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What Is a Case Study?

An in-depth study of one person, group, or event

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

weaknesses of case study in psychology

Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.

weaknesses of case study in psychology

Verywell / Colleen Tighe

Benefits and Limitations

Types of case studies, how to write a case study.

A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. Case studies can be used in various fields, including psychology, medicine, education, anthropology, political science, and social work.

The purpose of a case study is to learn as much as possible about an individual or group so that the information can be generalized to many others. Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective, and it is sometimes difficult to generalize results to a larger population.

While case studies focus on a single individual or group, they follow a format similar to other types of psychology writing. If you are writing a case study, it is important to follow the rules of APA format .  

A case study can have both strengths and weaknesses. Researchers must consider these pros and cons before deciding if this type of study is appropriate for their needs.

One of the greatest advantages of a case study is that it allows researchers to investigate things that are often difficult to impossible to replicate in a lab. Some other benefits of a case study:

  • Allows researchers to collect a great deal of information
  • Give researchers the chance to collect information on rare or unusual cases
  • Permits researchers to develop hypotheses that can be explored in experimental research

On the negative side, a case study:

  • Cannot necessarily be generalized to the larger population
  • Cannot demonstrate cause and effect
  • May not be scientifically rigorous
  • Can lead to bias

Researchers may choose to perform a case study if they are interested in exploring a unique or recently discovered phenomenon. The insights gained from such research can help the researchers develop additional ideas and study questions that might be explored in future studies.

However, it is important to remember that the insights gained from case studies cannot be used to determine cause and effect relationships between variables. However, case studies may be used to develop hypotheses that can then be addressed in experimental research.

Case Study Examples

There have been a number of notable case studies in the history of psychology. Much of  Freud's work and theories were developed through the use of individual case studies. Some great examples of case studies in psychology include:

  • Anna O : Anna O. was a pseudonym of a woman named Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of a physician named Josef Breuer. While she was never a patient of Freud's, Freud and Breuer discussed her case extensively. The woman was experiencing symptoms of a condition that was then known as hysteria and found that talking about her problems helped relieve her symptoms. Her case played an important part in the development of talk therapy as an approach to mental health treatment.
  • Phineas Gage : Phineas Gage was a railroad employee who experienced a terrible accident in which an explosion sent a metal rod through his skull, damaging important portions of his brain. Gage recovered from his accident but was left with serious changes in both personality and behavior.
  • Genie : Genie was a young girl subjected to horrific abuse and isolation. The case study of Genie allowed researchers to study whether language could be taught even after critical periods for language development had been missed. Her case also served as an example of how scientific research may interfere with treatment and lead to further abuse of vulnerable individuals.

Such cases demonstrate how case research can be used to study things that researchers could not replicate in experimental settings. In Genie's case, her horrific abuse had denied her the opportunity to learn language at critical points in her development.

This is clearly not something that researchers could ethically replicate, but conducting a case study on Genie allowed researchers the chance to study phenomena that are otherwise impossible to reproduce.

There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might utilize:

  • Collective case studies : These involve studying a group of individuals. Researchers might study a group of people in a certain setting or look at an entire community. For example, psychologists might explore how access to resources in a community has affected the collective mental well-being of those living there.
  • Descriptive case studies : These involve starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed, and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.
  • Explanatory case studies : These   are often used to do causal investigations. In other words, researchers are interested in looking at factors that may have caused certain things to occur.
  • Exploratory case studies : These are sometimes used as a prelude to further, more in-depth research. This allows researchers to gather more information before developing their research questions and hypotheses .
  • Instrumental case studies : These occur when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.
  • Intrinsic case studies : This type of case study is when the researcher has a personal interest in the case. Jean Piaget's observations of his own children are good examples of how an intrinsic cast study can contribute to the development of a psychological theory.

The three main case study types often used are intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Intrinsic case studies are useful for learning about unique cases. Instrumental case studies help look at an individual to learn more about a broader issue. A collective case study can be useful for looking at several cases simultaneously.

The type of case study that psychology researchers utilize depends on the unique characteristics of the situation as well as the case itself.

There are also different methods that can be used to conduct a case study, including prospective and retrospective case study methods.

Prospective case study methods are those in which an individual or group of people is observed in order to determine outcomes. For example, a group of individuals might be watched over an extended period of time to observe the progression of a particular disease.

Retrospective case study methods involve looking at historical information. For example, researchers might start with an outcome, such as a disease, and then work their way backward to look at information about the individual's life to determine risk factors that may have contributed to the onset of the illness.

Where to Find Data

There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. Six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:

  • Archival records : Census records, survey records, and name lists are examples of archival records.
  • Direct observation : This strategy involves observing the subject, often in a natural setting . While an individual observer is sometimes used, it is more common to utilize a group of observers.
  • Documents : Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc., are the types of documents often used as sources.
  • Interviews : Interviews are one of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involve structured survey questions or more open-ended questions.
  • Participant observation : When the researcher serves as a participant in events and observes the actions and outcomes, it is called participant observation.
  • Physical artifacts : Tools, objects, instruments, and other artifacts are often observed during a direct observation of the subject.

Section 1: A Case History

This section will have the following structure and content:

Background information : The first section of your paper will present your client's background. Include factors such as age, gender, work, health status, family mental health history, family and social relationships, drug and alcohol history, life difficulties, goals, and coping skills and weaknesses.

Description of the presenting problem : In the next section of your case study, you will describe the problem or symptoms that the client presented with.

Describe any physical, emotional, or sensory symptoms reported by the client. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions related to the symptoms should also be noted. Any screening or diagnostic assessments that are used should also be described in detail and all scores reported.

Your diagnosis : Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the client's symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.

Section 2: Treatment Plan

This portion of the paper will address the chosen treatment for the condition. This might also include the theoretical basis for the chosen treatment or any other evidence that might exist to support why this approach was chosen.

  • Cognitive behavioral approach : Explain how a cognitive behavioral therapist would approach treatment. Offer background information on cognitive behavioral therapy and describe the treatment sessions, client response, and outcome of this type of treatment. Make note of any difficulties or successes encountered by your client during treatment.
  • Humanistic approach : Describe a humanistic approach that could be used to treat your client, such as client-centered therapy . Provide information on the type of treatment you chose, the client's reaction to the treatment, and the end result of this approach. Explain why the treatment was successful or unsuccessful.
  • Psychoanalytic approach : Describe how a psychoanalytic therapist would view the client's problem. Provide some background on the psychoanalytic approach and cite relevant references. Explain how psychoanalytic therapy would be used to treat the client, how the client would respond to therapy, and the effectiveness of this treatment approach.
  • Pharmacological approach : If treatment primarily involves the use of medications, explain which medications were used and why. Provide background on the effectiveness of these medications and how monotherapy may compare with an approach that combines medications with therapy or other treatments.

This section of a case study should also include information about the treatment goals, process, and outcomes.

When you are writing a case study, you should also include a section where you discuss the case study itself, including the strengths and limitiations of the study. You should note how the findings of your case study might support previous research. 

In your discussion section, you should also describe some of the implications of your case study. What ideas or findings might require further exploration? How might researchers go about exploring some of these questions in additional studies?

Here are a few additional pointers to keep in mind when formatting your case study:

  • Never refer to the subject of your case study as "the client." Instead, their name or a pseudonym.
  • Read examples of case studies to gain an idea about the style and format.
  • Remember to use APA format when citing references .

A Word From Verywell

Case studies can be a useful research tool, but they need to be used wisely. In many cases, they are best utilized in situations where conducting an experiment would be difficult or impossible. They are helpful for looking at unique situations and allow researchers to gather a great deal of information about a specific individual or group of people.

If you have been directed to write a case study for a psychology course, be sure to check with your instructor for any specific guidelines that you are required to follow. If you are writing your case study for professional publication, be sure to check with the publisher for their specific guidelines for submitting a case study.

Simply Psychology. Case Study Method .

Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011 Jun 27;11:100. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-100

Gagnon, Yves-Chantal.  The Case Study as Research Method: A Practical Handbook . Canada, Chicago Review Press Incorporated DBA Independent Pub Group, 2010.

Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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The clinical case report: a review of its merits and limitations

Trygve nissen.

1 Department of Clinical Medicine, University of Tromsø, N-9038 Tromsø, Norway

2 Division of General Psychiatry, University Hospital of North Norway, N-9291 Tromsø, Norway

3 Division of Addictions and Specialized Psychiatry, University Hospital of North Norway, N-9291 Tromsø, Norway

The clinical case report has a long-standing tradition in the medical literature. While its scientific significance has become smaller as more advanced research methods have gained ground, case reports are still presented in many medical journals. Some scholars point to its limited value for medical progress, while others assert that the genre is undervalued. We aimed to present the various points of view regarding the merits and limitations of the case report genre. We searched Google Scholar, PubMed and select textbooks on epidemiology and medical research for articles and book-chapters discussing the merits and limitations of clinical case reports and case series.

The major merits of case reporting were these: Detecting novelties, generating hypotheses, pharmacovigilance, high applicability when other research designs are not possible to carry out, allowing emphasis on the narrative aspect (in-depth understanding), and educational value. The major limitations were: Lack of ability to generalize, no possibility to establish cause-effect relationship, danger of over-interpretation, publication bias, retrospective design, and distraction of reader when focusing on the unusual.

Conclusions

Despite having lost its central role in medical literature in the 20th century, the genre still appears popular. It is a valuable part of the various research methods, especially since it complements other approaches. Furthermore, it also contributes in areas of medicine that are not specifically research-related, e.g. as an educational tool. Revision of the case report genre has been attempted in order to integrate the biomedical model with the narrative approach, but without significant success. The future prospects of the case report could possibly be in new applications of the genre, i.e. exclusive case report databases available online, and open access for clinicians and researchers.

Throughout history the clinical case report and case report series have been integral components of medical literature [ 1 ]. The case report genre held a strong position until it was sidelined in the second half of the 20 th century [ 2 , 3 ]. New methodologies for research articles paved the way for evidence-based medicine. Editors had to make space for these research articles and at the same time signaled less enthusiasm for publishing case reports [ 4 ]. This spurred some heated debates in medical journals as readers were worried that the traditional case report was in jeopardy [ 5 , 6 ]. Those who welcomed the new trend with fewer case reports being published pointed mainly to their low quality and inclination to emphasize mere curiosa [ 7 - 9 ]. Some of the proponents of the genre claimed that the case report had been and still was indispensible for furthering medical knowledge and that it was unique in taking care of the detailed study of the individual patient as opposed to the new research methods with their “…nomothetic approach [taking] precedence…” [ 5 ]. Still, the case report got a low ranking on the evidence hierarchy. After a decline in popularity a new interest for the case report emerged, probably beginning in the late 1990s [ 2 ]. A peer-reviewed ‘Case reports’ section was introduced in the Lancet in 1995 [ 10 ]. In 2007, the first international, Pubmed-listed medical journal publishing only case reports was established [ 11 , 12 ]. In the following years, several similar journals, for the most part online and open-access, have been launched.

The present debate is not so much focused on whether case reporting is obsolete or not. Some of the discussions after the turn of the century have been about adapting the case report genre to new challenges. One example is the suggestion of incorporating the narrative, i.e. “… stressing the patient’s story”, in the case report [ 13 ]. The authors termed their initiative “The storied case report”. Their endeavor was not met with success. In analyzing the causes for this, they wondered if “… junior trainees find it too hard to determine what is relevant and senior trainees find it too hard to change their habits” [ 13 ]. A similar attempt was done when the editors of the Journal of Medical Case Reports in 2012 encouraged authors to include the patients’ perspectives by letting patients describe their own experiences [ 14 ].

Notwithstanding, we feel there is much to be gained from having an ongoing discussion highlighting the indications and contraindications for producing case reports. This can to some degree be facilitated by getting an understanding of the merits and limitations of the genre. The objective of this article is to present the merits and limitations of case reports and case series reports.

We adopted Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary’s definition of the case report : “A formal summary of a unique patient and his or her illness, including the presenting signs and symptoms, diagnostic studies, treatment course and outcome” [ 15 ]. A case report consists of one or two cases, most often only one. The case series or case series report usually consists of three to ten cases [ 16 ]. (In the following we use the term case report to denote both case reports and case series report). Case reports are most often naturalistic and descriptive. Sometimes, however, they can be prospective and experimental.

As literature specifically dealing with the case report genre seemed harder to elicit from the databases than the vast amount of particular case reports, we performed iterative searches. We searched Google Scholar and PubMed using the search terms ‘case report(s)’, ‘case series’, ‘case series report(s)’, ‘case reporting’ in various combinations with ‘clinical’, ‘medical’, ‘anecdotal’, ‘methodology’, ‘review’, ‘overview’, ‘strengths’, ‘weaknesses’, ‘merits’, and ‘limitations’. Further references were identified by examining the literature found in the electronic searches. We also consulted major textbooks on epidemiology [ 17 , 18 ], some scholars of medical genres [ 19 , 20 ] and a monograph on case reporting by the epidemiologist M. Jenicek [ 16 ]. We delimited our review to the retrospective, naturalistic, and descriptive case report, also labeled the “traditional” or “classic” case report, and case series including such reports. Thus we excluded other types, such as the planned, qualitative case study approach [ 21 ] and simulated cases [ 22 - 24 ]. Finally, we extracted the relevant data and grouped the merits and limitations items in rank order with the items we judged to be the most important first.

New observations

The major advantage of case reporting is probably its ability to detect novelties [ 16 ]. It is the only way to present unusual, uncontrolled observations regarding symptoms, clinical findings, course of illness, complications of interventions, associations of diseases, side effects of drugs, etc. In short, anything that is rare or has never been observed previously might be important for the medical community and ought to be published. A case report might sensitize readers and thus facilitate detection of similar or identical cases.

Generating hypotheses

From a single, or preferably several single case reports or a case series, new hypotheses could be formulated. These could then be tested with formal research methods that are designed to refute or confirm the hypotheses, i.e. comparative (observational and experimental) studies.

There are numerous examples of new discoveries or major advancements in medicine that started with a case report or, in some cases, as humbly as a letter to the editor. The first concern from the medical community about the devastating side effect of thalidomide, i.e. the congenital abnormalities, appeared as a letter to the editor in the Lancet in 1961 [ 25 ]. Soon thereafter, several case reports and case series reports were published in various journals. Case reporting is thus indispensable in drug safety surveillance (pharmacovigilance) [ 26 ].

Sometimes significant advancements in knowledge have come not from what researchers were pursuing, but from “accidental discoveries”, i.e. by serendipity. The story of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 is well known in the medical field [ 27 ]. Psychiatry has profited to a large degree from this mode of advancing medical science as many of the drugs used for mental disorders have been discovered serendipitously [ 27 ]. One notable example is the discovery of the effect of lithium on manic episodes in patients with manic-depressive disorder [ 28 ]. A more recent discovery is the successful treatment of infantile hemangiomas with systemic propranolol. This discovery was published, as a case series report, in the correspondence section in New England Journal of Medicine [ 29 ]. However, the evidence for the effect of this treatment is still preliminary, and several randomized trials are under way [ 30 , 31 ].

Clear and operational entities are prerequisites for doing medical research. Descriptions must come before understanding. Clinical observations that lead to new disorders being described are well suited for case reporting. The medical literature is replete with case-based articles describing new diseases and syndromes. One notable example is the first description of neurasthenia by G. Beard in Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1869 [ 32 ].

Researching rare disorders

For rare disorders randomized controlled trials (RCTs) can be impossible to run due to lack of patients to be enrolled. Research on drug treatment and other kinds of interventions must therefore be based on less rigorous methodologies, among them case series and case reports. This would be in accordance with the European Commission’s recommendation to its members to improve health care for those with rare disorders [ 33 ].

Solving ethical constraints

Case reporting can be valuable when ethical constraints prohibit experimental research. Take as an example the challenge of how to manage the side effects of accidental extravasation of cytotoxic drugs. As RCTs on humans seem unethical in this clinical situation the current guidelines rest on small observational studies, case reports and animal studies [ 34 ]. Or another example: Physical restraint is sometimes associated with sudden, unexpected death. The cause or causes for this are to some degree enigmatic, and it is hard to conceive of a controlled study that could be ethical [ 35 , 36 ]. Case reports and case series being “natural experiments” might be the only evidence available for guiding clinical practice.

In-depth narrative case studies

Case reporting can be a way of presenting research with an idiographic emphasis. As contrasted to nomothetic research, an idiographic approach aims at in-depth understanding of human phenomena, especially in the field of psychology and psychiatry. The objective is not generalizable knowledge, but an understanding of meaning and intentionality for an individual or individuals. Sigmund Freud’s case studies are relevant examples. This usage of case reports borders on qualitative research. Qualitative studies, although developed in the social sciences, have become a welcome contribution within health sciences in the last two decades.

Educational value

Clinical medical learning is to a large degree case-based. Typical case histories and vignettes are often presented in textbooks, in lectures, etc. Unusual observations presented as published case reports are important as part of doctors’ continuing medical education, especially as they demonstrate the diversity of manifestations both within and between medical diseases and syndromes [ 37 , 38 ]. Among the various medical texts, the case report is the only one that presents day-to-day clinical practice, clinicians’ diagnostic reasoning, disease management, and follow-up. We believe that some case reports that are written with the aim of contributing to medical knowledge turn out to be of most value educationally because the phenomena have already been described elsewhere. Other case reports are clearly primarily written for educational value [ 37 ]. Some journals have regular sections dedicated to educational case reports, e.g. The Case Records of the Massachusetts General Hospital in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Clinical Case Conference found in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The cost of doing a case report is low compared to planned, formal studies. Most often the necessary work is probably done in the clinical setting without specific funding. Larger studies, for instance RCTs, will usually need an academic setting.

Fast publication

The time span from observation to publication can be much shorter than for other kinds of studies. This is obviously a great advantage as a case report can be an important alert to the medical community about a serious event. The unexpected side effects of the sedative-antinauseant thalidomide on newborn babies is a telling story. The drug had been prescribed during pregnancy to the babies’ mothers. After the first published observation of severe abnormalities in babies appeared as a letter to the editor of the Lancet in December 16 th , 1961 [ 25 ], several case reports and series followed [ 39 , 40 ]. It should be mentioned though that the drug company had announced on December 2 nd , 1961, i.e. two weeks before the letter from McBride [ 25 ], that it would withdraw the drug form the market immediately [ 41 ].

Flexible structure

Riaz Agha, editor of the International Journal of Surgery Case Reports suggests that the case report, with its less rigid structure is useful as it “… allows the surgeon(s) to discuss their diagnostic approach, the context, background, decision-making, reasoning and outcomes” [ 42 ]. Although the editor is commenting on the surgical case report, the argument can be applied for the whole field of clinical medicine. It should be mentioned though, that other commentators have argued for a more standardized, in effect more rigid, structure [ 43 ].

Clinical practice can be changed

Case reporting can lead to or contribute to a change in clinical practice. A drug might be withdrawn from the market. Or a relabeling might change the attitude to and treatment of a condition. During Word War I the shell shock syndrome was labeled and described thoroughly in several articles in the Lancet , the first of them appearing in February 1915 [ 44 ]. The author was the British captain and military doctor Charles S. Myers. Before his efforts to bring good care and treatment to afflicted soldiers there had been a common misconception that many of these dysfunctional soldiers were malingerers or cowards.

Exercise for novice researchers

The case report format is well suited for young doctors not yet trained as researchers. It can be an opportunity for a first exercise in authoring an article and a preparation for a scientific career [ 37 , 45 , 46 ].

Communication between the clinical and academic fields

Articles authored by clinicians can promote communication between practicing clinicians and academic researchers. Observations published can generate ideas and be a trigger for further studies. For instance, a case series consisting of several similar cases in a short period can make up the case-group for a case–control study [ 47 ]. Clinicians could do the observation and publish the case series while the case–control study could be left to the academics.

Entertainment

Some commentators find reading case reports fun. Although a rather weak argument in favor of case reporting, the value of being entertained should not be dismissed altogether. It might inspire physicians to spend more time browsing and reading scientific literature [ 48 ].

Studying the history of medicine

Finally, we present a note on a different and unintended aspect of the genre. The accumulated case reports from past eras are a rich resource for researching and understanding medical history [ 49 , 50 ]. A close study of old case reports can provide valuable information about how medicine has been practiced through the centuries [ 50 , 51 ].

Limitations

No epidemiological quantities.

As case reports are not chosen from representative population samples they cannot generate information on rates, ratios, incidences or prevalences. The case or cases being the numerator in the equation, has no denominator. However, if a case series report consists of a cluster of cases, it can signal an important and possibly causal association, e.g. an epidemic or a side effect of a newly marketed drug.

Causal inference not possible

Causality cannot be inferred from an uncontrolled observation. An association does not imply a cause-effect relationship. The observation or event in question could be a mere coincidence. This is a limitation shared by all the descriptive studies [ 47 ]. Take the thalidomide tragedy already mentioned as an example; Unusual events such as congenital malformations in some of the children born to mothers having taken a specific drug during pregnancy does not prove that the drug is the culprit. It is a mere hypothesis until further studies have either rejected or confirmed it. Cause-effect relationships require planned studies including control groups that to the extent possible control for chance, bias and confounders [ 52 ].

Generalization not possible

From the argument above, it follows that findings from case reports cannot be generalized. In order to generalize we need both a cause-effect relationship and a representative population for which the findings are valid. A single case report has neither. A case series, on the other hand, e.g. many “thalidomide babies” in a short time period, could strengthen the suspicion of a causal relationship, demanding further surveillance and research.

Publication bias could be a limiting factor. Journals in general favor positive-outcome findings [ 53 ]. One group of investigators studying case reports published in the Lancet found that only 5% of case reports and 10% of case series reported treatment failures [ 54 ]. A study of 435 case reports from the field of dentistry found that in 99.1%, the reports “…clearly [had] a positive outcome and the intervention was considered and described as successful by the authors” [ 55 ].

Overinterpretation

Overinterpretation or misinterpretation is the tendency or temptation to generalize when there is no justification for it. It has also been labeled “the anecdotal fallacy” [ 56 ]. This is not a shortcoming intrinsic to the method itself. Overinterpretation may be due to the phenomenon of case reports often having an emotional appeal on readers. The story implicitly makes a claim to truth. The reader might conclude prematurely that there is a causal connection. The phenomenon might be more clearly illustrated by the impact of the clinician’s load of personal cases on his or her practice. Here exemplified by a young doctor’s confession: “I often tell residents and medical students, ‘The only thing that actually changes practice is adverse anecdote.’” [ 57 ].

Emphasis on the rare

As case reporting often deals with the rare and atypical, it might divert the readers’ attention from common diseases and problems [ 58 ].

Confidentiality

Journals today require written informed consent from patients before publishing case reports. Both authors and publishers are responsible for securing confidentiality. A guarantee for full confidentiality is not always possible. Despite all possible measures taken to preserve confidentiality, sometimes the patient will be recognized by someone. This information should be given to the patient. An adequately informed patient might not consent to publication. In 1995 in an Editorial in the British Journal of Psychiatry one commentator, Isaac Marks, feared that written consent would discourage case reports being written [ 59 ]. Fortunately, judged form the large number of reports being published today, it seems unlikely that the demand for consent has impeded their publication.

