Lev Vygotsky 1930

The Instrumental Method in Psychology


Text of a talk given in 1930 at the Krupskaya Academy of Communist Education.


1. In the behavior of man we encounter quite a number of artificial devices for mastering his own mental processes. By analogy with technical devices these devices can justifiably and conventionally be called psychological tools or instruments (internal technique in Claparède’s terminology, modus operandi according to Thurnwald).

2. This analogy, like any analogy, cannot he carried through to the very end until all features of both concepts coincide. Therefore, we cannot expect beforehand that we will find each and every feature of a labor tool in these devices. The analogy may be justified if it is correct in the main, central, most essential feature of the two concepts that are being compared. Such a decisive feature is the role these devices play in behavior, which is analogous to the role of a tool in labor.

3. Psychological tools are artificial formations. By their nature they are social and not organic or individual devices. They are directed toward the mastery of [mental] processes – one’s own or someone else’s – just as technical devices are directed toward the mastery of processes of nature.

4. The following may serve as examples of psychological tools and their complex systems: language, different forms of numeration and counting, mnemotechnic techniques, algebraic symbolism, works of art, writing, schemes, diagrams, maps, blueprints, all sorts of conventional signs, etc.

5. By being included in the process of behavior, the psychological tool modifies the entire course and structure of mental functions by determining the structure of the new instrumental act, just as the technical tool modifies the process of natural adaptation by determining the form of labor operations.

6. In addition to natural acts and processes of behavior we must distinguish artificial, or instrumental, functions and forms of behavior. The former emerged and developed into special mechanisms in the process of evolutionary development and are shared by man and higher animals. The latter represent later acquisitions of mankind. They are the product of historical development and form a specifically human form of behavior. In this sense, Ribot [18881 called involuntary attention natural and voluntary attention artificial. He viewed voluntary attention as the product of historical development (cf. Blonsky’s view).

7. We should not conceive of artificial (instrumental) acts as supernatural or meta-natural acts constructed in accordance with some new, special laws. Artificial acts are natural as well. They can, without remainder, to the very end, he decomposed and reduced to natural ones, just like any machine (or technical tool) can, without remainder, be decomposed into a system of natural forces and processes.

What is artificial is the combination (construction) and direction, the substitution and utilization of these natural processes. The relation between instrumental and natural processes can he clarified with the following scheme – a triangle.

In natural memory a direct associative (conditional reflex) connection A→B is established between two stimuli A and B. In artificial, mnemotechnic memory of the same impression, by means of a psychological tool X (a knot in a handkerchief, a mnemonic scheme) instead of the direct connection A→B two new ones are established: A→X and X→B Just like the connection A→B each of them is a natural conditional reflex process, determined, by the properties of the brain tissue. What is new, artificial, and instrumental is the fact of the replacement of one connection A→B by two connections: A→X and X→B They lead to the same result, but by a different path. What is new is the artificial direction which the instrument gives to the natural process of establishing a conditional connection, i.e., the active utilization of the natural properties of brain tissue.

8. This scheme explains the essence of the instrumental method and the distinctive nature of the viewpoint on behavior and its development that it provides. This method does not negate a single natural scientific method for the study of behavior and nowhere intersects with it. From one viewpoint, we can look at the behavior of man as a complex system of natural processes and try to comprehend the laws governing them, just as we can examine the action of any machine as a system of physical and chemical processes. We can also look at the behavior of man from the viewpoint of his use of his natural mental processes and the methods of this use and try to comprehend how man utilizes the natural properties of his brain tissue and masters the processes that take place in it.

9. The instrumental method proposes a new viewpoint on the relation between a behavioral act and an external phenomenon. Within the general relationship stimulus-response (stimulus-reflex), proposed by natural scientific methods in psychology, the instrumental method distinguishes a twofold relation between behavior and an external phenomenon. An external phenomenon (a stimulus) in one case can play the role of the object toward which the act of behavior is directed. This act strives to solve some problem facing the person (to memorize, compare, choose, assess, consider something, etc.). In another case, the external phenomenon can play the role of a means by means of which we direct and realize the psychological operations (memorizing, comparing, selecting, etc.) necessary for the solution of the problem. In these two cases the psychological nature of the relation between the behavioral act and the external stimulus is essentially and fundamentally different and the stimulus determines, causes and organizes the behavior completely differently, in a completely distinctive way. In the first case it would be correct to call the stimulus the object, but in the second case it is the psychological tool of the instrumental act.

10. At the basis of the instrumental method lies a certain discovery. What makes the instrumental act particularly unique is the simultaneous presence of stimuli of both kinds, i.e., of object and tool at the same time, each of which plays a qualitatively and functionally distinct role. Thus, in the instrumental act a new middle term is inserted between the object and the mental operation directed at it: the psychological tool, which becomes the structural center or focus, i.e., the aspect that functionally determines all the processes that form the instrumental act. Any behavioral act then becomes an intellectual operation.

11. The inclusion of a tool in the behavioral process, first, sets to work a number of new functions connected with the use and control of the given tool; second, abolishes and makes unnecessary a number of natural processes, whose work is [now] done by the tool; third, modifies the course and the various aspects (intensity, duration, order, etc.) of all mental processes included in the instrumental act, replacing some functions with others, i.e., it recreates, reconstructs the whole structure of behavior just like a technical tool recreates the entire system of labor operations. Mental processes, taken as a whole, form a complex structural and functional unity. They are directed toward the solution of a problem posed by the object, and the tool dictates their coordination and course. They form a new whole – the instrumental act.

