Are case studies a valid method in Psychology?


Case studies have been used throughout psychological theories and they are in-depth studies on one person or a small group of people. Like all methods, it has its advantages and disadvantages.


An advantage is that the research is highly detailed and this means that unusual cases can shed light on situations that are unethical or impractical to study in other ways. Also the research has high ecological validity, as it can tell us a lot about real-life behaviour and how the participant will really act. Case studies can be the only suitable method when researching very rare cases, for example a case of multiple personality. Also case studies are useful when the study is assessing a child or a group of children. Other methods may be unethical for children to be involved in and case studies can get more detailed information on disorders as one person is studied over a long period of time. Studies with large samples do not allow this kind of detailed information.


Case studies also have their disadvantages. The individual who is partaking in the study may not be representative of the whole population and therefore no cause and effect can be legitimately established. Also, it is difficult to replicate and could mean that the method has a lower reliability. Case studies are time consuming and expensive and the results cannot be applied to the rest of the population. I don’t think that a method has much validity if it cannot be replicated and studied further. Case studies lack generalisability to the rest of the population due to having a very small and very unrepresentative sample. Observer bias can occur during case studies and this is due to the subjective nature of the case study method.


Freud used many case studies throughout his psychological work, for example Rat Man, Anna O and Little Hans. Many people have criticised Freud’s methods of case studies, saying that the results are far too specific to just a few subjects and therefore the outcome have less meaning in the psychological field. I agree with this to some extent, I think that if case studies could be replicated quickly and efficiently then they would be a more useful method.


Posted on December 2, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Another disadvantage about case studies is that they are incredibly time consuming and often quite expensive. However, I do believe the amount of time and money put into these case studies is worth it as it is necessary to invest this into them due to the findings they produce. Case studies enable the research into areas which may be difficult to study. An example to explain my point is the case study of Genie. This study and the Kurachova twins study are both influential studies into the area of privation from an early age. These studies have lead to the hope that when children have suffered great privation they can still have a quality of life and eventually build their skills up and have a decent quality of life.
    Every method in psychology comes with its advantages and disadvantages and believe that despite their disadvantages, case studies are worthwhile and they produce valid findings. I think they are particularly useful because, like you said, they are very in-depth analyses into a certain area of Psychology.

  2. Whilst Freud’s work with Case Studies often contained findings which could not be applicable to the real world or to other people, other Case Studies such as that of Phineas Gage (who had a railroad spike shot through his brain in a work accident, destroying his prefrontal cortex) can show us a lot about how our brain works. As everyone has a brain, this can be applied to everyone, so whilst psychodynamic Case Studies are highly personal, Biological ones can be applied to everyone. It seems to all depend on the paradigm that you are using, as Cognitive and Behavioural could be more applicable than the Humanistic approach due to how subjective the actual paradigm is. Harlow, J, M, (1993) Recovery from the passage of an iron bar through the head. (A reproduction of the paper)

  3. Case studies are useful, especially in situations where it is unethical to intentionally manipulate participants in such a way, which it causes substantial or intrusive effects. Case studies can been described as “a sample of one, from a population of one” as there are issues with generalising findings from normally one individual to an entire population. Although, it is difficult to generalise the findings they offer a good insight into areas which are difficult to research. For example, the case study conducted by Mark and Ervin (1970), stimulated the amygdala in a female patient which lead to an increase in aggression where she actually flung herself against a wall. She later underwent psychosurgery which damaged the amygdala resulting in a decrease of aggression. This gave important support to the biological causes of aggression.

  4. Case studies are extremely useful within the field of Psychology because they allow one specific research area to be studied in great detail over a long period of time. For example, Thigpen and Cleckley (1954) into a case of MPD no research like this had ever been conducted before, and thigpen and cleckley were able to gather huge amounts of data about how and why the case of MPD came about, they were also able to establish possible treatments for the disorder. However there is one major flaw with this research, there was only one participant, Chris Sizemore and as with many case studies the research findings cannot be generalized.

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