Other methodological limitations

Case reports and series are written after the relevant event, i.e. the observation. Thus, the reports are produced retrospectively. The medical record might not contain all relevant data. Recall bias might prevent us from getting the necessary information from the patient or other informants such as family members and health professionals.

It has also been held against case reporting that it is subjective. The observer’s subjectivity might bias the quality and interpretation of the observation (i.e. information bias).

Finally, the falsification criterion within science, which is tested by repeating an experiment, cannot be applied for case reports. We cannot design another identical and uncontrolled observation. However, unplanned similar “experiments” of nature can be repeated. Several such observations can constitute a case series that represents stronger indicative evidence than the single case report.

The major advantages of case reporting are the ability to make new observations, generate hypotheses, accumulate scientific data about rare disorders, do in-depth narrative studies, and serve as a major educational tool. The method is deficient mainly in being unable to deliver quantitative data. Nor can it prove cause-effect relationship or allow generalizations. Furthermore, there is a risk of overinterpretation and publication bias.

The traditional case report does not fit easily into the qualitative-quantitative dichotomy of research methods. It certainly shares some characteristics with qualitative research [ 16 ], especially with regard to the idiographic, narrative perspective – the patient’s “interior world” [ 60 ] – that sometimes is attended to. Apart from “The storied case report” mentioned in the Background-section, other innovative modifications of the traditional case report have been tried: the “evidence-based case report” [ 61 ], the “interactive case report” [ 62 ] and the “integrated narrative and evidence based case report” [ 63 ]. These modifications of the format have not made a lasting impact on the way case reports in general are written today.

The method of case reporting is briefly dealt with in some textbooks on epidemiology [ 17 , 18 ]. Journals that welcome case reports often put more emphasis on style and design than on content in their ‘instruction to authors’ section [ 64 ]. As a consequence, Sorinola and coworkers argue for more consensus and more consistent guidance on writing case reports [ 64 ]. We feel that a satisfactory amount of guidance concerning both style and content now exists [ 12 , 16 , 65 , 66 ]. The latest contribution, “The CARE guidelines”, is an ambitious endeavor to improve completeness and transparency of reports [ 66 ]. These guidelines have included the “Patient perspective” as an item, apparently a bit half-heartedly as this item is placed after the Discussion section, thus not allowing this perspective to influence the Discussion and/or Conclusion section. We assume this is symptomatic of medicine’s problem with integrating the biomedical model with “narrative-based medicine”.

In recent years the medical community has taken an increased interest in case reports [ 2 ], especially after the surge of online, exclusive case report journals started in 2007 with the Journal of Medical Case Reports (which was the first international, Pubmed-listed medical journal publishing only case reports) as the first of this new brand. The climate of skepticism has been replaced by enthusiasm and demand for more case reports. A registry for case reports, Cases Database, was founded in 2012 [ 67 ]. On the condition that it succeeds in becoming a large, international database it could serve as a register being useful for clinicians at work as well as for medical research on various clinical issues. Assuming Pamela P. Powell’s assertion that “[a]lmost all practicing physicians eventually will encounter a case worthy of being reported” [ 60 ] is valid, there should be no shortage of potential cases waiting to be reported and filed in various databases, preferably online and open access.

Limitations of this review

There are several limitations to this study. It is a weakness that we have not been able to review all the relevant literature. The number of publications in some way related to case reports and case report series is enormous, and although we have attempted to identify those publications relevant for our purpose (i.e. those that describe the merits and limitations of the case report genre), we might have missed some. It was difficult to find good search terms for our objective. Still, after repeated electronic searches supplemented with manual searches in reference lists, we had a corpus of literature where essentially no new merits or limitations emerged.

As we point out above, the ranking of merits and limitations represents our subjective opinion and we acknowledge that others might rank the importance of the items differently.

The perspective on merits and limitations of case reporting has been strictly medical. As a consequence we have not analyzed or discussed the various non-medical factors affecting the publication of case reports in different medical journals [ 2 ]. For instance, case reports are cited less often than other kinds of medical research articles [ 68 ]. Thus they can lower a journal’s impact factor, potentially making the journal less attractive. This might lead some high-impact journals to publish few or no case reports, while other journals have chosen to specialize in this genre.

Before deciding on producing a case report or case series based on a particular patient or patients at hand, the observant clinician has to determine if the case report method is the appropriate article type. This review could hopefully assist in that judgment and perhaps be a stimulus to the continuing debate in the medical community on the value of case reporting.

Competing interests

The authors declare that there are no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

TN contributed to the conception, drafting, and revision of the article. RW contributed to the conception, drafting, and revision of the article. Both authors approved the final manuscript.

Acknowledgements

There was no specific funding for this study.

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Ch 2: Psychological Research Methods

Children sit in front of a bank of television screens. A sign on the wall says, “Some content may not be suitable for children.”

Have you ever wondered whether the violence you see on television affects your behavior? Are you more likely to behave aggressively in real life after watching people behave violently in dramatic situations on the screen? Or, could seeing fictional violence actually get aggression out of your system, causing you to be more peaceful? How are children influenced by the media they are exposed to? A psychologist interested in the relationship between behavior and exposure to violent images might ask these very questions.

The topic of violence in the media today is contentious. Since ancient times, humans have been concerned about the effects of new technologies on our behaviors and thinking processes. The Greek philosopher Socrates, for example, worried that writing—a new technology at that time—would diminish people’s ability to remember because they could rely on written records rather than committing information to memory. In our world of quickly changing technologies, questions about the effects of media continue to emerge. Is it okay to talk on a cell phone while driving? Are headphones good to use in a car? What impact does text messaging have on reaction time while driving? These are types of questions that psychologist David Strayer asks in his lab.

Watch this short video to see how Strayer utilizes the scientific method to reach important conclusions regarding technology and driving safety.

You can view the transcript for “Understanding driver distraction” here (opens in new window) .

How can we go about finding answers that are supported not by mere opinion, but by evidence that we can all agree on? The findings of psychological research can help us navigate issues like this.

Introduction to the Scientific Method

Learning objectives.

  • Explain the steps of the scientific method
  • Describe why the scientific method is important to psychology
  • Summarize the processes of informed consent and debriefing
  • Explain how research involving humans or animals is regulated

photograph of the word "research" from a dictionary with a pen pointing at the word.

Scientists are engaged in explaining and understanding how the world around them works, and they are able to do so by coming up with theories that generate hypotheses that are testable and falsifiable. Theories that stand up to their tests are retained and refined, while those that do not are discarded or modified. In this way, research enables scientists to separate fact from simple opinion. Having good information generated from research aids in making wise decisions both in public policy and in our personal lives. In this section, you’ll see how psychologists use the scientific method to study and understand behavior.

The Scientific Process

A skull has a large hole bored through the forehead.

The goal of all scientists is to better understand the world around them. Psychologists focus their attention on understanding behavior, as well as the cognitive (mental) and physiological (body) processes that underlie behavior. In contrast to other methods that people use to understand the behavior of others, such as intuition and personal experience, the hallmark of scientific research is that there is evidence to support a claim. Scientific knowledge is empirical : It is grounded in objective, tangible evidence that can be observed time and time again, regardless of who is observing.

While behavior is observable, the mind is not. If someone is crying, we can see the behavior. However, the reason for the behavior is more difficult to determine. Is the person crying due to being sad, in pain, or happy? Sometimes we can learn the reason for someone’s behavior by simply asking a question, like “Why are you crying?” However, there are situations in which an individual is either uncomfortable or unwilling to answer the question honestly, or is incapable of answering. For example, infants would not be able to explain why they are crying. In such circumstances, the psychologist must be creative in finding ways to better understand behavior. This module explores how scientific knowledge is generated, and how important that knowledge is in forming decisions in our personal lives and in the public domain.

Process of Scientific Research

Flowchart of the scientific method. It begins with make an observation, then ask a question, form a hypothesis that answers the question, make a prediction based on the hypothesis, do an experiment to test the prediction, analyze the results, prove the hypothesis correct or incorrect, then report the results.

Scientific knowledge is advanced through a process known as the scientific method. Basically, ideas (in the form of theories and hypotheses) are tested against the real world (in the form of empirical observations), and those empirical observations lead to more ideas that are tested against the real world, and so on.

The basic steps in the scientific method are:

  • Observe a natural phenomenon and define a question about it
  • Make a hypothesis, or potential solution to the question
  • Test the hypothesis
  • If the hypothesis is true, find more evidence or find counter-evidence
  • If the hypothesis is false, create a new hypothesis or try again
  • Draw conclusions and repeat–the scientific method is never-ending, and no result is ever considered perfect

In order to ask an important question that may improve our understanding of the world, a researcher must first observe natural phenomena. By making observations, a researcher can define a useful question. After finding a question to answer, the researcher can then make a prediction (a hypothesis) about what he or she thinks the answer will be. This prediction is usually a statement about the relationship between two or more variables. After making a hypothesis, the researcher will then design an experiment to test his or her hypothesis and evaluate the data gathered. These data will either support or refute the hypothesis. Based on the conclusions drawn from the data, the researcher will then find more evidence to support the hypothesis, look for counter-evidence to further strengthen the hypothesis, revise the hypothesis and create a new experiment, or continue to incorporate the information gathered to answer the research question.

Basic Principles of the Scientific Method

Two key concepts in the scientific approach are theory and hypothesis. A theory is a well-developed set of ideas that propose an explanation for observed phenomena that can be used to make predictions about future observations. A hypothesis is a testable prediction that is arrived at logically from a theory. It is often worded as an if-then statement (e.g., if I study all night, I will get a passing grade on the test). The hypothesis is extremely important because it bridges the gap between the realm of ideas and the real world. As specific hypotheses are tested, theories are modified and refined to reflect and incorporate the result of these tests.

A diagram has four boxes: the top is labeled “theory,” the right is labeled “hypothesis,” the bottom is labeled “research,” and the left is labeled “observation.” Arrows flow in the direction from top to right to bottom to left and back to the top, clockwise. The top right arrow is labeled “use the hypothesis to form a theory,” the bottom right arrow is labeled “design a study to test the hypothesis,” the bottom left arrow is labeled “perform the research,” and the top left arrow is labeled “create or modify the theory.”

Other key components in following the scientific method include verifiability, predictability, falsifiability, and fairness. Verifiability means that an experiment must be replicable by another researcher. To achieve verifiability, researchers must make sure to document their methods and clearly explain how their experiment is structured and why it produces certain results.

Predictability in a scientific theory implies that the theory should enable us to make predictions about future events. The precision of these predictions is a measure of the strength of the theory.

Falsifiability refers to whether a hypothesis can be disproved. For a hypothesis to be falsifiable, it must be logically possible to make an observation or do a physical experiment that would show that there is no support for the hypothesis. Even when a hypothesis cannot be shown to be false, that does not necessarily mean it is not valid. Future testing may disprove the hypothesis. This does not mean that a hypothesis has to be shown to be false, just that it can be tested.

To determine whether a hypothesis is supported or not supported, psychological researchers must conduct hypothesis testing using statistics. Hypothesis testing is a type of statistics that determines the probability of a hypothesis being true or false. If hypothesis testing reveals that results were “statistically significant,” this means that there was support for the hypothesis and that the researchers can be reasonably confident that their result was not due to random chance. If the results are not statistically significant, this means that the researchers’ hypothesis was not supported.

Fairness implies that all data must be considered when evaluating a hypothesis. A researcher cannot pick and choose what data to keep and what to discard or focus specifically on data that support or do not support a particular hypothesis. All data must be accounted for, even if they invalidate the hypothesis.

Applying the Scientific Method

To see how this process works, let’s consider a specific theory and a hypothesis that might be generated from that theory. As you’ll learn in a later module, the James-Lange theory of emotion asserts that emotional experience relies on the physiological arousal associated with the emotional state. If you walked out of your home and discovered a very aggressive snake waiting on your doorstep, your heart would begin to race and your stomach churn. According to the James-Lange theory, these physiological changes would result in your feeling of fear. A hypothesis that could be derived from this theory might be that a person who is unaware of the physiological arousal that the sight of the snake elicits will not feel fear.

Remember that a good scientific hypothesis is falsifiable, or capable of being shown to be incorrect. Recall from the introductory module that Sigmund Freud had lots of interesting ideas to explain various human behaviors (Figure 5). However, a major criticism of Freud’s theories is that many of his ideas are not falsifiable; for example, it is impossible to imagine empirical observations that would disprove the existence of the id, the ego, and the superego—the three elements of personality described in Freud’s theories. Despite this, Freud’s theories are widely taught in introductory psychology texts because of their historical significance for personality psychology and psychotherapy, and these remain the root of all modern forms of therapy.

(a)A photograph shows Freud holding a cigar. (b) The mind’s conscious and unconscious states are illustrated as an iceberg floating in water. Beneath the water’s surface in the “unconscious” area are the id, ego, and superego. The area just below the water’s surface is labeled “preconscious.” The area above the water’s surface is labeled “conscious.”

In contrast, the James-Lange theory does generate falsifiable hypotheses, such as the one described above. Some individuals who suffer significant injuries to their spinal columns are unable to feel the bodily changes that often accompany emotional experiences. Therefore, we could test the hypothesis by determining how emotional experiences differ between individuals who have the ability to detect these changes in their physiological arousal and those who do not. In fact, this research has been conducted and while the emotional experiences of people deprived of an awareness of their physiological arousal may be less intense, they still experience emotion (Chwalisz, Diener, & Gallagher, 1988).

Link to Learning

Why the scientific method is important for psychology.

The use of the scientific method is one of the main features that separates modern psychology from earlier philosophical inquiries about the mind. Compared to chemistry, physics, and other “natural sciences,” psychology has long been considered one of the “social sciences” because of the subjective nature of the things it seeks to study. Many of the concepts that psychologists are interested in—such as aspects of the human mind, behavior, and emotions—are subjective and cannot be directly measured. Psychologists often rely instead on behavioral observations and self-reported data, which are considered by some to be illegitimate or lacking in methodological rigor. Applying the scientific method to psychology, therefore, helps to standardize the approach to understanding its very different types of information.

The scientific method allows psychological data to be replicated and confirmed in many instances, under different circumstances, and by a variety of researchers. Through replication of experiments, new generations of psychologists can reduce errors and broaden the applicability of theories. It also allows theories to be tested and validated instead of simply being conjectures that could never be verified or falsified. All of this allows psychologists to gain a stronger understanding of how the human mind works.

Scientific articles published in journals and psychology papers written in the style of the American Psychological Association (i.e., in “APA style”) are structured around the scientific method. These papers include an Introduction, which introduces the background information and outlines the hypotheses; a Methods section, which outlines the specifics of how the experiment was conducted to test the hypothesis; a Results section, which includes the statistics that tested the hypothesis and state whether it was supported or not supported, and a Discussion and Conclusion, which state the implications of finding support for, or no support for, the hypothesis. Writing articles and papers that adhere to the scientific method makes it easy for future researchers to repeat the study and attempt to replicate the results.

Ethics in Research

Today, scientists agree that good research is ethical in nature and is guided by a basic respect for human dignity and safety. However, as you will read in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, this has not always been the case. Modern researchers must demonstrate that the research they perform is ethically sound. This section presents how ethical considerations affect the design and implementation of research conducted today.

Research Involving Human Participants

Any experiment involving the participation of human subjects is governed by extensive, strict guidelines designed to ensure that the experiment does not result in harm. Any research institution that receives federal support for research involving human participants must have access to an institutional review board (IRB) . The IRB is a committee of individuals often made up of members of the institution’s administration, scientists, and community members (Figure 6). The purpose of the IRB is to review proposals for research that involves human participants. The IRB reviews these proposals with the principles mentioned above in mind, and generally, approval from the IRB is required in order for the experiment to proceed.

A photograph shows a group of people seated around tables in a meeting room.

An institution’s IRB requires several components in any experiment it approves. For one, each participant must sign an informed consent form before they can participate in the experiment. An informed consent  form provides a written description of what participants can expect during the experiment, including potential risks and implications of the research. It also lets participants know that their involvement is completely voluntary and can be discontinued without penalty at any time. Furthermore, the informed consent guarantees that any data collected in the experiment will remain completely confidential. In cases where research participants are under the age of 18, the parents or legal guardians are required to sign the informed consent form.

While the informed consent form should be as honest as possible in describing exactly what participants will be doing, sometimes deception is necessary to prevent participants’ knowledge of the exact research question from affecting the results of the study. Deception involves purposely misleading experiment participants in order to maintain the integrity of the experiment, but not to the point where the deception could be considered harmful. For example, if we are interested in how our opinion of someone is affected by their attire, we might use deception in describing the experiment to prevent that knowledge from affecting participants’ responses. In cases where deception is involved, participants must receive a full debriefing  upon conclusion of the study—complete, honest information about the purpose of the experiment, how the data collected will be used, the reasons why deception was necessary, and information about how to obtain additional information about the study.

Dig Deeper: Ethics and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Unfortunately, the ethical guidelines that exist for research today were not always applied in the past. In 1932, poor, rural, black, male sharecroppers from Tuskegee, Alabama, were recruited to participate in an experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, with the aim of studying syphilis in black men (Figure 7). In exchange for free medical care, meals, and burial insurance, 600 men agreed to participate in the study. A little more than half of the men tested positive for syphilis, and they served as the experimental group (given that the researchers could not randomly assign participants to groups, this represents a quasi-experiment). The remaining syphilis-free individuals served as the control group. However, those individuals that tested positive for syphilis were never informed that they had the disease.

While there was no treatment for syphilis when the study began, by 1947 penicillin was recognized as an effective treatment for the disease. Despite this, no penicillin was administered to the participants in this study, and the participants were not allowed to seek treatment at any other facilities if they continued in the study. Over the course of 40 years, many of the participants unknowingly spread syphilis to their wives (and subsequently their children born from their wives) and eventually died because they never received treatment for the disease. This study was discontinued in 1972 when the experiment was discovered by the national press (Tuskegee University, n.d.). The resulting outrage over the experiment led directly to the National Research Act of 1974 and the strict ethical guidelines for research on humans described in this chapter. Why is this study unethical? How were the men who participated and their families harmed as a function of this research?

A photograph shows a person administering an injection.

Learn more about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study on the CDC website .

Research Involving Animal Subjects

A photograph shows a rat.

This does not mean that animal researchers are immune to ethical concerns. Indeed, the humane and ethical treatment of animal research subjects is a critical aspect of this type of research. Researchers must design their experiments to minimize any pain or distress experienced by animals serving as research subjects.

Whereas IRBs review research proposals that involve human participants, animal experimental proposals are reviewed by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) . An IACUC consists of institutional administrators, scientists, veterinarians, and community members. This committee is charged with ensuring that all experimental proposals require the humane treatment of animal research subjects. It also conducts semi-annual inspections of all animal facilities to ensure that the research protocols are being followed. No animal research project can proceed without the committee’s approval.

Introduction to Approaches to Research

  • Differentiate between descriptive, correlational, and experimental research
  • Explain the strengths and weaknesses of case studies, naturalistic observation, and surveys
  • Describe the strength and weaknesses of archival research
  • Compare longitudinal and cross-sectional approaches to research
  • Explain what a correlation coefficient tells us about the relationship between variables
  • Describe why correlation does not mean causation
  • Describe the experimental process, including ways to control for bias
  • Identify and differentiate between independent and dependent variables

Three researchers review data while talking around a microscope.

Psychologists use descriptive, experimental, and correlational methods to conduct research. Descriptive, or qualitative, methods include the case study, naturalistic observation, surveys, archival research, longitudinal research, and cross-sectional research.

Experiments are conducted in order to determine cause-and-effect relationships. In ideal experimental design, the only difference between the experimental and control groups is whether participants are exposed to the experimental manipulation. Each group goes through all phases of the experiment, but each group will experience a different level of the independent variable: the experimental group is exposed to the experimental manipulation, and the control group is not exposed to the experimental manipulation. The researcher then measures the changes that are produced in the dependent variable in each group. Once data is collected from both groups, it is analyzed statistically to determine if there are meaningful differences between the groups.

When scientists passively observe and measure phenomena it is called correlational research. Here, psychologists do not intervene and change behavior, as they do in experiments. In correlational research, they identify patterns of relationships, but usually cannot infer what causes what. Importantly, with correlational research, you can examine only two variables at a time, no more and no less.

Watch It: More on Research

If you enjoy learning through lectures and want an interesting and comprehensive summary of this section, then click on the Youtube link to watch a lecture given by MIT Professor John Gabrieli . Start at the 30:45 minute mark  and watch through the end to hear examples of actual psychological studies and how they were analyzed. Listen for references to independent and dependent variables, experimenter bias, and double-blind studies. In the lecture, you’ll learn about breaking social norms, “WEIRD” research, why expectations matter, how a warm cup of coffee might make you nicer, why you should change your answer on a multiple choice test, and why praise for intelligence won’t make you any smarter.

You can view the transcript for “Lec 2 | MIT 9.00SC Introduction to Psychology, Spring 2011” here (opens in new window) .

Descriptive Research

There are many research methods available to psychologists in their efforts to understand, describe, and explain behavior and the cognitive and biological processes that underlie it. Some methods rely on observational techniques. Other approaches involve interactions between the researcher and the individuals who are being studied—ranging from a series of simple questions to extensive, in-depth interviews—to well-controlled experiments.

The three main categories of psychological research are descriptive, correlational, and experimental research. Research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables are called descriptive, or qualitative, studies . These studies are used to describe general or specific behaviors and attributes that are observed and measured. In the early stages of research it might be difficult to form a hypothesis, especially when there is not any existing literature in the area. In these situations designing an experiment would be premature, as the question of interest is not yet clearly defined as a hypothesis. Often a researcher will begin with a non-experimental approach, such as a descriptive study, to gather more information about the topic before designing an experiment or correlational study to address a specific hypothesis. Descriptive research is distinct from correlational research , in which psychologists formally test whether a relationship exists between two or more variables. Experimental research  goes a step further beyond descriptive and correlational research and randomly assigns people to different conditions, using hypothesis testing to make inferences about how these conditions affect behavior. It aims to determine if one variable directly impacts and causes another. Correlational and experimental research both typically use hypothesis testing, whereas descriptive research does not.

Each of these research methods has unique strengths and weaknesses, and each method may only be appropriate for certain types of research questions. For example, studies that rely primarily on observation produce incredible amounts of information, but the ability to apply this information to the larger population is somewhat limited because of small sample sizes. Survey research, on the other hand, allows researchers to easily collect data from relatively large samples. While this allows for results to be generalized to the larger population more easily, the information that can be collected on any given survey is somewhat limited and subject to problems associated with any type of self-reported data. Some researchers conduct archival research by using existing records. While this can be a fairly inexpensive way to collect data that can provide insight into a number of research questions, researchers using this approach have no control on how or what kind of data was collected.