12. From the viewpoint of natural scientific psychology, the whole instrumental act can be reduced without remainder to a system of stimulus-response connections. The nature of the instrumental act as a whole is determined by its unique internal structure, the most important aspects of which have been enumerated above (the stimulus-object and the stimulus-tool, the recreation and combination of responses by means of a tool). For natural scientific psychology the instrumental act is, a formation with a complex structure (a system of reactions), a synthetic whole. At the same time, from the viewpoint of the instrumental method, it is the simplest piece of behavior with which research is dealing: an elementary unit of behavior,

13. The most essential feature distinguishing the psychological tool from the technical one is that it is meant to act upon mind and behavior, whereas the technical tool, which is also inserted as a middle term between the activity of man and the external object, is meant to cause changes in the object itself. The psychological tool changes nothing in the object. It is a means of influencing one’s own mind or behavior or another’s. It is not a means of influencing the object. Therefore, in the instrumental act we see activity toward oneself, and not toward the object.

14. There is nothing in the unique direction of the psychological tool that contradicts the nature itself of this concept, since in the process of activity and labor man “himself confronts the material provided by nature as a force of nature.” In this process, by acting on external nature and changing it, he at the same time also changes his own nature and acts upon it. He subordinates the workings of his own natural forces. The subordination to oneself of this “force of nature,” i.e., of one’s own behavior, is a necessary condition of labor. In the instrumental act man masters himself from the outside – via psychological tools.

15. It goes without saying that one stimulus or another does not become a psychological tool by virtue of the physical properties used in a technical tool (the hardness of steel, etc.). In the instrumental act, the psychological properties of the external phenomenon are used. The stimulus becomes a psychological tool by virtue of its use as a means of influencing the mind and behavior. Therefore, any tool is without fail a stimulus: if it were not a stimulus, i.e., did not have the capacity to influence behavior, it could not be a tool. But not every stimulus is a tool.

16. The application of psychological tools enhances and immensely extends the possibilities of behavior by making the results of the work of geniuses available to everyone (cf. the history of mathematics and other sciences).

17. By its very essence the instrumental method is a historical-genetic method. It introduces a historical viewpoint in the investigation of behavior: behavior can be understood only as the history of behavior (Blonsky). The main areas of investigation in which the instrumental method can be successfully applied are (a) the area of social-historical and ethnic psychology, which studies the historical development of behavior, its various stages and forms; (b) the area of investigation of the higher, historically developed mental functions – higher forms of memory (cf. investigations of mnemotechnics), attention, verbal or mathematical thinking, etc.; (c) child and educational psychology. The instrumental method has nothing in common (other than its name) with the theory of instrumental logic of Dewey and other pragmatists.

18. The instrumental method studies the child not only as a developing, but also as an educable being. It sees in this the essential distinguishing feature of the history of the human young. Education may be defined as the artificial development of the child. Education is the artificial mastery of natural processes of development. Education not only influences certain processes of development, but restructures all functions of behavior in a most essential manner.

19. Whereas the theory of natural endowment (Binet) seeks to understand the process of the natural development of the child, regardless of school experience and the influence of education [51 (i.e., studies the child independently of the fact that he is a schoolboy in a certain grade), the theory of school fitness or giftedness seeks to understand only the process of school development (i.e., studies the schoolboy of the given grade independently of what kind of child he is). The instrumental method studies the process of natural development and education as a unified alloy and aims to reveal how all the natural functions of the given child are restructured at the given level of education. The instrumental method seeks to present the history of how the child in the process of education accomplishes what mankind accomplished in the course of the long history of labor, i e., how he “changes his own nature ... develops the forces slumbering in it and subordinates the play of forces to his own power” [Marx, 1890/1981, p. 1921. If the first method studies the child independently of the schoolboy and the second studies the schoolboy independently of his other properties as a child, then the third studies the given child as a schoolboy.

The development of many natural mental functions during childhood (memory, attention) either does not appear to any noticeable extent at all or takes place on such an insignificant scale that it cannot possibly account for the whole, vast difference between the activity of the child and the adult. In the process of development the child arms and re-arms himself with widely varying tools. The child of the highest grade differs from the child of the lowest grade also in the level and character of his armament, his instrumentarium, i.e., in the degree of mastery of his own behavior. The main periods of development are the nonverbal and verbal periods.

20. Differences in children’s types of development (giftedness, defectiveness) appear to a great extent connected with the type and character of instrumental development. The inability to utilize one’s own natural functions and the mastery of psychological tools fundamentally determine the whole pattern of child development.

21. Investigation of the condition and structure of the child’s behavior requires exposing his instrumental acts and taking account of the reform of the natural functions that enter into a given act. The instrumental method is a means of investigating behavior and its development which discloses the psychological tools in behavior and the structure of the instrumental acts created by them.

22. The mastery of a psychological tool and, through it, of one’s own natural mental function, always lifts the given function to a higher level, enhances and broadens its activity, recreates its structure and mechanism. Furthermore, the natural mental processes are not eliminated. They join the instrumental act, but they turn out to be functionally dependent in their structure on the instrument being used.

23. The instrumental method provides the principle and method for the psychological study of the child. This method can make use of any methodology, i.e., technical methods of investigation: the experiment, observation, etc.

24. The investigations of memory, counting, and concept formation in schoolchildren, carried out by the author and on his initiative, may serve as examples of the application of the instrumental method.