions, the most basic one a-reaction, where the
subject immediately responds to the stimuli with a given response, in
the case of b-reaction there are different responses to each
stimulus, and in the c-reaction
the subject ought to reply only to certain stimulus, and
discriminating others. (Ericsson & Simon: 52) Later, Wilhelm
Wundt adopted this model and added his own, d-reaction,
where the subject respond immediately after discrimation of the

In the early 20th
century introspective method was mainly used by structuralist, most
notably Wundt and Titchener. According to the views of
structuralists, self-observations can be regarded as reliable data;
Wundt’s and Titchener’s hypothesis claimed that all mental states and
experiences in terms of their sensory and imaginal components
(Ericsson & Simon: 1993: 51). Due to the fact, that introspective
and retrospective reports are given post hoc, the experimenter
has to believe that information reported by the subject are true and
complete (van Someren, Barnand & Sandberg 1994: 21). Another
issue with such reports is the fact, that reports given by the
subject are retrieved from long-term memory (LTM), it may happen that
due to the limitations of human minds the subject will not be able to
retrieve all the processes that occurred in short-term memory (STM,
also known as working memory), or processes that actually did not
take place will be retrieved, thus unreliable data will be elicited.
(van Someren, Barnand & Sandberg 1994).

As a consequence of
methodological issues, structuralists’ approach to and introspection
as a method itself, was severely criticised by Behaviourists and
Gestalt school of psychology. With one of the most influential
figures being John Watson and his famous paper called „Psychology
as the Behaviorists Views it” (Ericsson & Simon 1993: 57).
Watson argued that introspection can not be used for scientific
purposes, as the subjects report how they think that they perform a
certain task, data regarding actual inner processes is not elicited,
therefore it is unreliable. It is worth noting that Watson was not
critical of all forms of verbal reports, actually he believed that
typically covert thought processes can be elicited by using
think-aloud verbalisations while carrying out an assigned task.
(Ericsson & Simon 1993: 58-59).

With the rise of
Behaviourism amount of introspective studies significantly lessened,
albeit Think-aloud protocols (TAPs) gained in popularity, with
investigators such as Watson (1920), Duncker (1926), Bulbrook (1932),
Smoke (1932) and Claparède (1934) asking their subjects for
think-aloud verbalisations. (Ericsson and Simon 1993: 61). In 60-70s
popularity of the think-aloud method continued to grow. Newell and
Simon (1972) in their work Human Problem Solving managed to
build comprehensive problem solving models with by using Think-aloud
protocols and computer simulation. (van
Someren, Barnand & Sandberg 1994: 31,) (Holyoak & Morrison
2005: 327). Think-aloud protocols, also
have not escaped criticism, with the issue of comepleteness of the
data and doubts wheter concurrent verbalisations influence the
subjects’ performance amongst them (Ericsson & Simon 1993: 61).
In 1984 a ground-breaking work by Ericsson and Simon „Protocol
Analysis: Verbal Reports as Data” was published (revised edition
published in 1993), which remains
a ‘bible’ regarding verbal reports, and sheds the light on alleged
apparent issues.

Think-aloud protocols are used in many sciences and are regarded as
valuable and reliable tool with some limitations to acquire insight
into ongoing mental processes in the subject’s mind (van Someren,
Barnand & Sandberg 1994: 32). And with rapid technological
progress, and aid of Artificial Intelligence or tools such as
eye-tracking devices there is further scope for development of
think-aloud methods in various fields. 


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