Correlational research can find a relationship between two variables, but the only way a researcher can claim that the relationship between the variables is cause and effect is to perform an experiment. In experimental research, which will be discussed later in the text, there is a tremendous amount of control over variables of interest. While this is a powerful approach, experiments are often conducted in very artificial settings. This calls into question the validity of experimental findings with regard to how they would apply in real-world settings. In addition, many of the questions that psychologists would like to answer cannot be pursued through experimental research because of ethical concerns.

The three main types of descriptive studies are, naturalistic observation, case studies, and surveys.

Naturalistic Observation

If you want to understand how behavior occurs, one of the best ways to gain information is to simply observe the behavior in its natural context. However, people might change their behavior in unexpected ways if they know they are being observed. How do researchers obtain accurate information when people tend to hide their natural behavior? As an example, imagine that your professor asks everyone in your class to raise their hand if they always wash their hands after using the restroom. Chances are that almost everyone in the classroom will raise their hand, but do you think hand washing after every trip to the restroom is really that universal?

This is very similar to the phenomenon mentioned earlier in this module: many individuals do not feel comfortable answering a question honestly. But if we are committed to finding out the facts about hand washing, we have other options available to us.

Suppose we send a classmate into the restroom to actually watch whether everyone washes their hands after using the restroom. Will our observer blend into the restroom environment by wearing a white lab coat, sitting with a clipboard, and staring at the sinks? We want our researcher to be inconspicuous—perhaps standing at one of the sinks pretending to put in contact lenses while secretly recording the relevant information. This type of observational study is called naturalistic observation : observing behavior in its natural setting. To better understand peer exclusion, Suzanne Fanger collaborated with colleagues at the University of Texas to observe the behavior of preschool children on a playground. How did the observers remain inconspicuous over the duration of the study? They equipped a few of the children with wireless microphones (which the children quickly forgot about) and observed while taking notes from a distance. Also, the children in that particular preschool (a “laboratory preschool”) were accustomed to having observers on the playground (Fanger, Frankel, & Hazen, 2012).

A photograph shows two police cars driving, one with its lights flashing.

It is critical that the observer be as unobtrusive and as inconspicuous as possible: when people know they are being watched, they are less likely to behave naturally. If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how your driving behavior might differ in two situations: In the first situation, you are driving down a deserted highway during the middle of the day; in the second situation, you are being followed by a police car down the same deserted highway (Figure 9).

It should be pointed out that naturalistic observation is not limited to research involving humans. Indeed, some of the best-known examples of naturalistic observation involve researchers going into the field to observe various kinds of animals in their own environments. As with human studies, the researchers maintain their distance and avoid interfering with the animal subjects so as not to influence their natural behaviors. Scientists have used this technique to study social hierarchies and interactions among animals ranging from ground squirrels to gorillas. The information provided by these studies is invaluable in understanding how those animals organize socially and communicate with one another. The anthropologist Jane Goodall, for example, spent nearly five decades observing the behavior of chimpanzees in Africa (Figure 10). As an illustration of the types of concerns that a researcher might encounter in naturalistic observation, some scientists criticized Goodall for giving the chimps names instead of referring to them by numbers—using names was thought to undermine the emotional detachment required for the objectivity of the study (McKie, 2010).

(a) A photograph shows Jane Goodall speaking from a lectern. (b) A photograph shows a chimpanzee’s face.

The greatest benefit of naturalistic observation is the validity, or accuracy, of information collected unobtrusively in a natural setting. Having individuals behave as they normally would in a given situation means that we have a higher degree of ecological validity, or realism, than we might achieve with other research approaches. Therefore, our ability to generalize  the findings of the research to real-world situations is enhanced. If done correctly, we need not worry about people or animals modifying their behavior simply because they are being observed. Sometimes, people may assume that reality programs give us a glimpse into authentic human behavior. However, the principle of inconspicuous observation is violated as reality stars are followed by camera crews and are interviewed on camera for personal confessionals. Given that environment, we must doubt how natural and realistic their behaviors are.

The major downside of naturalistic observation is that they are often difficult to set up and control. In our restroom study, what if you stood in the restroom all day prepared to record people’s hand washing behavior and no one came in? Or, what if you have been closely observing a troop of gorillas for weeks only to find that they migrated to a new place while you were sleeping in your tent? The benefit of realistic data comes at a cost. As a researcher you have no control of when (or if) you have behavior to observe. In addition, this type of observational research often requires significant investments of time, money, and a good dose of luck.

Sometimes studies involve structured observation. In these cases, people are observed while engaging in set, specific tasks. An excellent example of structured observation comes from Strange Situation by Mary Ainsworth (you will read more about this in the module on lifespan development). The Strange Situation is a procedure used to evaluate attachment styles that exist between an infant and caregiver. In this scenario, caregivers bring their infants into a room filled with toys. The Strange Situation involves a number of phases, including a stranger coming into the room, the caregiver leaving the room, and the caregiver’s return to the room. The infant’s behavior is closely monitored at each phase, but it is the behavior of the infant upon being reunited with the caregiver that is most telling in terms of characterizing the infant’s attachment style with the caregiver.

Another potential problem in observational research is observer bias . Generally, people who act as observers are closely involved in the research project and may unconsciously skew their observations to fit their research goals or expectations. To protect against this type of bias, researchers should have clear criteria established for the types of behaviors recorded and how those behaviors should be classified. In addition, researchers often compare observations of the same event by multiple observers, in order to test inter-rater reliability : a measure of reliability that assesses the consistency of observations by different observers.

Case Studies

In 2011, the New York Times published a feature story on Krista and Tatiana Hogan, Canadian twin girls. These particular twins are unique because Krista and Tatiana are conjoined twins, connected at the head. There is evidence that the two girls are connected in a part of the brain called the thalamus, which is a major sensory relay center. Most incoming sensory information is sent through the thalamus before reaching higher regions of the cerebral cortex for processing.

The implications of this potential connection mean that it might be possible for one twin to experience the sensations of the other twin. For instance, if Krista is watching a particularly funny television program, Tatiana might smile or laugh even if she is not watching the program. This particular possibility has piqued the interest of many neuroscientists who seek to understand how the brain uses sensory information.

These twins represent an enormous resource in the study of the brain, and since their condition is very rare, it is likely that as long as their family agrees, scientists will follow these girls very closely throughout their lives to gain as much information as possible (Dominus, 2011).

In observational research, scientists are conducting a clinical or case study when they focus on one person or just a few individuals. Indeed, some scientists spend their entire careers studying just 10–20 individuals. Why would they do this? Obviously, when they focus their attention on a very small number of people, they can gain a tremendous amount of insight into those cases. The richness of information that is collected in clinical or case studies is unmatched by any other single research method. This allows the researcher to have a very deep understanding of the individuals and the particular phenomenon being studied.

If clinical or case studies provide so much information, why are they not more frequent among researchers? As it turns out, the major benefit of this particular approach is also a weakness. As mentioned earlier, this approach is often used when studying individuals who are interesting to researchers because they have a rare characteristic. Therefore, the individuals who serve as the focus of case studies are not like most other people. If scientists ultimately want to explain all behavior, focusing attention on such a special group of people can make it difficult to generalize any observations to the larger population as a whole. Generalizing refers to the ability to apply the findings of a particular research project to larger segments of society. Again, case studies provide enormous amounts of information, but since the cases are so specific, the potential to apply what’s learned to the average person may be very limited.

Often, psychologists develop surveys as a means of gathering data. Surveys are lists of questions to be answered by research participants, and can be delivered as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally (Figure 11). Generally, the survey itself can be completed in a short time, and the ease of administering a survey makes it easy to collect data from a large number of people.

Surveys allow researchers to gather data from larger samples than may be afforded by other research methods . A sample is a subset of individuals selected from a population , which is the overall group of individuals that the researchers are interested in. Researchers study the sample and seek to generalize their findings to the population.

A sample online survey reads, “Dear visitor, your opinion is important to us. We would like to invite you to participate in a short survey to gather your opinions and feedback on your news consumption habits. The survey will take approximately 10-15 minutes. Simply click the “Yes” button below to launch the survey. Would you like to participate?” Two buttons are labeled “yes” and “no.”

There is both strength and weakness of the survey in comparison to case studies. By using surveys, we can collect information from a larger sample of people. A larger sample is better able to reflect the actual diversity of the population, thus allowing better generalizability. Therefore, if our sample is sufficiently large and diverse, we can assume that the data we collect from the survey can be generalized to the larger population with more certainty than the information collected through a case study. However, given the greater number of people involved, we are not able to collect the same depth of information on each person that would be collected in a case study.

Another potential weakness of surveys is something we touched on earlier in this chapter: people don’t always give accurate responses. They may lie, misremember, or answer questions in a way that they think makes them look good. For example, people may report drinking less alcohol than is actually the case.

Any number of research questions can be answered through the use of surveys. One real-world example is the research conducted by Jenkins, Ruppel, Kizer, Yehl, and Griffin (2012) about the backlash against the US Arab-American community following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Jenkins and colleagues wanted to determine to what extent these negative attitudes toward Arab-Americans still existed nearly a decade after the attacks occurred. In one study, 140 research participants filled out a survey with 10 questions, including questions asking directly about the participant’s overt prejudicial attitudes toward people of various ethnicities. The survey also asked indirect questions about how likely the participant would be to interact with a person of a given ethnicity in a variety of settings (such as, “How likely do you think it is that you would introduce yourself to a person of Arab-American descent?”). The results of the research suggested that participants were unwilling to report prejudicial attitudes toward any ethnic group. However, there were significant differences between their pattern of responses to questions about social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to other ethnic groups: they indicated less willingness for social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to the other ethnic groups. This suggested that the participants harbored subtle forms of prejudice against Arab-Americans, despite their assertions that this was not the case (Jenkins et al., 2012).

Think It Over

Archival research.

(a) A photograph shows stacks of paper files on shelves. (b) A photograph shows a computer.

In comparing archival research to other research methods, there are several important distinctions. For one, the researcher employing archival research never directly interacts with research participants. Therefore, the investment of time and money to collect data is considerably less with archival research. Additionally, researchers have no control over what information was originally collected. Therefore, research questions have to be tailored so they can be answered within the structure of the existing data sets. There is also no guarantee of consistency between the records from one source to another, which might make comparing and contrasting different data sets problematic.

Longitudinal and Cross-Sectional Research

Sometimes we want to see how people change over time, as in studies of human development and lifespan. When we test the same group of individuals repeatedly over an extended period of time, we are conducting longitudinal research. Longitudinal research  is a research design in which data-gathering is administered repeatedly over an extended period of time. For example, we may survey a group of individuals about their dietary habits at age 20, retest them a decade later at age 30, and then again at age 40.

Another approach is cross-sectional research . In cross-sectional research, a researcher compares multiple segments of the population at the same time. Using the dietary habits example above, the researcher might directly compare different groups of people by age. Instead of observing a group of people for 20 years to see how their dietary habits changed from decade to decade, the researcher would study a group of 20-year-old individuals and compare them to a group of 30-year-old individuals and a group of 40-year-old individuals. While cross-sectional research requires a shorter-term investment, it is also limited by differences that exist between the different generations (or cohorts) that have nothing to do with age per se, but rather reflect the social and cultural experiences of different generations of individuals make them different from one another.

To illustrate this concept, consider the following survey findings. In recent years there has been significant growth in the popular support of same-sex marriage. Many studies on this topic break down survey participants into different age groups. In general, younger people are more supportive of same-sex marriage than are those who are older (Jones, 2013). Does this mean that as we age we become less open to the idea of same-sex marriage, or does this mean that older individuals have different perspectives because of the social climates in which they grew up? Longitudinal research is a powerful approach because the same individuals are involved in the research project over time, which means that the researchers need to be less concerned with differences among cohorts affecting the results of their study.

Often longitudinal studies are employed when researching various diseases in an effort to understand particular risk factors. Such studies often involve tens of thousands of individuals who are followed for several decades. Given the enormous number of people involved in these studies, researchers can feel confident that their findings can be generalized to the larger population. The Cancer Prevention Study-3 (CPS-3) is one of a series of longitudinal studies sponsored by the American Cancer Society aimed at determining predictive risk factors associated with cancer. When participants enter the study, they complete a survey about their lives and family histories, providing information on factors that might cause or prevent the development of cancer. Then every few years the participants receive additional surveys to complete. In the end, hundreds of thousands of participants will be tracked over 20 years to determine which of them develop cancer and which do not.

Clearly, this type of research is important and potentially very informative. For instance, earlier longitudinal studies sponsored by the American Cancer Society provided some of the first scientific demonstrations of the now well-established links between increased rates of cancer and smoking (American Cancer Society, n.d.) (Figure 13).

A photograph shows pack of cigarettes and cigarettes in an ashtray. The pack of cigarettes reads, “Surgeon general’s warning: smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy.”

As with any research strategy, longitudinal research is not without limitations. For one, these studies require an incredible time investment by the researcher and research participants. Given that some longitudinal studies take years, if not decades, to complete, the results will not be known for a considerable period of time. In addition to the time demands, these studies also require a substantial financial investment. Many researchers are unable to commit the resources necessary to see a longitudinal project through to the end.

Research participants must also be willing to continue their participation for an extended period of time, and this can be problematic. People move, get married and take new names, get ill, and eventually die. Even without significant life changes, some people may simply choose to discontinue their participation in the project. As a result, the attrition  rates, or reduction in the number of research participants due to dropouts, in longitudinal studies are quite high and increases over the course of a project. For this reason, researchers using this approach typically recruit many participants fully expecting that a substantial number will drop out before the end. As the study progresses, they continually check whether the sample still represents the larger population, and make adjustments as necessary.

Correlational Research

Did you know that as sales in ice cream increase, so does the overall rate of crime? Is it possible that indulging in your favorite flavor of ice cream could send you on a crime spree? Or, after committing crime do you think you might decide to treat yourself to a cone? There is no question that a relationship exists between ice cream and crime (e.g., Harper, 2013), but it would be pretty foolish to decide that one thing actually caused the other to occur.

It is much more likely that both ice cream sales and crime rates are related to the temperature outside. When the temperature is warm, there are lots of people out of their houses, interacting with each other, getting annoyed with one another, and sometimes committing crimes. Also, when it is warm outside, we are more likely to seek a cool treat like ice cream. How do we determine if there is indeed a relationship between two things? And when there is a relationship, how can we discern whether it is attributable to coincidence or causation?

Three scatterplots are shown. Scatterplot (a) is labeled “positive correlation” and shows scattered dots forming a rough line from the bottom left to the top right; the x-axis is labeled “weight” and the y-axis is labeled “height.” Scatterplot (b) is labeled “negative correlation” and shows scattered dots forming a rough line from the top left to the bottom right; the x-axis is labeled “tiredness” and the y-axis is labeled “hours of sleep.” Scatterplot (c) is labeled “no correlation” and shows scattered dots having no pattern; the x-axis is labeled “shoe size” and the y-axis is labeled “hours of sleep.”

Correlation Does Not Indicate Causation

Correlational research is useful because it allows us to discover the strength and direction of relationships that exist between two variables. However, correlation is limited because establishing the existence of a relationship tells us little about cause and effect . While variables are sometimes correlated because one does cause the other, it could also be that some other factor, a confounding variable , is actually causing the systematic movement in our variables of interest. In the ice cream/crime rate example mentioned earlier, temperature is a confounding variable that could account for the relationship between the two variables.

Even when we cannot point to clear confounding variables, we should not assume that a correlation between two variables implies that one variable causes changes in another. This can be frustrating when a cause-and-effect relationship seems clear and intuitive. Think back to our discussion of the research done by the American Cancer Society and how their research projects were some of the first demonstrations of the link between smoking and cancer. It seems reasonable to assume that smoking causes cancer, but if we were limited to correlational research , we would be overstepping our bounds by making this assumption.

A photograph shows a bowl of cereal.

Unfortunately, people mistakenly make claims of causation as a function of correlations all the time. Such claims are especially common in advertisements and news stories. For example, recent research found that people who eat cereal on a regular basis achieve healthier weights than those who rarely eat cereal (Frantzen, Treviño, Echon, Garcia-Dominic, & DiMarco, 2013; Barton et al., 2005). Guess how the cereal companies report this finding. Does eating cereal really cause an individual to maintain a healthy weight, or are there other possible explanations, such as, someone at a healthy weight is more likely to regularly eat a healthy breakfast than someone who is obese or someone who avoids meals in an attempt to diet (Figure 15)? While correlational research is invaluable in identifying relationships among variables, a major limitation is the inability to establish causality. Psychologists want to make statements about cause and effect, but the only way to do that is to conduct an experiment to answer a research question. The next section describes how scientific experiments incorporate methods that eliminate, or control for, alternative explanations, which allow researchers to explore how changes in one variable cause changes in another variable.

Watch this clip from Freakonomics for an example of how correlation does  not  indicate causation.

You can view the transcript for “Correlation vs. Causality: Freakonomics Movie” here (opens in new window) .

Illusory Correlations

The temptation to make erroneous cause-and-effect statements based on correlational research is not the only way we tend to misinterpret data. We also tend to make the mistake of illusory correlations, especially with unsystematic observations. Illusory correlations , or false correlations, occur when people believe that relationships exist between two things when no such relationship exists. One well-known illusory correlation is the supposed effect that the moon’s phases have on human behavior. Many people passionately assert that human behavior is affected by the phase of the moon, and specifically, that people act strangely when the moon is full (Figure 16).

A photograph shows the moon.

There is no denying that the moon exerts a powerful influence on our planet. The ebb and flow of the ocean’s tides are tightly tied to the gravitational forces of the moon. Many people believe, therefore, that it is logical that we are affected by the moon as well. After all, our bodies are largely made up of water. A meta-analysis of nearly 40 studies consistently demonstrated, however, that the relationship between the moon and our behavior does not exist (Rotton & Kelly, 1985). While we may pay more attention to odd behavior during the full phase of the moon, the rates of odd behavior remain constant throughout the lunar cycle.

Why are we so apt to believe in illusory correlations like this? Often we read or hear about them and simply accept the information as valid. Or, we have a hunch about how something works and then look for evidence to support that hunch, ignoring evidence that would tell us our hunch is false; this is known as confirmation bias . Other times, we find illusory correlations based on the information that comes most easily to mind, even if that information is severely limited. And while we may feel confident that we can use these relationships to better understand and predict the world around us, illusory correlations can have significant drawbacks. For example, research suggests that illusory correlations—in which certain behaviors are inaccurately attributed to certain groups—are involved in the formation of prejudicial attitudes that can ultimately lead to discriminatory behavior (Fiedler, 2004).

We all have a tendency to make illusory correlations from time to time. Try to think of an illusory correlation that is held by you, a family member, or a close friend. How do you think this illusory correlation came about and what can be done in the future to combat them?

Experiments

Causality: conducting experiments and using the data, experimental hypothesis.

In order to conduct an experiment, a researcher must have a specific hypothesis to be tested. As you’ve learned, hypotheses can be formulated either through direct observation of the real world or after careful review of previous research. For example, if you think that children should not be allowed to watch violent programming on television because doing so would cause them to behave more violently, then you have basically formulated a hypothesis—namely, that watching violent television programs causes children to behave more violently. How might you have arrived at this particular hypothesis? You may have younger relatives who watch cartoons featuring characters using martial arts to save the world from evildoers, with an impressive array of punching, kicking, and defensive postures. You notice that after watching these programs for a while, your young relatives mimic the fighting behavior of the characters portrayed in the cartoon (Figure 17).

A photograph shows a child pointing a toy gun.

These sorts of personal observations are what often lead us to formulate a specific hypothesis, but we cannot use limited personal observations and anecdotal evidence to rigorously test our hypothesis. Instead, to find out if real-world data supports our hypothesis, we have to conduct an experiment.

Designing an Experiment

The most basic experimental design involves two groups: the experimental group and the control group. The two groups are designed to be the same except for one difference— experimental manipulation. The experimental group  gets the experimental manipulation—that is, the treatment or variable being tested (in this case, violent TV images)—and the control group does not. Since experimental manipulation is the only difference between the experimental and control groups, we can be sure that any differences between the two are due to experimental manipulation rather than chance.

In our example of how violent television programming might affect violent behavior in children, we have the experimental group view violent television programming for a specified time and then measure their violent behavior. We measure the violent behavior in our control group after they watch nonviolent television programming for the same amount of time. It is important for the control group to be treated similarly to the experimental group, with the exception that the control group does not receive the experimental manipulation. Therefore, we have the control group watch non-violent television programming for the same amount of time as the experimental group.

We also need to precisely define, or operationalize, what is considered violent and nonviolent. An operational definition is a description of how we will measure our variables, and it is important in allowing others understand exactly how and what a researcher measures in a particular experiment. In operationalizing violent behavior, we might choose to count only physical acts like kicking or punching as instances of this behavior, or we also may choose to include angry verbal exchanges. Whatever we determine, it is important that we operationalize violent behavior in such a way that anyone who hears about our study for the first time knows exactly what we mean by violence. This aids peoples’ ability to interpret our data as well as their capacity to repeat our experiment should they choose to do so.

Once we have operationalized what is considered violent television programming and what is considered violent behavior from our experiment participants, we need to establish how we will run our experiment. In this case, we might have participants watch a 30-minute television program (either violent or nonviolent, depending on their group membership) before sending them out to a playground for an hour where their behavior is observed and the number and type of violent acts is recorded.

Ideally, the people who observe and record the children’s behavior are unaware of who was assigned to the experimental or control group, in order to control for experimenter bias. Experimenter bias refers to the possibility that a researcher’s expectations might skew the results of the study. Remember, conducting an experiment requires a lot of planning, and the people involved in the research project have a vested interest in supporting their hypotheses. If the observers knew which child was in which group, it might influence how much attention they paid to each child’s behavior as well as how they interpreted that behavior. By being blind to which child is in which group, we protect against those biases. This situation is a single-blind study , meaning that one of the groups (participants) are unaware as to which group they are in (experiment or control group) while the researcher who developed the experiment knows which participants are in each group.

A photograph shows three glass bottles of pills labeled as placebos.

In a double-blind study , both the researchers and the participants are blind to group assignments. Why would a researcher want to run a study where no one knows who is in which group? Because by doing so, we can control for both experimenter and participant expectations. If you are familiar with the phrase placebo effect, you already have some idea as to why this is an important consideration. The placebo effect occurs when people’s expectations or beliefs influence or determine their experience in a given situation. In other words, simply expecting something to happen can actually make it happen.

The placebo effect is commonly described in terms of testing the effectiveness of a new medication. Imagine that you work in a pharmaceutical company, and you think you have a new drug that is effective in treating depression. To demonstrate that your medication is effective, you run an experiment with two groups: The experimental group receives the medication, and the control group does not. But you don’t want participants to know whether they received the drug or not.

Why is that? Imagine that you are a participant in this study, and you have just taken a pill that you think will improve your mood. Because you expect the pill to have an effect, you might feel better simply because you took the pill and not because of any drug actually contained in the pill—this is the placebo effect.

To make sure that any effects on mood are due to the drug and not due to expectations, the control group receives a placebo (in this case a sugar pill). Now everyone gets a pill, and once again neither the researcher nor the experimental participants know who got the drug and who got the sugar pill. Any differences in mood between the experimental and control groups can now be attributed to the drug itself rather than to experimenter bias or participant expectations (Figure 18).

Independent and Dependent Variables

In a research experiment, we strive to study whether changes in one thing cause changes in another. To achieve this, we must pay attention to two important variables, or things that can be changed, in any experimental study: the independent variable and the dependent variable. An independent variable is manipulated or controlled by the experimenter. In a well-designed experimental study, the independent variable is the only important difference between the experimental and control groups. In our example of how violent television programs affect children’s display of violent behavior, the independent variable is the type of program—violent or nonviolent—viewed by participants in the study (Figure 19). A dependent variable is what the researcher measures to see how much effect the independent variable had. In our example, the dependent variable is the number of violent acts displayed by the experimental participants.

A box labeled “independent variable: type of television programming viewed” contains a photograph of a person shooting an automatic weapon. An arrow labeled “influences change in the…” leads to a second box. The second box is labeled “dependent variable: violent behavior displayed” and has a photograph of a child pointing a toy gun.

We expect that the dependent variable will change as a function of the independent variable. In other words, the dependent variable depends on the independent variable. A good way to think about the relationship between the independent and dependent variables is with this question: What effect does the independent variable have on the dependent variable? Returning to our example, what effect does watching a half hour of violent television programming or nonviolent television programming have on the number of incidents of physical aggression displayed on the playground?

Selecting and Assigning Experimental Participants

Now that our study is designed, we need to obtain a sample of individuals to include in our experiment. Our study involves human participants so we need to determine who to include. Participants  are the subjects of psychological research, and as the name implies, individuals who are involved in psychological research actively participate in the process. Often, psychological research projects rely on college students to serve as participants. In fact, the vast majority of research in psychology subfields has historically involved students as research participants (Sears, 1986; Arnett, 2008). But are college students truly representative of the general population? College students tend to be younger, more educated, more liberal, and less diverse than the general population. Although using students as test subjects is an accepted practice, relying on such a limited pool of research participants can be problematic because it is difficult to generalize findings to the larger population.

Our hypothetical experiment involves children, and we must first generate a sample of child participants. Samples are used because populations are usually too large to reasonably involve every member in our particular experiment (Figure 20). If possible, we should use a random sample   (there are other types of samples, but for the purposes of this section, we will focus on random samples). A random sample is a subset of a larger population in which every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected. Random samples are preferred because if the sample is large enough we can be reasonably sure that the participating individuals are representative of the larger population. This means that the percentages of characteristics in the sample—sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, and any other characteristics that might affect the results—are close to those percentages in the larger population.

In our example, let’s say we decide our population of interest is fourth graders. But all fourth graders is a very large population, so we need to be more specific; instead we might say our population of interest is all fourth graders in a particular city. We should include students from various income brackets, family situations, races, ethnicities, religions, and geographic areas of town. With this more manageable population, we can work with the local schools in selecting a random sample of around 200 fourth graders who we want to participate in our experiment.

In summary, because we cannot test all of the fourth graders in a city, we want to find a group of about 200 that reflects the composition of that city. With a representative group, we can generalize our findings to the larger population without fear of our sample being biased in some way.

(a) A photograph shows an aerial view of crowds on a street. (b) A photograph shows s small group of children.

Now that we have a sample, the next step of the experimental process is to split the participants into experimental and control groups through random assignment. With random assignment , all participants have an equal chance of being assigned to either group. There is statistical software that will randomly assign each of the fourth graders in the sample to either the experimental or the control group.

Random assignment is critical for sound experimental design. With sufficiently large samples, random assignment makes it unlikely that there are systematic differences between the groups. So, for instance, it would be very unlikely that we would get one group composed entirely of males, a given ethnic identity, or a given religious ideology. This is important because if the groups were systematically different before the experiment began, we would not know the origin of any differences we find between the groups: Were the differences preexisting, or were they caused by manipulation of the independent variable? Random assignment allows us to assume that any differences observed between experimental and control groups result from the manipulation of the independent variable.

Issues to Consider

While experiments allow scientists to make cause-and-effect claims, they are not without problems. True experiments require the experimenter to manipulate an independent variable, and that can complicate many questions that psychologists might want to address. For instance, imagine that you want to know what effect sex (the independent variable) has on spatial memory (the dependent variable). Although you can certainly look for differences between males and females on a task that taps into spatial memory, you cannot directly control a person’s sex. We categorize this type of research approach as quasi-experimental and recognize that we cannot make cause-and-effect claims in these circumstances.

Experimenters are also limited by ethical constraints. For instance, you would not be able to conduct an experiment designed to determine if experiencing abuse as a child leads to lower levels of self-esteem among adults. To conduct such an experiment, you would need to randomly assign some experimental participants to a group that receives abuse, and that experiment would be unethical.

Introduction to Statistical Thinking

Psychologists use statistics to assist them in analyzing data, and also to give more precise measurements to describe whether something is statistically significant. Analyzing data using statistics enables researchers to find patterns, make claims, and share their results with others. In this section, you’ll learn about some of the tools that psychologists use in statistical analysis.

  • Define reliability and validity
  • Describe the importance of distributional thinking and the role of p-values in statistical inference
  • Describe the role of random sampling and random assignment in drawing cause-and-effect conclusions
  • Describe the basic structure of a psychological research article

Interpreting Experimental Findings

Once data is collected from both the experimental and the control groups, a statistical analysis is conducted to find out if there are meaningful differences between the two groups. A statistical analysis determines how likely any difference found is due to chance (and thus not meaningful). In psychology, group differences are considered meaningful, or significant, if the odds that these differences occurred by chance alone are 5 percent or less. Stated another way, if we repeated this experiment 100 times, we would expect to find the same results at least 95 times out of 100.

The greatest strength of experiments is the ability to assert that any significant differences in the findings are caused by the independent variable. This occurs because random selection, random assignment, and a design that limits the effects of both experimenter bias and participant expectancy should create groups that are similar in composition and treatment. Therefore, any difference between the groups is attributable to the independent variable, and now we can finally make a causal statement. If we find that watching a violent television program results in more violent behavior than watching a nonviolent program, we can safely say that watching violent television programs causes an increase in the display of violent behavior.

Reporting Research

When psychologists complete a research project, they generally want to share their findings with other scientists. The American Psychological Association (APA) publishes a manual detailing how to write a paper for submission to scientific journals. Unlike an article that might be published in a magazine like Psychology Today, which targets a general audience with an interest in psychology, scientific journals generally publish peer-reviewed journal articles aimed at an audience of professionals and scholars who are actively involved in research themselves.

A peer-reviewed journal article is read by several other scientists (generally anonymously) with expertise in the subject matter. These peer reviewers provide feedback—to both the author and the journal editor—regarding the quality of the draft. Peer reviewers look for a strong rationale for the research being described, a clear description of how the research was conducted, and evidence that the research was conducted in an ethical manner. They also look for flaws in the study’s design, methods, and statistical analyses. They check that the conclusions drawn by the authors seem reasonable given the observations made during the research. Peer reviewers also comment on how valuable the research is in advancing the discipline’s knowledge. This helps prevent unnecessary duplication of research findings in the scientific literature and, to some extent, ensures that each research article provides new information. Ultimately, the journal editor will compile all of the peer reviewer feedback and determine whether the article will be published in its current state (a rare occurrence), published with revisions, or not accepted for publication.

Peer review provides some degree of quality control for psychological research. Poorly conceived or executed studies can be weeded out, and even well-designed research can be improved by the revisions suggested. Peer review also ensures that the research is described clearly enough to allow other scientists to replicate it, meaning they can repeat the experiment using different samples to determine reliability. Sometimes replications involve additional measures that expand on the original finding. In any case, each replication serves to provide more evidence to support the original research findings. Successful replications of published research make scientists more apt to adopt those findings, while repeated failures tend to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the original article and lead scientists to look elsewhere. For example, it would be a major advancement in the medical field if a published study indicated that taking a new drug helped individuals achieve a healthy weight without changing their diet. But if other scientists could not replicate the results, the original study’s claims would be questioned.

Dig Deeper: The Vaccine-Autism Myth and the Retraction of Published Studies

Some scientists have claimed that routine childhood vaccines cause some children to develop autism, and, in fact, several peer-reviewed publications published research making these claims. Since the initial reports, large-scale epidemiological research has suggested that vaccinations are not responsible for causing autism and that it is much safer to have your child vaccinated than not. Furthermore, several of the original studies making this claim have since been retracted.

A published piece of work can be rescinded when data is called into question because of falsification, fabrication, or serious research design problems. Once rescinded, the scientific community is informed that there are serious problems with the original publication. Retractions can be initiated by the researcher who led the study, by research collaborators, by the institution that employed the researcher, or by the editorial board of the journal in which the article was originally published. In the vaccine-autism case, the retraction was made because of a significant conflict of interest in which the leading researcher had a financial interest in establishing a link between childhood vaccines and autism (Offit, 2008). Unfortunately, the initial studies received so much media attention that many parents around the world became hesitant to have their children vaccinated (Figure 21). For more information about how the vaccine/autism story unfolded, as well as the repercussions of this story, take a look at Paul Offit’s book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure.

A photograph shows a child being given an oral vaccine.

Reliability and Validity

Dig deeper:  everyday connection: how valid is the sat.

Standardized tests like the SAT are supposed to measure an individual’s aptitude for a college education, but how reliable and valid are such tests? Research conducted by the College Board suggests that scores on the SAT have high predictive validity for first-year college students’ GPA (Kobrin, Patterson, Shaw, Mattern, & Barbuti, 2008). In this context, predictive validity refers to the test’s ability to effectively predict the GPA of college freshmen. Given that many institutions of higher education require the SAT for admission, this high degree of predictive validity might be comforting.

However, the emphasis placed on SAT scores in college admissions has generated some controversy on a number of fronts. For one, some researchers assert that the SAT is a biased test that places minority students at a disadvantage and unfairly reduces the likelihood of being admitted into a college (Santelices & Wilson, 2010). Additionally, some research has suggested that the predictive validity of the SAT is grossly exaggerated in how well it is able to predict the GPA of first-year college students. In fact, it has been suggested that the SAT’s predictive validity may be overestimated by as much as 150% (Rothstein, 2004). Many institutions of higher education are beginning to consider de-emphasizing the significance of SAT scores in making admission decisions (Rimer, 2008).

In 2014, College Board president David Coleman expressed his awareness of these problems, recognizing that college success is more accurately predicted by high school grades than by SAT scores. To address these concerns, he has called for significant changes to the SAT exam (Lewin, 2014).

Statistical Significance

Coffee cup with heart shaped cream inside.

Does drinking coffee actually increase your life expectancy? A recent study (Freedman, Park, Abnet, Hollenbeck, & Sinha, 2012) found that men who drank at least six cups of coffee a day also had a 10% lower chance of dying (women’s chances were 15% lower) than those who drank none. Does this mean you should pick up or increase your own coffee habit? We will explore these results in more depth in the next section about drawing conclusions from statistics. Modern society has become awash in studies such as this; you can read about several such studies in the news every day.

Conducting such a study well, and interpreting the results of such studies requires understanding basic ideas of statistics , the science of gaining insight from data. Key components to a statistical investigation are:

  • Planning the study: Start by asking a testable research question and deciding how to collect data. For example, how long was the study period of the coffee study? How many people were recruited for the study, how were they recruited, and from where? How old were they? What other variables were recorded about the individuals? Were changes made to the participants’ coffee habits during the course of the study?
  • Examining the data: What are appropriate ways to examine the data? What graphs are relevant, and what do they reveal? What descriptive statistics can be calculated to summarize relevant aspects of the data, and what do they reveal? What patterns do you see in the data? Are there any individual observations that deviate from the overall pattern, and what do they reveal? For example, in the coffee study, did the proportions differ when we compared the smokers to the non-smokers?
  • Inferring from the data: What are valid statistical methods for drawing inferences “beyond” the data you collected? In the coffee study, is the 10%–15% reduction in risk of death something that could have happened just by chance?
  • Drawing conclusions: Based on what you learned from your data, what conclusions can you draw? Who do you think these conclusions apply to? (Were the people in the coffee study older? Healthy? Living in cities?) Can you draw a cause-and-effect conclusion about your treatments? (Are scientists now saying that the coffee drinking is the cause of the decreased risk of death?)

Notice that the numerical analysis (“crunching numbers” on the computer) comprises only a small part of overall statistical investigation. In this section, you will see how we can answer some of these questions and what questions you should be asking about any statistical investigation you read about.

Distributional Thinking

When data are collected to address a particular question, an important first step is to think of meaningful ways to organize and examine the data. Let’s take a look at an example.

Example 1 : Researchers investigated whether cancer pamphlets are written at an appropriate level to be read and understood by cancer patients (Short, Moriarty, & Cooley, 1995). Tests of reading ability were given to 63 patients. In addition, readability level was determined for a sample of 30 pamphlets, based on characteristics such as the lengths of words and sentences in the pamphlet. The results, reported in terms of grade levels, are displayed in Figure 23.

Table showing patients' reading levels and pahmphlet's reading levels.

  • Data vary . More specifically, values of a variable (such as reading level of a cancer patient or readability level of a cancer pamphlet) vary.
  • Analyzing the pattern of variation, called the distribution of the variable, often reveals insights.

Addressing the research question of whether the cancer pamphlets are written at appropriate levels for the cancer patients requires comparing the two distributions. A naïve comparison might focus only on the centers of the distributions. Both medians turn out to be ninth grade, but considering only medians ignores the variability and the overall distributions of these data. A more illuminating approach is to compare the entire distributions, for example with a graph, as in Figure 24.

Bar graph showing that the reading level of pamphlets is typically higher than the reading level of the patients.

Figure 24 makes clear that the two distributions are not well aligned at all. The most glaring discrepancy is that many patients (17/63, or 27%, to be precise) have a reading level below that of the most readable pamphlet. These patients will need help to understand the information provided in the cancer pamphlets. Notice that this conclusion follows from considering the distributions as a whole, not simply measures of center or variability, and that the graph contrasts those distributions more immediately than the frequency tables.

Finding Significance in Data

Even when we find patterns in data, often there is still uncertainty in various aspects of the data. For example, there may be potential for measurement errors (even your own body temperature can fluctuate by almost 1°F over the course of the day). Or we may only have a “snapshot” of observations from a more long-term process or only a small subset of individuals from the population of interest. In such cases, how can we determine whether patterns we see in our small set of data is convincing evidence of a systematic phenomenon in the larger process or population? Let’s take a look at another example.

Example 2 : In a study reported in the November 2007 issue of Nature , researchers investigated whether pre-verbal infants take into account an individual’s actions toward others in evaluating that individual as appealing or aversive (Hamlin, Wynn, & Bloom, 2007). In one component of the study, 10-month-old infants were shown a “climber” character (a piece of wood with “googly” eyes glued onto it) that could not make it up a hill in two tries. Then the infants were shown two scenarios for the climber’s next try, one where the climber was pushed to the top of the hill by another character (“helper”), and one where the climber was pushed back down the hill by another character (“hinderer”). The infant was alternately shown these two scenarios several times. Then the infant was presented with two pieces of wood (representing the helper and the hinderer characters) and asked to pick one to play with.

The researchers found that of the 16 infants who made a clear choice, 14 chose to play with the helper toy. One possible explanation for this clear majority result is that the helping behavior of the one toy increases the infants’ likelihood of choosing that toy. But are there other possible explanations? What about the color of the toy? Well, prior to collecting the data, the researchers arranged so that each color and shape (red square and blue circle) would be seen by the same number of infants. Or maybe the infants had right-handed tendencies and so picked whichever toy was closer to their right hand?

Well, prior to collecting the data, the researchers arranged it so half the infants saw the helper toy on the right and half on the left. Or, maybe the shapes of these wooden characters (square, triangle, circle) had an effect? Perhaps, but again, the researchers controlled for this by rotating which shape was the helper toy, the hinderer toy, and the climber. When designing experiments, it is important to control for as many variables as might affect the responses as possible. It is beginning to appear that the researchers accounted for all the other plausible explanations. But there is one more important consideration that cannot be controlled—if we did the study again with these 16 infants, they might not make the same choices. In other words, there is some randomness inherent in their selection process.

Maybe each infant had no genuine preference at all, and it was simply “random luck” that led to 14 infants picking the helper toy. Although this random component cannot be controlled, we can apply a probability model to investigate the pattern of results that would occur in the long run if random chance were the only factor.

If the infants were equally likely to pick between the two toys, then each infant had a 50% chance of picking the helper toy. It’s like each infant tossed a coin, and if it landed heads, the infant picked the helper toy. So if we tossed a coin 16 times, could it land heads 14 times? Sure, it’s possible, but it turns out to be very unlikely. Getting 14 (or more) heads in 16 tosses is about as likely as tossing a coin and getting 9 heads in a row. This probability is referred to as a p-value . The p-value represents the likelihood that experimental results happened by chance. Within psychology, the most common standard for p-values is “p < .05”. What this means is that there is less than a 5% probability that the results happened just by random chance, and therefore a 95% probability that the results reflect a meaningful pattern in human psychology. We call this statistical significance .

So, in the study above, if we assume that each infant was choosing equally, then the probability that 14 or more out of 16 infants would choose the helper toy is found to be 0.0021. We have only two logical possibilities: either the infants have a genuine preference for the helper toy, or the infants have no preference (50/50) and an outcome that would occur only 2 times in 1,000 iterations happened in this study. Because this p-value of 0.0021 is quite small, we conclude that the study provides very strong evidence that these infants have a genuine preference for the helper toy.

If we compare the p-value to some cut-off value, like 0.05, we see that the p=value is smaller. Because the p-value is smaller than that cut-off value, then we reject the hypothesis that only random chance was at play here. In this case, these researchers would conclude that significantly more than half of the infants in the study chose the helper toy, giving strong evidence of a genuine preference for the toy with the helping behavior.

Drawing Conclusions from Statistics

Generalizability.

Photo of a diverse group of college-aged students.

One limitation to the study mentioned previously about the babies choosing the “helper” toy is that the conclusion only applies to the 16 infants in the study. We don’t know much about how those 16 infants were selected. Suppose we want to select a subset of individuals (a sample ) from a much larger group of individuals (the population ) in such a way that conclusions from the sample can be generalized to the larger population. This is the question faced by pollsters every day.

Example 3 : The General Social Survey (GSS) is a survey on societal trends conducted every other year in the United States. Based on a sample of about 2,000 adult Americans, researchers make claims about what percentage of the U.S. population consider themselves to be “liberal,” what percentage consider themselves “happy,” what percentage feel “rushed” in their daily lives, and many other issues. The key to making these claims about the larger population of all American adults lies in how the sample is selected. The goal is to select a sample that is representative of the population, and a common way to achieve this goal is to select a r andom sample  that gives every member of the population an equal chance of being selected for the sample. In its simplest form, random sampling involves numbering every member of the population and then using a computer to randomly select the subset to be surveyed. Most polls don’t operate exactly like this, but they do use probability-based sampling methods to select individuals from nationally representative panels.

In 2004, the GSS reported that 817 of 977 respondents (or 83.6%) indicated that they always or sometimes feel rushed. This is a clear majority, but we again need to consider variation due to random sampling . Fortunately, we can use the same probability model we did in the previous example to investigate the probable size of this error. (Note, we can use the coin-tossing model when the actual population size is much, much larger than the sample size, as then we can still consider the probability to be the same for every individual in the sample.) This probability model predicts that the sample result will be within 3 percentage points of the population value (roughly 1 over the square root of the sample size, the margin of error. A statistician would conclude, with 95% confidence, that between 80.6% and 86.6% of all adult Americans in 2004 would have responded that they sometimes or always feel rushed.

The key to the margin of error is that when we use a probability sampling method, we can make claims about how often (in the long run, with repeated random sampling) the sample result would fall within a certain distance from the unknown population value by chance (meaning by random sampling variation) alone. Conversely, non-random samples are often suspect to bias, meaning the sampling method systematically over-represents some segments of the population and under-represents others. We also still need to consider other sources of bias, such as individuals not responding honestly. These sources of error are not measured by the margin of error.

Cause and Effect

In many research studies, the primary question of interest concerns differences between groups. Then the question becomes how were the groups formed (e.g., selecting people who already drink coffee vs. those who don’t). In some studies, the researchers actively form the groups themselves. But then we have a similar question—could any differences we observe in the groups be an artifact of that group-formation process? Or maybe the difference we observe in the groups is so large that we can discount a “fluke” in the group-formation process as a reasonable explanation for what we find?

Example 4 : A psychology study investigated whether people tend to display more creativity when they are thinking about intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (external) motivations (Ramsey & Schafer, 2002, based on a study by Amabile, 1985). The subjects were 47 people with extensive experience with creative writing. Subjects began by answering survey questions about either intrinsic motivations for writing (such as the pleasure of self-expression) or extrinsic motivations (such as public recognition). Then all subjects were instructed to write a haiku, and those poems were evaluated for creativity by a panel of judges. The researchers conjectured beforehand that subjects who were thinking about intrinsic motivations would display more creativity than subjects who were thinking about extrinsic motivations. The creativity scores from the 47 subjects in this study are displayed in Figure 26, where higher scores indicate more creativity.

Image showing a dot for creativity scores, which vary between 5 and 27, and the types of motivation each person was given as a motivator, either extrinsic or intrinsic.

In this example, the key question is whether the type of motivation affects creativity scores. In particular, do subjects who were asked about intrinsic motivations tend to have higher creativity scores than subjects who were asked about extrinsic motivations?

Figure 26 reveals that both motivation groups saw considerable variability in creativity scores, and these scores have considerable overlap between the groups. In other words, it’s certainly not always the case that those with extrinsic motivations have higher creativity than those with intrinsic motivations, but there may still be a statistical tendency in this direction. (Psychologist Keith Stanovich (2013) refers to people’s difficulties with thinking about such probabilistic tendencies as “the Achilles heel of human cognition.”)

The mean creativity score is 19.88 for the intrinsic group, compared to 15.74 for the extrinsic group, which supports the researchers’ conjecture. Yet comparing only the means of the two groups fails to consider the variability of creativity scores in the groups. We can measure variability with statistics using, for instance, the standard deviation: 5.25 for the extrinsic group and 4.40 for the intrinsic group. The standard deviations tell us that most of the creativity scores are within about 5 points of the mean score in each group. We see that the mean score for the intrinsic group lies within one standard deviation of the mean score for extrinsic group. So, although there is a tendency for the creativity scores to be higher in the intrinsic group, on average, the difference is not extremely large.

We again want to consider possible explanations for this difference. The study only involved individuals with extensive creative writing experience. Although this limits the population to which we can generalize, it does not explain why the mean creativity score was a bit larger for the intrinsic group than for the extrinsic group. Maybe women tend to receive higher creativity scores? Here is where we need to focus on how the individuals were assigned to the motivation groups. If only women were in the intrinsic motivation group and only men in the extrinsic group, then this would present a problem because we wouldn’t know if the intrinsic group did better because of the different type of motivation or because they were women. However, the researchers guarded against such a problem by randomly assigning the individuals to the motivation groups. Like flipping a coin, each individual was just as likely to be assigned to either type of motivation. Why is this helpful? Because this random assignment  tends to balance out all the variables related to creativity we can think of, and even those we don’t think of in advance, between the two groups. So we should have a similar male/female split between the two groups; we should have a similar age distribution between the two groups; we should have a similar distribution of educational background between the two groups; and so on. Random assignment should produce groups that are as similar as possible except for the type of motivation, which presumably eliminates all those other variables as possible explanations for the observed tendency for higher scores in the intrinsic group.

But does this always work? No, so by “luck of the draw” the groups may be a little different prior to answering the motivation survey. So then the question is, is it possible that an unlucky random assignment is responsible for the observed difference in creativity scores between the groups? In other words, suppose each individual’s poem was going to get the same creativity score no matter which group they were assigned to, that the type of motivation in no way impacted their score. Then how often would the random-assignment process alone lead to a difference in mean creativity scores as large (or larger) than 19.88 – 15.74 = 4.14 points?

We again want to apply to a probability model to approximate a p-value , but this time the model will be a bit different. Think of writing everyone’s creativity scores on an index card, shuffling up the index cards, and then dealing out 23 to the extrinsic motivation group and 24 to the intrinsic motivation group, and finding the difference in the group means. We (better yet, the computer) can repeat this process over and over to see how often, when the scores don’t change, random assignment leads to a difference in means at least as large as 4.41. Figure 27 shows the results from 1,000 such hypothetical random assignments for these scores.

Standard distribution in a typical bell curve.

Only 2 of the 1,000 simulated random assignments produced a difference in group means of 4.41 or larger. In other words, the approximate p-value is 2/1000 = 0.002. This small p-value indicates that it would be very surprising for the random assignment process alone to produce such a large difference in group means. Therefore, as with Example 2, we have strong evidence that focusing on intrinsic motivations tends to increase creativity scores, as compared to thinking about extrinsic motivations.

Notice that the previous statement implies a cause-and-effect relationship between motivation and creativity score; is such a strong conclusion justified? Yes, because of the random assignment used in the study. That should have balanced out any other variables between the two groups, so now that the small p-value convinces us that the higher mean in the intrinsic group wasn’t just a coincidence, the only reasonable explanation left is the difference in the type of motivation. Can we generalize this conclusion to everyone? Not necessarily—we could cautiously generalize this conclusion to individuals with extensive experience in creative writing similar the individuals in this study, but we would still want to know more about how these individuals were selected to participate.

Close-up photo of mathematical equations.

Statistical thinking involves the careful design of a study to collect meaningful data to answer a focused research question, detailed analysis of patterns in the data, and drawing conclusions that go beyond the observed data. Random sampling is paramount to generalizing results from our sample to a larger population, and random assignment is key to drawing cause-and-effect conclusions. With both kinds of randomness, probability models help us assess how much random variation we can expect in our results, in order to determine whether our results could happen by chance alone and to estimate a margin of error.

So where does this leave us with regard to the coffee study mentioned previously (the Freedman, Park, Abnet, Hollenbeck, & Sinha, 2012 found that men who drank at least six cups of coffee a day had a 10% lower chance of dying (women 15% lower) than those who drank none)? We can answer many of the questions:

  • This was a 14-year study conducted by researchers at the National Cancer Institute.
  • The results were published in the June issue of the New England Journal of Medicine , a respected, peer-reviewed journal.
  • The study reviewed coffee habits of more than 402,000 people ages 50 to 71 from six states and two metropolitan areas. Those with cancer, heart disease, and stroke were excluded at the start of the study. Coffee consumption was assessed once at the start of the study.
  • About 52,000 people died during the course of the study.
  • People who drank between two and five cups of coffee daily showed a lower risk as well, but the amount of reduction increased for those drinking six or more cups.
  • The sample sizes were fairly large and so the p-values are quite small, even though percent reduction in risk was not extremely large (dropping from a 12% chance to about 10%–11%).
  • Whether coffee was caffeinated or decaffeinated did not appear to affect the results.
  • This was an observational study, so no cause-and-effect conclusions can be drawn between coffee drinking and increased longevity, contrary to the impression conveyed by many news headlines about this study. In particular, it’s possible that those with chronic diseases don’t tend to drink coffee.

This study needs to be reviewed in the larger context of similar studies and consistency of results across studies, with the constant caution that this was not a randomized experiment. Whereas a statistical analysis can still “adjust” for other potential confounding variables, we are not yet convinced that researchers have identified them all or completely isolated why this decrease in death risk is evident. Researchers can now take the findings of this study and develop more focused studies that address new questions.

Explore these outside resources to learn more about applied statistics:

  • Video about p-values:  P-Value Extravaganza
  • Interactive web applets for teaching and learning statistics
  • Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research  where you can find and analyze data.
  • The Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics
  • Find a recent research article in your field and answer the following: What was the primary research question? How were individuals selected to participate in the study? Were summary results provided? How strong is the evidence presented in favor or against the research question? Was random assignment used? Summarize the main conclusions from the study, addressing the issues of statistical significance, statistical confidence, generalizability, and cause and effect. Do you agree with the conclusions drawn from this study, based on the study design and the results presented?
  • Is it reasonable to use a random sample of 1,000 individuals to draw conclusions about all U.S. adults? Explain why or why not.

How to Read Research

In this course and throughout your academic career, you’ll be reading journal articles (meaning they were published by experts in a peer-reviewed journal) and reports that explain psychological research. It’s important to understand the format of these articles so that you can read them strategically and understand the information presented. Scientific articles vary in content or structure, depending on the type of journal to which they will be submitted. Psychological articles and many papers in the social sciences follow the writing guidelines and format dictated by the American Psychological Association (APA). In general, the structure follows: abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and references.

  • Abstract : the abstract is the concise summary of the article. It summarizes the most important features of the manuscript, providing the reader with a global first impression on the article. It is generally just one paragraph that explains the experiment as well as a short synopsis of the results.
  • Introduction : this section provides background information about the origin and purpose of performing the experiment or study. It reviews previous research and presents existing theories on the topic.
  • Method : this section covers the methodologies used to investigate the research question, including the identification of participants , procedures , and  materials  as well as a description of the actual procedure . It should be sufficiently detailed to allow for replication.
  • Results : the results section presents key findings of the research, including reference to indicators of statistical significance.
  • Discussion : this section provides an interpretation of the findings, states their significance for current research, and derives implications for theory and practice. Alternative interpretations for findings are also provided, particularly when it is not possible to conclude for the directionality of the effects. In the discussion, authors also acknowledge the strengths and limitations/weaknesses of the study and offer concrete directions about for future research.

Watch this 3-minute video for an explanation on how to read scholarly articles. Look closely at the example article shared just before the two minute mark.

https://digitalcommons.coastal.edu/kimbel-library-instructional-videos/9/

Practice identifying these key components in the following experiment: Food-Induced Emotional Resonance Improves Emotion Recognition.

In this chapter, you learned to

  • define and apply the scientific method to psychology
  • describe the strengths and weaknesses of descriptive, experimental, and correlational research
  • define the basic elements of a statistical investigation

Putting It Together: Psychological Research

Psychologists use the scientific method to examine human behavior and mental processes. Some of the methods you learned about include descriptive, experimental, and correlational research designs.

Watch the CrashCourse video to review the material you learned, then read through the following examples and see if you can come up with your own design for each type of study.

You can view the transcript for “Psychological Research: Crash Course Psychology #2” here (opens in new window).

Case Study: a detailed analysis of a particular person, group, business, event, etc. This approach is commonly used to to learn more about rare examples with the goal of describing that particular thing.

  • Ted Bundy was one of America’s most notorious serial killers who murdered at least 30 women and was executed in 1989. Dr. Al Carlisle evaluated Bundy when he was first arrested and conducted a psychological analysis of Bundy’s development of his sexual fantasies merging into reality (Ramsland, 2012). Carlisle believes that there was a gradual evolution of three processes that guided his actions: fantasy, dissociation, and compartmentalization (Ramsland, 2012). Read   Imagining Ted Bundy  (http://goo.gl/rGqcUv) for more information on this case study.

Naturalistic Observation : a researcher unobtrusively collects information without the participant’s awareness.

  • Drain and Engelhardt (2013) observed six nonverbal children with autism’s evoked and spontaneous communicative acts. Each of the children attended a school for children with autism and were in different classes. They were observed for 30 minutes of each school day. By observing these children without them knowing, they were able to see true communicative acts without any external influences.

Survey : participants are asked to provide information or responses to questions on a survey or structure assessment.

  • Educational psychologists can ask students to report their grade point average and what, if anything, they eat for breakfast on an average day. A healthy breakfast has been associated with better academic performance (Digangi’s 1999).
  • Anderson (1987) tried to find the relationship between uncomfortably hot temperatures and aggressive behavior, which was then looked at with two studies done on violent and nonviolent crime. Based on previous research that had been done by Anderson and Anderson (1984), it was predicted that violent crimes would be more prevalent during the hotter time of year and the years in which it was hotter weather in general. The study confirmed this prediction.

Longitudinal Study: researchers   recruit a sample of participants and track them for an extended period of time.

  • In a study of a representative sample of 856 children Eron and his colleagues (1972) found that a boy’s exposure to media violence at age eight was significantly related to his aggressive behavior ten years later, after he graduated from high school.

Cross-Sectional Study:  researchers gather participants from different groups (commonly different ages) and look for differences between the groups.

  • In 1996, Russell surveyed people of varying age groups and found that people in their 20s tend to report being more lonely than people in their 70s.

Correlational Design:  two different variables are measured to determine whether there is a relationship between them.

  • Thornhill et al. (2003) had people rate how physically attractive they found other people to be. They then had them separately smell t-shirts those people had worn (without knowing which clothes belonged to whom) and rate how good or bad their body oder was. They found that the more attractive someone was the more pleasant their body order was rated to be.
  • Clinical psychologists can test a new pharmaceutical treatment for depression by giving some patients the new pill and others an already-tested one to see which is the more effective treatment.

American Cancer Society. (n.d.). History of the cancer prevention studies. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/research/researchtopreventcancer/history-cancer-prevention-study

American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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Arnett, J. (2008). The neglected 95%: Why American psychology needs to become less American. American Psychologist, 63(7), 602–614.

Barton, B. A., Eldridge, A. L., Thompson, D., Affenito, S. G., Striegel-Moore, R. H., Franko, D. L., . . . Crockett, S. J. (2005). The relationship of breakfast and cereal consumption to nutrient intake and body mass index: The national heart, lung, and blood institute growth and health study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105(9), 1383–1389. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2005.06.003

Chwalisz, K., Diener, E., & Gallagher, D. (1988). Autonomic arousal feedback and emotional experience: Evidence from the spinal cord injured. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 820–828.

Dominus, S. (2011, May 25). Could conjoined twins share a mind? New York Times Sunday Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/magazine/could-conjoined-twins-share-a-mind.html?_r=5&hp&

Fanger, S. M., Frankel, L. A., & Hazen, N. (2012). Peer exclusion in preschool children’s play: Naturalistic observations in a playground setting. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 58, 224–254.

Fiedler, K. (2004). Illusory correlation. In R. F. Pohl (Ed.), Cognitive illusions: A handbook on fallacies and biases in thinking, judgment and memory (pp. 97–114). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Frantzen, L. B., Treviño, R. P., Echon, R. M., Garcia-Dominic, O., & DiMarco, N. (2013). Association between frequency of ready-to-eat cereal consumption, nutrient intakes, and body mass index in fourth- to sixth-grade low-income minority children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 113(4), 511–519.

Harper, J. (2013, July 5). Ice cream and crime: Where cold cuisine and hot disputes intersect. The Times-Picaune. Retrieved from http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2013/07/ice_cream_and_crime_where_hot.html

Jenkins, W. J., Ruppel, S. E., Kizer, J. B., Yehl, J. L., & Griffin, J. L. (2012). An examination of post 9-11 attitudes towards Arab Americans. North American Journal of Psychology, 14, 77–84.

Jones, J. M. (2013, May 13). Same-sex marriage support solidifies above 50% in U.S. Gallup Politics. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/162398/sex-marriage-support-solidifies-above.aspx

Kobrin, J. L., Patterson, B. F., Shaw, E. J., Mattern, K. D., & Barbuti, S. M. (2008). Validity of the SAT for predicting first-year college grade point average (Research Report No. 2008-5). Retrieved from https://research.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/publications/2012/7/researchreport-2008-5-validity-sat-predicting-first-year-college-grade-point-average.pdf

Lewin, T. (2014, March 5). A new SAT aims to realign with schoolwork. New York Times. Retreived from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/06/education/major-changes-in-sat-announced-by-college-board.html.

Lowry, M., Dean, K., & Manders, K. (2010). The link between sleep quantity and academic performance for the college student. Sentience: The University of Minnesota Undergraduate Journal of Psychology, 3(Spring), 16–19. Retrieved from http://www.psych.umn.edu/sentience/files/SENTIENCE_Vol3.pdf

McKie, R. (2010, June 26). Chimps with everything: Jane Goodall’s 50 years in the jungle. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/jun/27/jane-goodall-chimps-africa-interview

Offit, P. (2008). Autism’s false prophets: Bad science, risky medicine, and the search for a cure. New York: Columbia University Press.

Perkins, H. W., Haines, M. P., & Rice, R. (2005). Misperceiving the college drinking norm and related problems: A nationwide study of exposure to prevention information, perceived norms and student alcohol misuse. J. Stud. Alcohol, 66(4), 470–478.

Rimer, S. (2008, September 21). College panel calls for less focus on SATs. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/22/education/22admissions.html?_r=0

Rothstein, J. M. (2004). College performance predictions and the SAT. Journal of Econometrics, 121, 297–317.

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Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Education Review, 80, 106–134.

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grounded in objective, tangible evidence that can be observed time and time again, regardless of who is observing

well-developed set of ideas that propose an explanation for observed phenomena

(plural: hypotheses) tentative and testable statement about the relationship between two or more variables

an experiment must be replicable by another researcher

implies that a theory should enable us to make predictions about future events

able to be disproven by experimental results

implies that all data must be considered when evaluating a hypothesis

committee of administrators, scientists, and community members that reviews proposals for research involving human participants

process of informing a research participant about what to expect during an experiment, any risks involved, and the implications of the research, and then obtaining the person’s consent to participate

purposely misleading experiment participants in order to maintain the integrity of the experiment

when an experiment involved deception, participants are told complete and truthful information about the experiment at its conclusion

committee of administrators, scientists, veterinarians, and community members that reviews proposals for research involving non-human animals

research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables

research investigating the relationship between two or more variables

research method that uses hypothesis testing to make inferences about how one variable impacts and causes another

observation of behavior in its natural setting

inferring that the results for a sample apply to the larger population

when observations may be skewed to align with observer expectations

measure of agreement among observers on how they record and classify a particular event

observational research study focusing on one or a few people

list of questions to be answered by research participants—given as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally—allowing researchers to collect data from a large number of people

subset of individuals selected from the larger population

overall group of individuals that the researchers are interested in

method of research using past records or data sets to answer various research questions, or to search for interesting patterns or relationships

studies in which the same group of individuals is surveyed or measured repeatedly over an extended period of time

compares multiple segments of a population at a single time

reduction in number of research participants as some drop out of the study over time

relationship between two or more variables; when two variables are correlated, one variable changes as the other does

number from -1 to +1, indicating the strength and direction of the relationship between variables, and usually represented by r

two variables change in the same direction, both becoming either larger or smaller

two variables change in different directions, with one becoming larger as the other becomes smaller; a negative correlation is not the same thing as no correlation

changes in one variable cause the changes in the other variable; can be determined only through an experimental research design

unanticipated outside factor that affects both variables of interest, often giving the false impression that changes in one variable causes changes in the other variable, when, in actuality, the outside factor causes changes in both variables

seeing relationships between two things when in reality no such relationship exists

tendency to ignore evidence that disproves ideas or beliefs

group designed to answer the research question; experimental manipulation is the only difference between the experimental and control groups, so any differences between the two are due to experimental manipulation rather than chance

serves as a basis for comparison and controls for chance factors that might influence the results of the study—by holding such factors constant across groups so that the experimental manipulation is the only difference between groups

description of what actions and operations will be used to measure the dependent variables and manipulate the independent variables

researcher expectations skew the results of the study

experiment in which the researcher knows which participants are in the experimental group and which are in the control group

experiment in which both the researchers and the participants are blind to group assignments

people's expectations or beliefs influencing or determining their experience in a given situation

variable that is influenced or controlled by the experimenter; in a sound experimental study, the independent variable is the only important difference between the experimental and control group

variable that the researcher measures to see how much effect the independent variable had

subjects of psychological research

subset of a larger population in which every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected

method of experimental group assignment in which all participants have an equal chance of being assigned to either group

consistency and reproducibility of a given result

accuracy of a given result in measuring what it is designed to measure

determines how likely any difference between experimental groups is due to chance

statistical probability that represents the likelihood that experimental results happened by chance

Psychological Science is the scientific study of mind, brain, and behavior. We will explore what it means to be human in this class. It has never been more important for us to understand what makes people tick, how to evaluate information critically, and the importance of history. Psychology can also help you in your future career; indeed, there are very little jobs out there with no human interaction!

Because psychology is a science, we analyze human behavior through the scientific method. There are several ways to investigate human phenomena, such as observation, experiments, and more. We will discuss the basics, pros and cons of each! We will also dig deeper into the important ethical guidelines that psychologists must follow in order to do research. Lastly, we will briefly introduce ourselves to statistics, the language of scientific research. While reading the content in these chapters, try to find examples of material that can fit with the themes of the course.

To get us started:

  • The study of the mind moved away Introspection to reaction time studies as we learned more about empiricism
  • Psychologists work in careers outside of the typical "clinician" role. We advise in human factors, education, policy, and more!
  • While completing an observation study, psychologists will work to aggregate common themes to explain the behavior of the group (sample) as a whole. In doing so, we still allow for normal variation from the group!
  • The IRB and IACUC are important in ensuring ethics are maintained for both human and animal subjects

Psychological Science: Understanding Human Behavior Copyright © by Karenna Malavanti is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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9 Approaches to Research

[latexpage]

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the different research methods used by psychologists
  • Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of case studies, naturalistic observation, surveys, and archival research
  • Compare longitudinal and cross-sectional approaches to research

There are many research methods available to psychologists in their efforts to understand, describe, and explain behavior and the cognitive and biological processes that underlie it. Some methods rely on observational techniques. Other approaches involve interactions between the researcher and the individuals who are being studied—ranging from a series of simple questions to extensive, in-depth interviews—to well-controlled experiments.

Each of these research methods has unique strengths and weaknesses, and each method may only be appropriate for certain types of research questions. For example, studies that rely primarily on observation produce incredible amounts of information, but the ability to apply this information to the larger population is somewhat limited because of small sample sizes. Survey research, on the other hand, allows researchers to easily collect data from relatively large samples. While this allows for results to be generalized to the larger population more easily, the information that can be collected on any given survey is somewhat limited and subject to problems associated with any type of self-reported data. Some researchers conduct archival research by using existing records. While this can be a fairly inexpensive way to collect data that can provide insight into a number of research questions, researchers using this approach have no control on how or what kind of data was collected. All of the methods described thus far are correlational in nature. This means that researchers can speak to important relationships that might exist between two or more variables of interest. However, correlational data cannot be used to make claims about cause-and-effect relationships.

Correlational research can find a relationship between two variables, but the only way a researcher can claim that the relationship between the variables is cause and effect is to perform an experiment. In experimental research, which will be discussed later in this chapter, there is a tremendous amount of control over variables of interest. While this is a powerful approach, experiments are often conducted in very artificial settings. This calls into question the validity of experimental findings with regard to how they would apply in real-world settings. In addition, many of the questions that psychologists would like to answer cannot be pursued through experimental research because of ethical concerns.

CLINICAL OR CASE STUDIES

In 2011, the New York Times published a feature story on Krista and Tatiana Hogan, Canadian twin girls. These particular twins are unique because Krista and Tatiana are conjoined twins, connected at the head. There is evidence that the two girls are connected in a part of the brain called the thalamus, which is a major sensory relay center. Most incoming sensory information is sent through the thalamus before reaching higher regions of the cerebral cortex for processing.

weaknesses of case study in psychology

To learn more about Krista and Tatiana, watch this New York Times video about their lives.

The implications of this potential connection mean that it might be possible for one twin to experience the sensations of the other twin. For instance, if Krista is watching a particularly funny television program, Tatiana might smile or laugh even if she is not watching the program. This particular possibility has piqued the interest of many neuroscientists who seek to understand how the brain uses sensory information.

These twins represent an enormous resource in the study of the brain, and since their condition is very rare, it is likely that as long as their family agrees, scientists will follow these girls very closely throughout their lives to gain as much information as possible (Dominus, 2011).

In observational research, scientists are conducting a clinical or case study when they focus on one person or just a few individuals. Indeed, some scientists spend their entire careers studying just 10–20 individuals. Why would they do this? Obviously, when they focus their attention on a very small number of people, they can gain a tremendous amount of insight into those cases. The richness of information that is collected in clinical or case studies is unmatched by any other single research method. This allows the researcher to have a very deep understanding of the individuals and the particular phenomenon being studied.

If clinical or case studies provide so much information, why are they not more frequent among researchers? As it turns out, the major benefit of this particular approach is also a weakness. As mentioned earlier, this approach is often used when studying individuals who are interesting to researchers because they have a rare characteristic. Therefore, the individuals who serve as the focus of case studies are not like most other people. If scientists ultimately want to explain all behavior, focusing attention on such a special group of people can make it difficult to generalize any observations to the larger population as a whole. Generalizing refers to the ability to apply the findings of a particular research project to larger segments of society. Again, case studies provide enormous amounts of information, but since the cases are so specific, the potential to apply what’s learned to the average person may be very limited.

NATURALISTIC OBSERVATION

If you want to understand how behavior occurs, one of the best ways to gain information is to simply observe the behavior in its natural context. However, people might change their behavior in unexpected ways if they know they are being observed. How do researchers obtain accurate information when people tend to hide their natural behavior? As an example, imagine that your professor asks everyone in your class to raise their hand if they always wash their hands after using the restroom. Chances are that almost everyone in the classroom will raise their hand, but do you think hand washing after every trip to the restroom is really that universal?

This is very similar to the phenomenon mentioned earlier in this chapter: many individuals do not feel comfortable answering a question honestly. But if we are committed to finding out the facts about hand washing, we have other options available to us.

Suppose we send a classmate into the restroom to actually watch whether everyone washes their hands after using the restroom. Will our observer blend into the restroom environment by wearing a white lab coat, sitting with a clipboard, and staring at the sinks? We want our researcher to be inconspicuous—perhaps standing at one of the sinks pretending to put in contact lenses while secretly recording the relevant information. This type of observational study is called naturalistic observation : observing behavior in its natural setting. To better understand peer exclusion, Suzanne Fanger collaborated with colleagues at the University of Texas to observe the behavior of preschool children on a playground. How did the observers remain inconspicuous over the duration of the study? They equipped a few of the children with wireless microphones (which the children quickly forgot about) and observed while taking notes from a distance. Also, the children in that particular preschool (a “laboratory preschool”) were accustomed to having observers on the playground (Fanger, Frankel, & Hazen, 2012).

It is critical that the observer be as unobtrusive and as inconspicuous as possible: when people know they are being watched, they are less likely to behave naturally. If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how your driving behavior might differ in two situations: In the first situation, you are driving down a deserted highway during the middle of the day; in the second situation, you are being followed by a police car down the same deserted highway ( [link] ).

A photograph shows two police cars driving, one with its lights flashing.

It should be pointed out that naturalistic observation is not limited to research involving humans. Indeed, some of the best-known examples of naturalistic observation involve researchers going into the field to observe various kinds of animals in their own environments. As with human studies, the researchers maintain their distance and avoid interfering with the animal subjects so as not to influence their natural behaviors. Scientists have used this technique to study social hierarchies and interactions among animals ranging from ground squirrels to gorillas. The information provided by these studies is invaluable in understanding how those animals organize socially and communicate with one another. The anthropologist Jane Goodall , for example, spent nearly five decades observing the behavior of chimpanzees in Africa ( [link] ). As an illustration of the types of concerns that a researcher might encounter in naturalistic observation, some scientists criticized Goodall for giving the chimps names instead of referring to them by numbers—using names was thought to undermine the emotional detachment required for the objectivity of the study (McKie, 2010).

(a) A photograph shows Jane Goodall speaking from a lectern. (b) A photograph shows a chimpanzee’s face.

The greatest benefit of naturalistic observation is the validity , or accuracy, of information collected unobtrusively in a natural setting. Having individuals behave as they normally would in a given situation means that we have a higher degree of ecological validity, or realism, than we might achieve with other research approaches. Therefore, our ability to generalize the findings of the research to real-world situations is enhanced. If done correctly, we need not worry about people or animals modifying their behavior simply because they are being observed. Sometimes, people may assume that reality programs give us a glimpse into authentic human behavior. However, the principle of inconspicuous observation is violated as reality stars are followed by camera crews and are interviewed on camera for personal confessionals. Given that environment, we must doubt how natural and realistic their behaviors are.

The major downside of naturalistic observation is that they are often difficult to set up and control. In our restroom study, what if you stood in the restroom all day prepared to record people’s hand washing behavior and no one came in? Or, what if you have been closely observing a troop of gorillas for weeks only to find that they migrated to a new place while you were sleeping in your tent? The benefit of realistic data comes at a cost. As a researcher you have no control of when (or if) you have behavior to observe. In addition, this type of observational research often requires significant investments of time, money, and a good dose of luck.

Sometimes studies involve structured observation. In these cases, people are observed while engaging in set, specific tasks. An excellent example of structured observation comes from Strange Situation by Mary Ainsworth (you will read more about this in the chapter on lifespan development). The Strange Situation is a procedure used to evaluate attachment styles that exist between an infant and caregiver. In this scenario, caregivers bring their infants into a room filled with toys. The Strange Situation involves a number of phases, including a stranger coming into the room, the caregiver leaving the room, and the caregiver’s return to the room. The infant’s behavior is closely monitored at each phase, but it is the behavior of the infant upon being reunited with the caregiver that is most telling in terms of characterizing the infant’s attachment style with the caregiver.

Another potential problem in observational research is observer bias . Generally, people who act as observers are closely involved in the research project and may unconsciously skew their observations to fit their research goals or expectations. To protect against this type of bias, researchers should have clear criteria established for the types of behaviors recorded and how those behaviors should be classified. In addition, researchers often compare observations of the same event by multiple observers, in order to test inter-rater reliability : a measure of reliability that assesses the consistency of observations by different observers.

Often, psychologists develop surveys as a means of gathering data. Surveys are lists of questions to be answered by research participants, and can be delivered as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally ( [link] ). Generally, the survey itself can be completed in a short time, and the ease of administering a survey makes it easy to collect data from a large number of people.

Surveys allow researchers to gather data from larger samples than may be afforded by other research methods . A sample is a subset of individuals selected from a population , which is the overall group of individuals that the researchers are interested in. Researchers study the sample and seek to generalize their findings to the population.

A sample online survey reads, “Dear visitor, your opinion is important to us. We would like to invite you to participate in a short survey to gather your opinions and feedback on your news consumption habits. The survey will take approximately 10-15 minutes. Simply click the “Yes” button below to launch the survey. Would you like to participate?” Two buttons are labeled “yes” and “no.”

There is both strength and weakness of the survey in comparison to case studies. By using surveys, we can collect information from a larger sample of people. A larger sample is better able to reflect the actual diversity of the population, thus allowing better generalizability. Therefore, if our sample is sufficiently large and diverse, we can assume that the data we collect from the survey can be generalized to the larger population with more certainty than the information collected through a case study. However, given the greater number of people involved, we are not able to collect the same depth of information on each person that would be collected in a case study.

Another potential weakness of surveys is something we touched on earlier in this chapter: People don’t always give accurate responses. They may lie, misremember, or answer questions in a way that they think makes them look good. For example, people may report drinking less alcohol than is actually the case.

Any number of research questions can be answered through the use of surveys. One real-world example is the research conducted by Jenkins, Ruppel, Kizer, Yehl, and Griffin (2012) about the backlash against the US Arab-American community following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Jenkins and colleagues wanted to determine to what extent these negative attitudes toward Arab-Americans still existed nearly a decade after the attacks occurred. In one study, 140 research participants filled out a survey with 10 questions, including questions asking directly about the participant’s overt prejudicial attitudes toward people of various ethnicities. The survey also asked indirect questions about how likely the participant would be to interact with a person of a given ethnicity in a variety of settings (such as, “How likely do you think it is that you would introduce yourself to a person of Arab-American descent?”). The results of the research suggested that participants were unwilling to report prejudicial attitudes toward any ethnic group. However, there were significant differences between their pattern of responses to questions about social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to other ethnic groups: they indicated less willingness for social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to the other ethnic groups. This suggested that the participants harbored subtle forms of prejudice against Arab-Americans, despite their assertions that this was not the case (Jenkins et al., 2012).

ARCHIVAL RESEARCH

Some researchers gain access to large amounts of data without interacting with a single research participant. Instead, they use existing records to answer various research questions. This type of research approach is known as archival research . Archival research relies on looking at past records or data sets to look for interesting patterns or relationships.

For example, a researcher might access the academic records of all individuals who enrolled in college within the past ten years and calculate how long it took them to complete their degrees, as well as course loads, grades, and extracurricular involvement. Archival research could provide important information about who is most likely to complete their education, and it could help identify important risk factors for struggling students ( [link] ).

(a) A photograph shows stacks of paper files on shelves. (b) A photograph shows a computer.

In comparing archival research to other research methods, there are several important distinctions. For one, the researcher employing archival research never directly interacts with research participants. Therefore, the investment of time and money to collect data is considerably less with archival research. Additionally, researchers have no control over what information was originally collected. Therefore, research questions have to be tailored so they can be answered within the structure of the existing data sets. There is also no guarantee of consistency between the records from one source to another, which might make comparing and contrasting different data sets problematic.

LONGITUDINAL AND CROSS-SECTIONAL RESEARCH

Sometimes we want to see how people change over time, as in studies of human development and lifespan. When we test the same group of individuals repeatedly over an extended period of time, we are conducting longitudinal research. Longitudinal research is a research design in which data-gathering is administered repeatedly over an extended period of time. For example, we may survey a group of individuals about their dietary habits at age 20, retest them a decade later at age 30, and then again at age 40.

Another approach is cross-sectional research. In cross-sectional research , a researcher compares multiple segments of the population at the same time. Using the dietary habits example above, the researcher might directly compare different groups of people by age. Instead a group of people for 20 years to see how their dietary habits changed from decade to decade, the researcher would study a group of 20-year-old individuals and compare them to a group of 30-year-old individuals and a group of 40-year-old individuals. While cross-sectional research requires a shorter-term investment, it is also limited by differences that exist between the different generations (or cohorts) that have nothing to do with age per se, but rather reflect the social and cultural experiences of different generations of individuals make them different from one another.

To illustrate this concept, consider the following survey findings. In recent years there has been significant growth in the popular support of same-sex marriage. Many studies on this topic break down survey participants into different age groups. In general, younger people are more supportive of same-sex marriage than are those who are older (Jones, 2013). Does this mean that as we age we become less open to the idea of same-sex marriage, or does this mean that older individuals have different perspectives because of the social climates in which they grew up? Longitudinal research is a powerful approach because the same individuals are involved in the research project over time, which means that the researchers need to be less concerned with differences among cohorts affecting the results of their study.

Often longitudinal studies are employed when researching various diseases in an effort to understand particular risk factors. Such studies often involve tens of thousands of individuals who are followed for several decades. Given the enormous number of people involved in these studies, researchers can feel confident that their findings can be generalized to the larger population. The Cancer Prevention Study-3 (CPS-3) is one of a series of longitudinal studies sponsored by the American Cancer Society aimed at determining predictive risk factors associated with cancer. When participants enter the study, they complete a survey about their lives and family histories, providing information on factors that might cause or prevent the development of cancer. Then every few years the participants receive additional surveys to complete. In the end, hundreds of thousands of participants will be tracked over 20 years to determine which of them develop cancer and which do not.

Clearly, this type of research is important and potentially very informative. For instance, earlier longitudinal studies sponsored by the American Cancer Society provided some of the first scientific demonstrations of the now well-established links between increased rates of cancer and smoking (American Cancer Society, n.d.) ( [link] ).

A photograph shows pack of cigarettes and cigarettes in an ashtray. The pack of cigarettes reads, “Surgeon general’s warning: smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy.”

As with any research strategy, longitudinal research is not without limitations. For one, these studies require an incredible time investment by the researcher and research participants. Given that some longitudinal studies take years, if not decades, to complete, the results will not be known for a considerable period of time. In addition to the time demands, these studies also require a substantial financial investment. Many researchers are unable to commit the resources necessary to see a longitudinal project through to the end.

Research participants must also be willing to continue their participation for an extended period of time, and this can be problematic. People move, get married and take new names, get ill, and eventually die. Even without significant life changes, some people may simply choose to discontinue their participation in the project. As a result, the attrition rates, or reduction in the number of research participants due to dropouts, in longitudinal studies are quite high and increases over the course of a project. For this reason, researchers using this approach typically recruit many participants fully expecting that a substantial number will drop out before the end. As the study progresses, they continually check whether the sample still represents the larger population, and make adjustments as necessary.

The clinical or case study involves studying just a few individuals for an extended period of time. While this approach provides an incredible depth of information, the ability to generalize these observations to the larger population is problematic. Naturalistic observation involves observing behavior in a natural setting and allows for the collection of valid, true-to-life information from realistic situations. However, naturalistic observation does not allow for much control and often requires quite a bit of time and money to perform. Researchers strive to ensure that their tools for collecting data are both reliable (consistent and replicable) and valid (accurate).

Surveys can be administered in a number of ways and make it possible to collect large amounts of data quickly. However, the depth of information that can be collected through surveys is somewhat limited compared to a clinical or case study.

Archival research involves studying existing data sets to answer research questions.

Longitudinal research has been incredibly helpful to researchers who need to collect data on how people change over time. Cross-sectional research compares multiple segments of a population at a single time.

Review Questions

Sigmund Freud developed his theory of human personality by conducting in-depth interviews over an extended period of time with a few clients. This type of research approach is known as a(n): ________.

  • archival research
  • naturalistic observation

________ involves observing behavior in individuals in their natural environments.

The major limitation of case studies is ________.

  • the superficial nature of the information collected in this approach
  • the lack of control that the researcher has in this approach
  • the inability to generalize the findings from this approach to the larger population
  • the absence of inter-rater reliability

The benefit of naturalistic observation studies is ________.

  • the honesty of the data that is collected in a realistic setting
  • how quick and easy these studies are to perform
  • the researcher’s capacity to make sure that data is collected as efficiently as possible
  • the ability to determine cause and effect in this particular approach

Using existing records to try to answer a research question is known as ________.

  • survey research
  • longitudinal research

________ involves following a group of research participants for an extended period of time.

  • cross-sectional research

A(n) ________ is a list of questions developed by a researcher that can be administered in paper form.

Longitudinal research is complicated by high rates of ________.

  • observation
  • generalization

Critical Thinking Questions

In this section, conjoined twins, Krista and Tatiana, were described as being potential participants in a case study. In what other circumstances would you think that this particular research approach would be especially helpful and why?

Case studies might prove especially helpful using individuals who have rare conditions. For instance, if one wanted to study multiple personality disorder then the case study approach with individuals diagnosed with multiple personality disorder would be helpful.

Presumably, reality television programs aim to provide a realistic portrayal of the behavior displayed by the characters featured in such programs. This section pointed out why this is not really the case. What changes could be made in the way that these programs are produced that would result in more honest portrayals of realistic behavior?

The behavior displayed on these programs would be more realistic if the cameras were mounted in hidden locations, or if the people who appear on these programs did not know when they were being recorded.

Which of the research methods discussed in this section would be best suited to research the effectiveness of the D.A.R.E. program in preventing the use of alcohol and other drugs? Why?

Longitudinal research would be an excellent approach in studying the effectiveness of this program because it would follow students as they aged to determine if their choices regarding alcohol and drugs were affected by their participation in the program.

Aside from biomedical research, what other areas of research could greatly benefit by both longitudinal and archival research?

Answers will vary. Possibilities include research on hiring practices based on human resource records, and research that follows former prisoners to determine if the time that they were incarcerated provided any sort of positive influence on their likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior in the future.

Personal Application Questions

A friend of yours is working part-time in a local pet store. Your friend has become increasingly interested in how dogs normally communicate and interact with each other, and is thinking of visiting a local veterinary clinic to see how dogs interact in the waiting room. After reading this section, do you think this is the best way to better understand such interactions? Do you have any suggestions that might result in more valid data?

As a college student, you are no doubt concerned about the grades that you earn while completing your coursework. If you wanted to know how overall GPA is related to success in life after college, how would you choose to approach this question and what kind of resources would you need to conduct this research?

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  • 2.2 Approaches to Research
  • Introduction
  • 1.1 What Is Psychology?
  • 1.2 History of Psychology
  • 1.3 Contemporary Psychology
  • 1.4 Careers in Psychology
  • Review Questions
  • Critical Thinking Questions
  • Personal Application Questions
  • 2.1 Why Is Research Important?
  • 2.3 Analyzing Findings
  • 3.1 Human Genetics
  • 3.2 Cells of the Nervous System
  • 3.3 Parts of the Nervous System
  • 3.4 The Brain and Spinal Cord
  • 3.5 The Endocrine System
  • 4.1 What Is Consciousness?
  • 4.2 Sleep and Why We Sleep
  • 4.3 Stages of Sleep
  • 4.4 Sleep Problems and Disorders
  • 4.5 Substance Use and Abuse
  • 4.6 Other States of Consciousness
  • 5.1 Sensation versus Perception
  • 5.2 Waves and Wavelengths
  • 5.4 Hearing
  • 5.5 The Other Senses
  • 5.6 Gestalt Principles of Perception
  • 6.1 What Is Learning?
  • 6.2 Classical Conditioning
  • 6.3 Operant Conditioning
  • 6.4 Observational Learning (Modeling)
  • 7.1 What Is Cognition?
  • 7.2 Language
  • 7.3 Problem Solving
  • 7.4 What Are Intelligence and Creativity?
  • 7.5 Measures of Intelligence
  • 7.6 The Source of Intelligence
  • 8.1 How Memory Functions
  • 8.2 Parts of the Brain Involved with Memory
  • 8.3 Problems with Memory
  • 8.4 Ways to Enhance Memory
  • 9.1 What Is Lifespan Development?
  • 9.2 Lifespan Theories
  • 9.3 Stages of Development
  • 9.4 Death and Dying
  • 10.1 Motivation
  • 10.2 Hunger and Eating
  • 10.3 Sexual Behavior, Sexuality, and Gender Identity
  • 10.4 Emotion
  • 11.1 What Is Personality?
  • 11.2 Freud and the Psychodynamic Perspective
  • 11.3 Neo-Freudians: Adler, Erikson, Jung, and Horney
  • 11.4 Learning Approaches
  • 11.5 Humanistic Approaches
  • 11.6 Biological Approaches
  • 11.7 Trait Theorists
  • 11.8 Cultural Understandings of Personality
  • 11.9 Personality Assessment
  • 12.1 What Is Social Psychology?
  • 12.2 Self-presentation
  • 12.3 Attitudes and Persuasion
  • 12.4 Conformity, Compliance, and Obedience
  • 12.5 Prejudice and Discrimination
  • 12.6 Aggression
  • 12.7 Prosocial Behavior
  • 13.1 What Is Industrial and Organizational Psychology?
  • 13.2 Industrial Psychology: Selecting and Evaluating Employees
  • 13.3 Organizational Psychology: The Social Dimension of Work
  • 13.4 Human Factors Psychology and Workplace Design
  • 14.1 What Is Stress?
  • 14.2 Stressors
  • 14.3 Stress and Illness
  • 14.4 Regulation of Stress
  • 14.5 The Pursuit of Happiness
  • 15.1 What Are Psychological Disorders?
  • 15.2 Diagnosing and Classifying Psychological Disorders
  • 15.3 Perspectives on Psychological Disorders
  • 15.4 Anxiety Disorders
  • 15.5 Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders
  • 15.6 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • 15.7 Mood and Related Disorders
  • 15.8 Schizophrenia
  • 15.9 Dissociative Disorders
  • 15.10 Disorders in Childhood
  • 15.11 Personality Disorders
  • 16.1 Mental Health Treatment: Past and Present
  • 16.2 Types of Treatment
  • 16.3 Treatment Modalities
  • 16.4 Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders: A Special Case
  • 16.5 The Sociocultural Model and Therapy Utilization

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the different research methods used by psychologists
  • Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of case studies, naturalistic observation, surveys, and archival research
  • Compare longitudinal and cross-sectional approaches to research
  • Compare and contrast correlation and causation

There are many research methods available to psychologists in their efforts to understand, describe, and explain behavior and the cognitive and biological processes that underlie it. Some methods rely on observational techniques. Other approaches involve interactions between the researcher and the individuals who are being studied—ranging from a series of simple questions to extensive, in-depth interviews—to well-controlled experiments.

Each of these research methods has unique strengths and weaknesses, and each method may only be appropriate for certain types of research questions. For example, studies that rely primarily on observation produce incredible amounts of information, but the ability to apply this information to the larger population is somewhat limited because of small sample sizes. Survey research, on the other hand, allows researchers to easily collect data from relatively large samples. While this allows for results to be generalized to the larger population more easily, the information that can be collected on any given survey is somewhat limited and subject to problems associated with any type of self-reported data. Some researchers conduct archival research by using existing records. While this can be a fairly inexpensive way to collect data that can provide insight into a number of research questions, researchers using this approach have no control on how or what kind of data was collected. All of the methods described thus far are correlational in nature. This means that researchers can speak to important relationships that might exist between two or more variables of interest. However, correlational data cannot be used to make claims about cause-and-effect relationships.

Correlational research can find a relationship between two variables, but the only way a researcher can claim that the relationship between the variables is cause and effect is to perform an experiment. In experimental research, which will be discussed later in this chapter, there is a tremendous amount of control over variables of interest. While this is a powerful approach, experiments are often conducted in artificial settings. This calls into question the validity of experimental findings with regard to how they would apply in real-world settings. In addition, many of the questions that psychologists would like to answer cannot be pursued through experimental research because of ethical concerns.

Clinical or Case Studies

In 2011, the New York Times published a feature story on Krista and Tatiana Hogan, Canadian twin girls. These particular twins are unique because Krista and Tatiana are conjoined twins, connected at the head. There is evidence that the two girls are connected in a part of the brain called the thalamus, which is a major sensory relay center. Most incoming sensory information is sent through the thalamus before reaching higher regions of the cerebral cortex for processing.

Link to Learning

Watch this CBC video about Krista's and Tatiana's lives to learn more.

The implications of this potential connection mean that it might be possible for one twin to experience the sensations of the other twin. For instance, if Krista is watching a particularly funny television program, Tatiana might smile or laugh even if she is not watching the program. This particular possibility has piqued the interest of many neuroscientists who seek to understand how the brain uses sensory information.

These twins represent an enormous resource in the study of the brain, and since their condition is very rare, it is likely that as long as their family agrees, scientists will follow these girls very closely throughout their lives to gain as much information as possible (Dominus, 2011).

Over time, it has become clear that while Krista and Tatiana share some sensory experiences and motor control, they remain two distinct individuals, which provides invaluable insight for researchers interested in the mind and the brain (Egnor, 2017).

In observational research, scientists are conducting a clinical or case study when they focus on one person or just a few individuals. Indeed, some scientists spend their entire careers studying just 10–20 individuals. Why would they do this? Obviously, when they focus their attention on a very small number of people, they can gain a precious amount of insight into those cases. The richness of information that is collected in clinical or case studies is unmatched by any other single research method. This allows the researcher to have a very deep understanding of the individuals and the particular phenomenon being studied.

If clinical or case studies provide so much information, why are they not more frequent among researchers? As it turns out, the major benefit of this particular approach is also a weakness. As mentioned earlier, this approach is often used when studying individuals who are interesting to researchers because they have a rare characteristic. Therefore, the individuals who serve as the focus of case studies are not like most other people. If scientists ultimately want to explain all behavior, focusing attention on such a special group of people can make it difficult to generalize any observations to the larger population as a whole. Generalizing refers to the ability to apply the findings of a particular research project to larger segments of society. Again, case studies provide enormous amounts of information, but since the cases are so specific, the potential to apply what’s learned to the average person may be very limited.

Naturalistic Observation

If you want to understand how behavior occurs, one of the best ways to gain information is to simply observe the behavior in its natural context. However, people might change their behavior in unexpected ways if they know they are being observed. How do researchers obtain accurate information when people tend to hide their natural behavior? As an example, imagine that your professor asks everyone in your class to raise their hand if they always wash their hands after using the restroom. Chances are that almost everyone in the classroom will raise their hand, but do you think hand washing after every trip to the restroom is really that universal?

This is very similar to the phenomenon mentioned earlier in this chapter: many individuals do not feel comfortable answering a question honestly. But if we are committed to finding out the facts about hand washing, we have other options available to us.

Suppose we send a classmate into the restroom to actually watch whether everyone washes their hands after using the restroom. Will our observer blend into the restroom environment by wearing a white lab coat, sitting with a clipboard, and staring at the sinks? We want our researcher to be inconspicuous—perhaps standing at one of the sinks pretending to put in contact lenses while secretly recording the relevant information. This type of observational study is called naturalistic observation : observing behavior in its natural setting. To better understand peer exclusion, Suzanne Fanger collaborated with colleagues at the University of Texas to observe the behavior of preschool children on a playground. How did the observers remain inconspicuous over the duration of the study? They equipped a few of the children with wireless microphones (which the children quickly forgot about) and observed while taking notes from a distance. Also, the children in that particular preschool (a “laboratory preschool”) were accustomed to having observers on the playground (Fanger, Frankel, & Hazen, 2012).

It is critical that the observer be as unobtrusive and as inconspicuous as possible: when people know they are being watched, they are less likely to behave naturally. If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how your driving behavior might differ in two situations: In the first situation, you are driving down a deserted highway during the middle of the day; in the second situation, you are being followed by a police car down the same deserted highway ( Figure 2.7 ).

It should be pointed out that naturalistic observation is not limited to research involving humans. Indeed, some of the best-known examples of naturalistic observation involve researchers going into the field to observe various kinds of animals in their own environments. As with human studies, the researchers maintain their distance and avoid interfering with the animal subjects so as not to influence their natural behaviors. Scientists have used this technique to study social hierarchies and interactions among animals ranging from ground squirrels to gorillas. The information provided by these studies is invaluable in understanding how those animals organize socially and communicate with one another. The anthropologist Jane Goodall , for example, spent nearly five decades observing the behavior of chimpanzees in Africa ( Figure 2.8 ). As an illustration of the types of concerns that a researcher might encounter in naturalistic observation, some scientists criticized Goodall for giving the chimps names instead of referring to them by numbers—using names was thought to undermine the emotional detachment required for the objectivity of the study (McKie, 2010).

The greatest benefit of naturalistic observation is the validity , or accuracy, of information collected unobtrusively in a natural setting. Having individuals behave as they normally would in a given situation means that we have a higher degree of ecological validity, or realism, than we might achieve with other research approaches. Therefore, our ability to generalize the findings of the research to real-world situations is enhanced. If done correctly, we need not worry about people or animals modifying their behavior simply because they are being observed. Sometimes, people may assume that reality programs give us a glimpse into authentic human behavior. However, the principle of inconspicuous observation is violated as reality stars are followed by camera crews and are interviewed on camera for personal confessionals. Given that environment, we must doubt how natural and realistic their behaviors are.

The major downside of naturalistic observation is that they are often difficult to set up and control. In our restroom study, what if you stood in the restroom all day prepared to record people’s hand washing behavior and no one came in? Or, what if you have been closely observing a troop of gorillas for weeks only to find that they migrated to a new place while you were sleeping in your tent? The benefit of realistic data comes at a cost. As a researcher you have no control of when (or if) you have behavior to observe. In addition, this type of observational research often requires significant investments of time, money, and a good dose of luck.

Sometimes studies involve structured observation. In these cases, people are observed while engaging in set, specific tasks. An excellent example of structured observation comes from Strange Situation by Mary Ainsworth (you will read more about this in the chapter on lifespan development). The Strange Situation is a procedure used to evaluate attachment styles that exist between an infant and caregiver. In this scenario, caregivers bring their infants into a room filled with toys. The Strange Situation involves a number of phases, including a stranger coming into the room, the caregiver leaving the room, and the caregiver’s return to the room. The infant’s behavior is closely monitored at each phase, but it is the behavior of the infant upon being reunited with the caregiver that is most telling in terms of characterizing the infant’s attachment style with the caregiver.

Another potential problem in observational research is observer bias . Generally, people who act as observers are closely involved in the research project and may unconsciously skew their observations to fit their research goals or expectations. To protect against this type of bias, researchers should have clear criteria established for the types of behaviors recorded and how those behaviors should be classified. In addition, researchers often compare observations of the same event by multiple observers, in order to test inter-rater reliability : a measure of reliability that assesses the consistency of observations by different observers.

Often, psychologists develop surveys as a means of gathering data. Surveys are lists of questions to be answered by research participants, and can be delivered as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally ( Figure 2.9 ). Generally, the survey itself can be completed in a short time, and the ease of administering a survey makes it easy to collect data from a large number of people.

Surveys allow researchers to gather data from larger samples than may be afforded by other research methods . A sample is a subset of individuals selected from a population , which is the overall group of individuals that the researchers are interested in. Researchers study the sample and seek to generalize their findings to the population. Generally, researchers will begin this process by calculating various measures of central tendency from the data they have collected. These measures provide an overall summary of what a typical response looks like. There are three measures of central tendency: mode, median, and mean. The mode is the most frequently occurring response, the median lies at the middle of a given data set, and the mean is the arithmetic average of all data points. Means tend to be most useful in conducting additional analyses like those described below; however, means are very sensitive to the effects of outliers, and so one must be aware of those effects when making assessments of what measures of central tendency tell us about a data set in question.

There is both strength and weakness of the survey in comparison to case studies. By using surveys, we can collect information from a larger sample of people. A larger sample is better able to reflect the actual diversity of the population, thus allowing better generalizability. Therefore, if our sample is sufficiently large and diverse, we can assume that the data we collect from the survey can be generalized to the larger population with more certainty than the information collected through a case study. However, given the greater number of people involved, we are not able to collect the same depth of information on each person that would be collected in a case study.

Another potential weakness of surveys is something we touched on earlier in this chapter: People don't always give accurate responses. They may lie, misremember, or answer questions in a way that they think makes them look good. For example, people may report drinking less alcohol than is actually the case.

Any number of research questions can be answered through the use of surveys. One real-world example is the research conducted by Jenkins, Ruppel, Kizer, Yehl, and Griffin (2012) about the backlash against the US Arab-American community following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Jenkins and colleagues wanted to determine to what extent these negative attitudes toward Arab-Americans still existed nearly a decade after the attacks occurred. In one study, 140 research participants filled out a survey with 10 questions, including questions asking directly about the participant’s overt prejudicial attitudes toward people of various ethnicities. The survey also asked indirect questions about how likely the participant would be to interact with a person of a given ethnicity in a variety of settings (such as, “How likely do you think it is that you would introduce yourself to a person of Arab-American descent?”). The results of the research suggested that participants were unwilling to report prejudicial attitudes toward any ethnic group. However, there were significant differences between their pattern of responses to questions about social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to other ethnic groups: they indicated less willingness for social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to the other ethnic groups. This suggested that the participants harbored subtle forms of prejudice against Arab-Americans, despite their assertions that this was not the case (Jenkins et al., 2012).

Archival Research

Some researchers gain access to large amounts of data without interacting with a single research participant. Instead, they use existing records to answer various research questions. This type of research approach is known as archival research . Archival research relies on looking at past records or data sets to look for interesting patterns or relationships.

For example, a researcher might access the academic records of all individuals who enrolled in college within the past ten years and calculate how long it took them to complete their degrees, as well as course loads, grades, and extracurricular involvement. Archival research could provide important information about who is most likely to complete their education, and it could help identify important risk factors for struggling students ( Figure 2.10 ).

In comparing archival research to other research methods, there are several important distinctions. For one, the researcher employing archival research never directly interacts with research participants. Therefore, the investment of time and money to collect data is considerably less with archival research. Additionally, researchers have no control over what information was originally collected. Therefore, research questions have to be tailored so they can be answered within the structure of the existing data sets. There is also no guarantee of consistency between the records from one source to another, which might make comparing and contrasting different data sets problematic.

Longitudinal and Cross-Sectional Research

Sometimes we want to see how people change over time, as in studies of human development and lifespan. When we test the same group of individuals repeatedly over an extended period of time, we are conducting longitudinal research. Longitudinal research is a research design in which data-gathering is administered repeatedly over an extended period of time. For example, we may survey a group of individuals about their dietary habits at age 20, retest them a decade later at age 30, and then again at age 40.

Another approach is cross-sectional research. In cross-sectional research , a researcher compares multiple segments of the population at the same time. Using the dietary habits example above, the researcher might directly compare different groups of people by age. Instead of studying a group of people for 20 years to see how their dietary habits changed from decade to decade, the researcher would study a group of 20-year-old individuals and compare them to a group of 30-year-old individuals and a group of 40-year-old individuals. While cross-sectional research requires a shorter-term investment, it is also limited by differences that exist between the different generations (or cohorts) that have nothing to do with age per se, but rather reflect the social and cultural experiences of different generations of individuals that make them different from one another.

To illustrate this concept, consider the following survey findings. In recent years there has been significant growth in the popular support of same-sex marriage. Many studies on this topic break down survey participants into different age groups. In general, younger people are more supportive of same-sex marriage than are those who are older (Jones, 2013). Does this mean that as we age we become less open to the idea of same-sex marriage, or does this mean that older individuals have different perspectives because of the social climates in which they grew up? Longitudinal research is a powerful approach because the same individuals are involved in the research project over time, which means that the researchers need to be less concerned with differences among cohorts affecting the results of their study.

Often longitudinal studies are employed when researching various diseases in an effort to understand particular risk factors. Such studies often involve tens of thousands of individuals who are followed for several decades. Given the enormous number of people involved in these studies, researchers can feel confident that their findings can be generalized to the larger population. The Cancer Prevention Study-3 (CPS-3) is one of a series of longitudinal studies sponsored by the American Cancer Society aimed at determining predictive risk factors associated with cancer. When participants enter the study, they complete a survey about their lives and family histories, providing information on factors that might cause or prevent the development of cancer. Then every few years the participants receive additional surveys to complete. In the end, hundreds of thousands of participants will be tracked over 20 years to determine which of them develop cancer and which do not.

Clearly, this type of research is important and potentially very informative. For instance, earlier longitudinal studies sponsored by the American Cancer Society provided some of the first scientific demonstrations of the now well-established links between increased rates of cancer and smoking (American Cancer Society, n.d.) ( Figure 2.11 ).

As with any research strategy, longitudinal research is not without limitations. For one, these studies require an incredible time investment by the researcher and research participants. Given that some longitudinal studies take years, if not decades, to complete, the results will not be known for a considerable period of time. In addition to the time demands, these studies also require a substantial financial investment. Many researchers are unable to commit the resources necessary to see a longitudinal project through to the end.

Research participants must also be willing to continue their participation for an extended period of time, and this can be problematic. People move, get married and take new names, get ill, and eventually die. Even without significant life changes, some people may simply choose to discontinue their participation in the project. As a result, the attrition rates, or reduction in the number of research participants due to dropouts, in longitudinal studies are quite high and increases over the course of a project. For this reason, researchers using this approach typically recruit many participants fully expecting that a substantial number will drop out before the end. As the study progresses, they continually check whether the sample still represents the larger population, and make adjustments as necessary.

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CBT Case Formulation as Therapeutic Process pp 143–161 Cite as

Strengths and Limitations of Case Formulation in Constructivist Cognitive Behavioral Therapies

  • Giovanni Maria Ruggiero 6 , 7 , 8 ,
  • Gabriele Caselli 7 , 8 , 9 &
  • Sandra Sassaroli 7 , 8 , 10  
  • First Online: 10 April 2021

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When the classic cognitive model emerged after behaviorism, its development was not unitary: It forked into a rationalist approach that conceived cognition as a conscious computational knowledge, and a constructivist approach that considered cognition as hermeneutical, emotionally charged, tacit, and derived from human relationships. Constructive therapists promoted the initial development of the practice of case formulation when they introduced the concepts of personal meanings and constructs. However, the relationship between clinical constructivism and case formulation is an uneven story, conditioned by the fact that in some phases of its development constructivism indulged in highly speculative clinical thinking. Another specific feature of constructivism is that it largely uses the concepts of trauma and therapeutic relationship in either the case formulation or the treatment process. Many constructivist models seem prone to adopt the model of rupture and repairs in order to add an operational aspect to the concept of therapeutic relationship.

  • Constructivism
  • Personal constructs
  • Personal meanings
  • Therapeutic relationship

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Ruggiero, G.M., Caselli, G., Sassaroli, S. (2021). Strengths and Limitations of Case Formulation in Constructivist Cognitive Behavioral Therapies. In: Ruggiero, G.M., Caselli, G., Sassaroli, S. (eds) CBT Case Formulation as Therapeutic Process. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-63587-9_15

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Psychological Research

Descriptive research, learning objectives.

  • Differentiate between descriptive, experimental, and correlational research
  • Explain the strengths and weaknesses of case studies, naturalistic observation, and surveys

There are many research methods available to psychologists in their efforts to understand, describe, and explain behavior and the cognitive and biological processes that underlie it. Some methods rely on observational techniques. Other approaches involve interactions between the researcher and the individuals who are being studied—ranging from a series of simple questions to extensive, in-depth interviews—to well-controlled experiments.

The three main categories of psychological research are descriptive, correlational, and experimental research. Research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables are called descriptive studies . These studies are used to describe general or specific behaviors and attributes that are observed and measured. In the early stages of research, it might be difficult to form a hypothesis, especially when there is not any existing literature in the area. In these situations designing an experiment would be premature, as the question of interest is not yet clearly defined as a hypothesis. Often a researcher will begin with a non-experimental approach, such as a descriptive study, to gather more information about the topic before designing an experiment or correlational study to address a specific hypothesis. Descriptive research is distinct from correlational research , in which psychologists formally test whether a relationship exists between two or more variables. Experimental research goes a step further beyond descriptive and correlational research and randomly assigns people to different conditions, using hypothesis testing to make inferences about how these conditions affect behavior. It aims to determine if one variable directly impacts and causes another. Correlational and experimental research both typically use hypothesis testing, whereas descriptive research does not. Table 1 displays a quick overview of the characteristics of each research design.

Table 1. Characteristics of Descriptive, Experimental, and Correlational Research

Each of these research methods has unique strengths and weaknesses, and each method may only be appropriate for certain types of research questions. For example, studies that rely primarily on observation produce incredible amounts of information, but the ability to apply this information to the larger population is somewhat limited because of small sample sizes. Survey research, on the other hand, allows researchers to easily collect data from relatively large samples. While this allows for results to be generalized to the larger population more easily, the information that can be collected on any given survey is somewhat limited and subject to problems associated with any type of self-reported data. Some researchers conduct archival research by using existing records. While this can be a fairly inexpensive way to collect data that can provide insight into a number of research questions, researchers using this approach have no control on how or what kind of data was collected.

Correlational research can find a relationship between two variables, but the only way a researcher can claim that the relationship between the variables is cause and effect is to perform an experiment. In experimental research, which will be discussed later in the text, there is a tremendous amount of control over variables of interest. While this is a powerful approach, experiments are often conducted in very artificial settings. This calls into question the validity of experimental findings with regard to how they would apply in real-world settings. In addition, many of the questions that psychologists would like to answer cannot be pursued through experimental research because of ethical concerns.

The three main types of descriptive studies are case studies, naturalistic observation, and surveys.

Case Studies

In 2011, the New York Times published a feature story on Krista and Tatiana Hogan, Canadian twin girls. These particular twins are unique because Krista and Tatiana are conjoined twins, connected at the head. There is evidence that the two girls are connected in a part of the brain called the thalamus, which is a major sensory relay center. Most incoming sensory information is sent through the thalamus before reaching higher regions of the cerebral cortex for processing.

Link to Learning

To learn more about Krista and Tatiana, watch this video about their lives as conjoined twins.

The implications of this potential connection mean that it might be possible for one twin to experience the sensations of the other twin. For instance, if Krista is watching a particularly funny television program, Tatiana might smile or laugh even if she is not watching the program. This particular possibility has piqued the interest of many neuroscientists who seek to understand how the brain uses sensory information.

These twins represent an enormous resource in the study of the brain, and since their condition is very rare, it is likely that as long as their family agrees, scientists will follow these girls very closely throughout their lives to gain as much information as possible (Dominus, 2011).

In observational research, scientists are conducting a clinical or case study when they focus on one person or just a few individuals. Indeed, some scientists spend their entire careers studying just 10–20 individuals. Why would they do this? Obviously, when they focus their attention on a very small number of people, they can gain a tremendous amount of insight into those cases. The richness of information that is collected in clinical or case studies is unmatched by any other single research method. This allows the researcher to have a very deep understanding of the individuals and the particular phenomenon being studied.

If clinical or case studies provide so much information, why are they not more frequent among researchers? As it turns out, the major benefit of this particular approach is also a weakness. As mentioned earlier, this approach is often used when studying individuals who are interesting to researchers because they have a rare characteristic. Therefore, the individuals who serve as the focus of case studies are not like most other people. If scientists ultimately want to explain all behavior, focusing attention on such a special group of people can make it difficult to generalize any observations to the larger population as a whole. Generalizing refers to the ability to apply the findings of a particular research project to larger segments of society. Again, case studies provide enormous amounts of information, but since the cases are so specific, the potential to apply what’s learned to the average person may be very limited.

Naturalistic Observation

If you want to understand how behavior occurs, one of the best ways to gain information is to simply observe the behavior in its natural context. However, people might change their behavior in unexpected ways if they know they are being observed. How do researchers obtain accurate information when people tend to hide their natural behavior? As an example, imagine that your professor asks everyone in your class to raise their hand if they always wash their hands after using the restroom. Chances are that almost everyone in the classroom will raise their hand, but do you think hand washing after every trip to the restroom is really that universal?

This is very similar to the phenomenon mentioned earlier in this module: many individuals do not feel comfortable answering a question honestly. But if we are committed to finding out the facts about hand washing, we have other options available to us.

Suppose we send a classmate into the restroom to actually watch whether everyone washes their hands after using the restroom. Will our observer blend into the restroom environment by wearing a white lab coat, sitting with a clipboard, and staring at the sinks? We want our researcher to be inconspicuous—perhaps standing at one of the sinks pretending to put in contact lenses while secretly recording the relevant information. This type of observational study is called naturalistic observation : observing behavior in its natural setting. To better understand peer exclusion, Suzanne Fanger collaborated with colleagues at the University of Texas to observe the behavior of preschool children on a playground. How did the observers remain inconspicuous over the duration of the study? They equipped a few of the children with wireless microphones (which the children quickly forgot about) and observed while taking notes from a distance. Also, the children in that particular preschool (a “laboratory preschool”) were accustomed to having observers on the playground (Fanger, Frankel, & Hazen, 2012).

A photograph shows two police cars driving, one with its lights flashing.

Figure 1 . Seeing a police car behind you would probably affect your driving behavior. (credit: Michael Gil)

It is critical that the observer be as unobtrusive and as inconspicuous as possible: when people know they are being watched, they are less likely to behave naturally. If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how your driving behavior might differ in two situations: In the first situation, you are driving down a deserted highway during the middle of the day; in the second situation, you are being followed by a police car down the same deserted highway (Figure 1).

It should be pointed out that naturalistic observation is not limited to research involving humans. Indeed, some of the best-known examples of naturalistic observation involve researchers going into the field to observe various kinds of animals in their own environments. As with human studies, the researchers maintain their distance and avoid interfering with the animal subjects so as not to influence their natural behaviors. Scientists have used this technique to study social hierarchies and interactions among animals ranging from ground squirrels to gorillas. The information provided by these studies is invaluable in understanding how those animals organize socially and communicate with one another. The anthropologist Jane Goodall, for example, spent nearly five decades observing the behavior of chimpanzees in Africa (Figure 2). As an illustration of the types of concerns that a researcher might encounter in naturalistic observation, some scientists criticized Goodall for giving the chimps names instead of referring to them by numbers—using names was thought to undermine the emotional detachment required for the objectivity of the study (McKie, 2010).

(a) A photograph shows Jane Goodall speaking from a lectern. (b) A photograph shows a chimpanzee’s face.

Figure 2 . (a) Jane Goodall made a career of conducting naturalistic observations of (b) chimpanzee behavior. (credit “Jane Goodall”: modification of work by Erik Hersman; “chimpanzee”: modification of work by “Afrika Force”/Flickr.com)

The greatest benefit of naturalistic observation is the validity, or accuracy, of information collected unobtrusively in a natural setting. Having individuals behave as they normally would in a given situation means that we have a higher degree of ecological validity, or realism, than we might achieve with other research approaches. Therefore, our ability to generalize the findings of the research to real-world situations is enhanced. If done correctly, we need not worry about people or animals modifying their behavior simply because they are being observed. Sometimes, people may assume that reality programs give us a glimpse into authentic human behavior. However, the principle of inconspicuous observation is violated as reality stars are followed by camera crews and are interviewed on camera for personal confessionals. Given that environment, we must doubt how natural and realistic their behaviors are.

The major downside of naturalistic observation is that they are often difficult to set up and control. In our restroom study, what if you stood in the restroom all day prepared to record people’s hand washing behavior and no one came in? Or, what if you have been closely observing a troop of gorillas for weeks only to find that they migrated to a new place while you were sleeping in your tent? The benefit of realistic data comes at a cost. As a researcher you have no control of when (or if) you have behavior to observe. In addition, this type of observational research often requires significant investments of time, money, and a good dose of luck.

Sometimes studies involve structured observation. In these cases, people are observed while engaging in set, specific tasks. An excellent example of structured observation comes from Strange Situation by Mary Ainsworth (you will read more about this in the module on lifespan development). The Strange Situation is a procedure used to evaluate attachment styles that exist between an infant and caregiver. In this scenario, caregivers bring their infants into a room filled with toys. The Strange Situation involves a number of phases, including a stranger coming into the room, the caregiver leaving the room, and the caregiver’s return to the room. The infant’s behavior is closely monitored at each phase, but it is the behavior of the infant upon being reunited with the caregiver that is most telling in terms of characterizing the infant’s attachment style with the caregiver.

Another potential problem in observational research is observer bias . Generally, people who act as observers are closely involved in the research project and may unconsciously skew their observations to fit their research goals or expectations. To protect against this type of bias, researchers should have clear criteria established for the types of behaviors recorded and how those behaviors should be classified. In addition, researchers often compare observations of the same event by multiple observers, in order to test inter-rater reliability : a measure of reliability that assesses the consistency of observations by different observers.

Often, psychologists develop surveys as a means of gathering data. Surveys are lists of questions to be answered by research participants, and can be delivered as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally (Figure 3). Generally, the survey itself can be completed in a short time, and the ease of administering a survey makes it easy to collect data from a large number of people.

Surveys allow researchers to gather data from larger samples than may be afforded by other research methods . A sample is a subset of individuals selected from a population , which is the overall group of individuals that the researchers are interested in. Researchers study the sample and seek to generalize their findings to the population. Generally, researchers will begin this process by calculating various measures of central tendency from the data they have collected. These measures provide an overall summary of what a typical response looks like. There are three measures of central tendency: mode, median, and mean. The mode is the most frequently occurring response, the median lies at the middle of a given data set, and the mean is the arithmetic average of all data points. Means tend to be most useful in conducting additional analyses like those described below; however, means are very sensitive to the effects of outliers, and so one must be aware of those effects when making assessments of what measures of central tendency tell us about a data set in question.

A sample online survey reads, “Dear visitor, your opinion is important to us. We would like to invite you to participate in a short survey to gather your opinions and feedback on your news consumption habits. The survey will take approximately 10-15 minutes. Simply click the “Yes” button below to launch the survey. Would you like to participate?” Two buttons are labeled “yes” and “no.”

Figure 3 . Surveys can be administered in a number of ways, including electronically administered research, like the survey shown here. (credit: Robert Nyman)

There is both strength and weakness of the survey in comparison to case studies. By using surveys, we can collect information from a larger sample of people. A larger sample is better able to reflect the actual diversity of the population, thus allowing better generalizability. Therefore, if our sample is sufficiently large and diverse, we can assume that the data we collect from the survey can be generalized to the larger population with more certainty than the information collected through a case study. However, given the greater number of people involved, we are not able to collect the same depth of information on each person that would be collected in a case study.

Another potential weakness of surveys is something we touched on earlier in this module: people don’t always give accurate responses. They may lie, misremember, or answer questions in a way that they think makes them look good. For example, people may report drinking less alcohol than is actually the case.

Any number of research questions can be answered through the use of surveys. One real-world example is the research conducted by Jenkins, Ruppel, Kizer, Yehl, and Griffin (2012) about the backlash against the US Arab-American community following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Jenkins and colleagues wanted to determine to what extent these negative attitudes toward Arab-Americans still existed nearly a decade after the attacks occurred. In one study, 140 research participants filled out a survey with 10 questions, including questions asking directly about the participant’s overt prejudicial attitudes toward people of various ethnicities. The survey also asked indirect questions about how likely the participant would be to interact with a person of a given ethnicity in a variety of settings (such as, “How likely do you think it is that you would introduce yourself to a person of Arab-American descent?”). The results of the research suggested that participants were unwilling to report prejudicial attitudes toward any ethnic group. However, there were significant differences between their pattern of responses to questions about social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to other ethnic groups: they indicated less willingness for social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to the other ethnic groups. This suggested that the participants harbored subtle forms of prejudice against Arab-Americans, despite their assertions that this was not the case (Jenkins et al., 2012).

Think It Over

A friend of yours is working part-time in a local pet store. Your friend has become increasingly interested in how dogs normally communicate and interact with each other, and is thinking of visiting a local veterinary clinic to see how dogs interact in the waiting room. After reading this section, do you think this is the best way to better understand such interactions? Do you have any suggestions that might result in more valid data?

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Case Studies

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

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Case studies are very detailed investigations of an individual or small group of people, usually regarding an unusual phenomenon or biographical event of interest to a research field. Due to a small sample, the case study can conduct an in-depth analysis of the individual/group.

Evaluation of case studies:

- Case studies create opportunities for a rich yield of data, and the depth of analysis can in turn bring high levels of validity (i.e. providing an accurate and exhaustive measure of what the study is hoping to measure).

- Studying abnormal psychology can give insight into how something works when it is functioning correctly, such as brain damage on memory (e.g. the case study of patient KF, whose short-term memory was impaired following a motorcycle accident but left his long-term memory intact, suggesting there might be separate physical stores in the brain for short and long-term memory).

- The detail collected on a single case may lead to interesting findings that conflict with current theories, and stimulate new paths for research.

- There is little control over a number of variables involved in a case study, so it is difficult to confidently establish any causal relationships between variables.

- Case studies are unusual by nature, so will have poor reliability as replicating them exactly will be unlikely.

- Due to the small sample size, it is unlikely that findings from a case study alone can be generalised to a whole population.

- The case study’s researcher may become so involved with the study that they exhibit bias in their interpretation and presentation of the data, making it challenging to distinguish what is truly objective/factual.

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10 Case Study Advantages and Disadvantages

case study advantages and disadvantages, explained below

A case study in academic research is a detailed and in-depth examination of a specific instance or event, generally conducted through a qualitative approach to data.

The most common case study definition that I come across is is Robert K. Yin’s (2003, p. 13) quote provided below:

“An empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident.”

Researchers conduct case studies for a number of reasons, such as to explore complex phenomena within their real-life context, to look at a particularly interesting instance of a situation, or to dig deeper into something of interest identified in a wider-scale project.

While case studies render extremely interesting data, they have many limitations and are not suitable for all studies. One key limitation is that a case study’s findings are not usually generalizable to broader populations because one instance cannot be used to infer trends across populations.

Case Study Advantages and Disadvantages

1. in-depth analysis of complex phenomena.

Case study design allows researchers to delve deeply into intricate issues and situations.

By focusing on a specific instance or event, researchers can uncover nuanced details and layers of understanding that might be missed with other research methods, especially large-scale survey studies.

As Lee and Saunders (2017) argue,

“It allows that particular event to be studies in detail so that its unique qualities may be identified.”

This depth of analysis can provide rich insights into the underlying factors and dynamics of the studied phenomenon.

2. Holistic Understanding

Building on the above point, case studies can help us to understand a topic holistically and from multiple angles.

This means the researcher isn’t restricted to just examining a topic by using a pre-determined set of questions, as with questionnaires. Instead, researchers can use qualitative methods to delve into the many different angles, perspectives, and contextual factors related to the case study.

We can turn to Lee and Saunders (2017) again, who notes that case study researchers “develop a deep, holistic understanding of a particular phenomenon” with the intent of deeply understanding the phenomenon.

3. Examination of rare and Unusual Phenomena

We need to use case study methods when we stumble upon “rare and unusual” (Lee & Saunders, 2017) phenomena that would tend to be seen as mere outliers in population studies.

Take, for example, a child genius. A population study of all children of that child’s age would merely see this child as an outlier in the dataset, and this child may even be removed in order to predict overall trends.

So, to truly come to an understanding of this child and get insights into the environmental conditions that led to this child’s remarkable cognitive development, we need to do an in-depth study of this child specifically – so, we’d use a case study.

4. Helps Reveal the Experiences of Marginalzied Groups

Just as rare and unsual cases can be overlooked in population studies, so too can the experiences, beliefs, and perspectives of marginalized groups.

As Lee and Saunders (2017) argue, “case studies are also extremely useful in helping the expression of the voices of people whose interests are often ignored.”

Take, for example, the experiences of minority populations as they navigate healthcare systems. This was for many years a “hidden” phenomenon, not examined by researchers. It took case study designs to truly reveal this phenomenon, which helped to raise practitioners’ awareness of the importance of cultural sensitivity in medicine.

5. Ideal in Situations where Researchers cannot Control the Variables

Experimental designs – where a study takes place in a lab or controlled environment – are excellent for determining cause and effect . But not all studies can take place in controlled environments (Tetnowski, 2015).

When we’re out in the field doing observational studies or similar fieldwork, we don’t have the freedom to isolate dependent and independent variables. We need to use alternate methods.

Case studies are ideal in such situations.

A case study design will allow researchers to deeply immerse themselves in a setting (potentially combining it with methods such as ethnography or researcher observation) in order to see how phenomena take place in real-life settings.

6. Supports the generation of new theories or hypotheses

While large-scale quantitative studies such as cross-sectional designs and population surveys are excellent at testing theories and hypotheses on a large scale, they need a hypothesis to start off with!

This is where case studies – in the form of grounded research – come in. Often, a case study doesn’t start with a hypothesis. Instead, it ends with a hypothesis based upon the findings within a singular setting.

The deep analysis allows for hypotheses to emerge, which can then be taken to larger-scale studies in order to conduct further, more generalizable, testing of the hypothesis or theory.

7. Reveals the Unexpected

When a largescale quantitative research project has a clear hypothesis that it will test, it often becomes very rigid and has tunnel-vision on just exploring the hypothesis.

Of course, a structured scientific examination of the effects of specific interventions targeted at specific variables is extermely valuable.

But narrowly-focused studies often fail to shine a spotlight on unexpected and emergent data. Here, case studies come in very useful. Oftentimes, researchers set their eyes on a phenomenon and, when examining it closely with case studies, identify data and come to conclusions that are unprecedented, unforeseen, and outright surprising.

As Lars Meier (2009, p. 975) marvels, “where else can we become a part of foreign social worlds and have the chance to become aware of the unexpected?”

Disadvantages

1. not usually generalizable.

Case studies are not generalizable because they tend not to look at a broad enough corpus of data to be able to infer that there is a trend across a population.

As Yang (2022) argues, “by definition, case studies can make no claims to be typical.”

Case studies focus on one specific instance of a phenomenon. They explore the context, nuances, and situational factors that have come to bear on the case study. This is really useful for bringing to light important, new, and surprising information, as I’ve already covered.

But , it’s not often useful for generating data that has validity beyond the specific case study being examined.

2. Subjectivity in interpretation

Case studies usually (but not always) use qualitative data which helps to get deep into a topic and explain it in human terms, finding insights unattainable by quantitative data.

But qualitative data in case studies relies heavily on researcher interpretation. While researchers can be trained and work hard to focus on minimizing subjectivity (through methods like triangulation), it often emerges – some might argue it’s innevitable in qualitative studies.

So, a criticism of case studies could be that they’re more prone to subjectivity – and researchers need to take strides to address this in their studies.

3. Difficulty in replicating results

Case study research is often non-replicable because the study takes place in complex real-world settings where variables are not controlled.

So, when returning to a setting to re-do or attempt to replicate a study, we often find that the variables have changed to such an extent that replication is difficult. Furthermore, new researchers (with new subjective eyes) may catch things that the other readers overlooked.

Replication is even harder when researchers attempt to replicate a case study design in a new setting or with different participants.

Comprehension Quiz for Students

Question 1: What benefit do case studies offer when exploring the experiences of marginalized groups?

a) They provide generalizable data. b) They help express the voices of often-ignored individuals. c) They control all variables for the study. d) They always start with a clear hypothesis.

Question 2: Why might case studies be considered ideal for situations where researchers cannot control all variables?

a) They provide a structured scientific examination. b) They allow for generalizability across populations. c) They focus on one specific instance of a phenomenon. d) They allow for deep immersion in real-life settings.

Question 3: What is a primary disadvantage of case studies in terms of data applicability?

a) They always focus on the unexpected. b) They are not usually generalizable. c) They support the generation of new theories. d) They provide a holistic understanding.

Question 4: Why might case studies be considered more prone to subjectivity?

a) They always use quantitative data. b) They heavily rely on researcher interpretation, especially with qualitative data. c) They are always replicable. d) They look at a broad corpus of data.

Question 5: In what situations are experimental designs, such as those conducted in labs, most valuable?

a) When there’s a need to study rare and unusual phenomena. b) When a holistic understanding is required. c) When determining cause-and-effect relationships. d) When the study focuses on marginalized groups.

Question 6: Why is replication challenging in case study research?

a) Because they always use qualitative data. b) Because they tend to focus on a broad corpus of data. c) Due to the changing variables in complex real-world settings. d) Because they always start with a hypothesis.

Lee, B., & Saunders, M. N. K. (2017). Conducting Case Study Research for Business and Management Students. SAGE Publications.

Meir, L. (2009). Feasting on the Benefits of Case Study Research. In Mills, A. J., Wiebe, E., & Durepos, G. (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Case Study Research (Vol. 2). London: SAGE Publications.

Tetnowski, J. (2015). Qualitative case study research design.  Perspectives on fluency and fluency disorders ,  25 (1), 39-45. ( Source )

Yang, S. L. (2022). The War on Corruption in China: Local Reform and Innovation . Taylor & Francis.

Yin, R. (2003). Case Study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Research Methods In Psychology

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Research methods in psychology are systematic procedures used to observe, describe, predict, and explain behavior and mental processes. They include experiments, surveys, case studies, and naturalistic observations, ensuring data collection is objective and reliable to understand and explain psychological phenomena.

research methods3

Hypotheses are statements about the prediction of the results, that can be verified or disproved by some kind of investigation.

There are four types of hypotheses :

  • Null Hypotheses (H0 ) – these predict that no difference will be found in the results between the conditions. Typically these are written ‘There will be no difference…’
  • Alternative Hypotheses (Ha or H1) – these predict that there will be a significant difference in the results between the two conditions. This is also known as the experimental hypothesis.
  • One-tailed (directional) hypotheses – these state the specific direction the researcher expects the results to move in, e.g. higher, lower, more, less. In a correlation study, the predicted direction of the correlation can be either positive or negative.
  • Two-tailed (non-directional) hypotheses – these state that a difference will be found between the conditions of the independent variable but does not state the direction of a difference or relationship. Typically these are always written ‘There will be a difference ….’

All research has an alternative hypothesis (either a one-tailed or two-tailed) and a corresponding null hypothesis.

Once the research is conducted and results are found, psychologists must accept one hypothesis and reject the other. 

So if a difference is found, the Psychologist would accept the alternative hypothesis and reject the null.  The opposite applies if no difference is found.

Sampling techniques

Sampling is the process of selecting a representative group from the population under study.

Sample Target Population

A sample is the participants you select from a target population (the group you are interested in) to make generalisations about.

Representative means the extent to which a sample mirrors a researcher’s target population and reflects its characteristics.

Generalisability means the extent to which their findings can be applied to the larger population of which their sample was a part.

  • Volunteer sample : where participants pick themselves through newspaper adverts, noticeboards or online.
  • Opportunity sampling : also known as convenience sampling , uses people who are available at the time the study is carried out and willing to take part. It is based on convenience.
  • Random sampling : when every person in the target population has an equal chance of being selected. An example of random sampling would be picking names out of a hat.
  • Systematic sampling : when a system is used to select participants. Picking every Nth person from all possible participants. N = the number of people in the research population / the number of people needed for the sample.
  • Stratified sampling : when you identify the subgroups and select participants in proportion to their occurrences.
  • Snowball sampling : when researchers find a few participants, and then ask them to find participants themselves and so on.
  • Quota sampling : when researchers will be told to ensure the sample fits with certain quotas, for example they might be told to find 90 participants, with 30 of them being unemployed.

Experiments always have an independent and dependent variable .

  • The independent variable is the one the experimenter manipulates (the thing that changes between the conditions the participants are placed into). It is aassumed to have a direct effect on the dependent variable.
  • The dependent variable is the thing being measured, or the results of the experiment.

variables

Operationalization of variables means making them measurable/quantifiable. We must use operationalization to ensure that variables are in a form that can be easily tested.

For instance, we can’t really measure ‘happiness’ but we can measure how many times a person smiles within a two hour period. 

By operationalizing variables, we make it easy for someone else to replicate our research. Remember, this is important because we can check if our findings are reliable.

Extraneous variables are all variables, which are not the independent variable, but could affect the results of the experiment.

It can be a natural characteristic of the participant, such as intelligence levels, gender, or age for example, or it could be a situational feature of the environment such as lighting or noise.

Demand characteristics are a type of extraneous variable that occurs if the participants work out the aims of the research study, they may begin to behave in a certain way.

For example, in Milgram’s research , critics argued that participants worked out that the shocks were not real and they administered them as they thought this was what was required of them. 

Extraneous variables must be controlled so that they do not affect (confound) the results.

Randomly allocating participants to their conditions or using a matched pairs experimental design can help to reduce participant variables. 

Situational variables are controlled by using standardized procedures, ensuring every participant in a given condition is treated in the same way

Experimental Design

Experimental design refers to how participants are allocated to each condition of the independent variable, such as a control or experimental group.
  • Independent design ( between-groups design ): each participant is selected for only one group. With the independent design, the most common way of deciding which participants go into which group is by means of randomization. 
  • Matched participants design : each participant is selected for only one group, but the participants in the two groups are matched for some relevant factor or factors (e.g. ability; sex; age).
  • Repeated measures design ( within groups) : each participant appears in both groups, so that there are exactly the same participants in each group.
  • The main problem with the repeated measures design is that there may well be order effects. Their experiences during the experiment may change the participants in various ways.
  • They may perform better when they appear in the second group because they have gained useful information about the experiment or about the task. On the other hand, they may perform less well on the second occasion because of tiredness or boredom.
  • Counterbalancing is the best way of preventing order effects from disrupting the findings of an experiment, and involves ensuring that each condition is equally likely to be used first and second by the participants

If we wish to compare two groups with respect to a given independent variable, it is essential to make sure that the two groups do not differ in any other important way. 

Experimental Methods

All experimental methods involve an iv (independent variable) and dv (dependent variable)..

  • Lab Experiments are conducted in a well-controlled environment, not necessarily a laboratory, and therefore accurate and objective measurements are possible. The researcher decides where the experiment will take place, at what time, with which participants, in what circumstances,  using a standardized procedure.
  • Field experiments are conducted in the everyday (natural) environment of the participants. The experimenter still manipulates the IV, but in a real-life setting. It may be possible to control extraneous variables, though such control is more difficult than in a lab experiment.
  • Natural experiments are when a naturally occurring IV is investigated that isn’t deliberately manipulated, it exists anyway. Participants are not randomly allocated, and the natural event may only occur rarely.

Case studies are in-depth investigations of a person, group, event, or community. It uses information from a range of sources, such as from the person concerned and also from their family and friends.

Many techniques may be used such as interviews, psychological tests, observations and experiments. Case studies are generally longitudinal: in other words, they follow the individual or group over an extended period of time. 

Case studies are widely used in psychology and among the best-known ones carried out were by Sigmund Freud . He conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses.

Case studies provide rich qualitative data and have high levels of ecological validity. However, it is difficult to generalize from individual cases as each one has unique characteristics.

Correlational Studies

Correlation means association; it is a measure of the extent to which two variables are related. One of the variables can be regarded as the predictor variable with the other one as the outcome variable.

Correlational studies typically involve obtaining two different measures from a group of participants, and then assessing the degree of association between the measures. 

The predictor variable can be seen as occurring before the outcome variable in some sense. It is called the predictor variable, because it forms the basis for predicting the value of the outcome variable

Relationships between variables can be displayed on a graph or as a numerical score called a correlation coefficient.

types of correlation. Scatter plot. Positive negative and no correlation

  • If an increase in one variable tends to be associated with an increase in the other, then this is known as a positive correlation .
  • If an increase in one variable tends to be associated with a decrease in the other, then this is known as a negative correlation .
  • A zero correlation occurs when there is no relationship between variables.

After looking at the scattergraph, if we want to be sure that a significant relationship does exist between the two variables, a statistical test of correlation can be conducted, such as Spearman’s rho.

The test will give us a score, called a correlation coefficient . This is a value between 0 and 1, and the closer to 1 the score is, the stronger the relationship between the variables. This value can be both positive e.g. 0.63, or negative -0.63.

Types of correlation. Strong, weak, and perfect positive correlation, strong, weak, and perfect negative correlation, no correlation. Graphs or charts ...

A correlation between variables, however, does not automatically mean that the change in one variable is the cause of the change in the values of the other variable. A correlation only shows if there is a relationship between variables.

Correlation does not always prove causation, as a third variable may be involved. 

causation correlation

Interview Methods

Interviews are commonly divided into two types: structured and unstructured.
  • Structured interviews are formal. The interview situation is standardized as far as possible. Structured interviews are formal, like job interviews. A fixed, predetermined set of questions is put to every participant in the same order and in the same way.  Responses are recorded on a questionnaire, and the researcher presets the order and wording of questions, and sometimes the range of alternative answers. The interviewer stays within their role and maintains social distance from the interviewee.
  • Unstructured interviews are informal, like casual conversations. A general conversation normally precedes them, and the researcher deliberately adopts an informal approach in an attempt to break down social barriers. There are no set questions, and the participant can raise whatever topics he/she feels are relevant and ask them in their own way. Questions are posed about participants’ answers to the subject Unstructured interviews are most useful in qualitative research to analyze attitudes and values. Though they rarely provide a valid basis for generalization, their main advantage is that they enable the researcher to probe social actors’ subjective point of view. 

Questionnaire Method

Questionnaires can be thought of as a kind of written interview. They can be carried out face to face, by telephone, or post.

The choice of questions is important because of the need to avoid bias or ambiguity in the questions, ‘leading’ the respondent or causing offense.

  • Open questions are designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge and feelings. They provide insights into feelings, opinions, and understanding. Example: “How do you feel about that situation?”
  • Closed questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” or specific information, limiting the depth of response. They are useful for gathering specific facts or confirming details. Example: “Do you feel anxious in crowds?”
  • Postal questionnaires seem to offer the opportunity of getting around the problem of interview bias by reducing the personal involvement of the researcher. Its other practical advantages are that it is cheaper than face-to-face interviews and can be used to contact many respondents scattered over a wide area relatively quickly.

Observations

There are different types of observation methods :
  • Covert observation is where the researcher doesn’t tell the participants that they are being observed until after the study is complete. There could be ethical problems or deception and consent with this particular observation method.
  • Overt observation is where a researcher tells the participants that they are being observed and what they are being observed for.
  • Controlled : behavior is observed under controlled laboratory conditions (e.g., Bandura’s Bobo doll study).
  • Natural : Here, spontaneous behavior is recorded in a natural setting.
  • Participant : Here, the observer has direct contact with the group of people they are observing. The researcher becomes a member of the group they are researching.  
  • Non-participant (aka “fly on the wall): The researcher does not have direct contact with the people being observed. The observation of participants’ behavior is from a distance

Pilot Study

A pilot  study is a small scale preliminary study conducted in order to evaluate the feasibility of the key s teps in a future, full-scale project.

A pilot study is an initial run-through of the procedures to be used in an investigation; it involves selecting a few people and trying out the study on them. It is possible to save time, and in some cases, money, by identifying any flaws in the procedures designed by the researcher.

A pilot study can help the researcher spot any ambiguities (i.e. unusual things) or confusion in the information given to participants or problems with the task devised.

Sometimes the task is too hard, and the researcher may get a floor effect, because none of the participants can score at all or can complete the task – all performances are low.

The opposite effect is a ceiling effect, when the task is so easy that all achieve virtually full marks or top performances and are “hitting the ceiling”.

Research Design

In cross-sectional research , a researcher compares multiple segments of the population at the same time

Sometimes we want to see how people change over time, as in studies of human development and lifespan. Longitudinal research is a research design in which data-gathering is administered repeatedly over an extended period of time.

In cohort studies , the participants must share a common factor or characteristic such as age, demographic, or occupation. A cohort study is a type of longitudinal study in which researchers monitor and observe a chosen population over an extended period.

Triangulation means using more than one research method to improve the validity of the study.

Reliability

Reliability is a measure of consistency, if a particular measurement is repeated and the same result is obtained then it is described as being reliable.

  • Test-retest reliability :  assessing the same person on two different occasions which shows the extent to which the test produces the same answers.
  • Inter-observer reliability : the extent to which there is an agreement between two or more observers.

Meta-Analysis

A meta-analysis is a systematic review that involves identifying an aim and then searching for research studies that have addressed similar aims/hypotheses.

This is done by looking through various databases and then decisions are made about what studies are to be included/excluded.

Strengths: Increases the conclusions’ validity as they’re based on a wider range.

Weaknesses: Research designs in studies can vary so they are not truly comparable.

Peer Review

A researcher submits an article to a journal. The choice of the journal may be determined by the journal’s audience or prestige.

The journal selects two or more appropriate experts (psychologists working in a similar field) to peer review the article without payment. The peer reviewers assess: the methods and designs used, originality of the findings, the validity of the original research findings and its content, structure and language.

Feedback from the reviewer determines whether the article is accepted. The article may be: Accepted as it is, accepted with revisions, sent back to the author to revise and re-submit or rejected without the possibility of submission.

The editor makes the final decision whether to accept or reject the research report based on the reviewers comments/ recommendations.

Peer review is important because it prevent faulty data from entering the public domain, it provides a way of checking the validity of findings and the quality of the methodology and is used to assess the research rating of university departments.

Peer reviews may be an ideal, whereas in practice there are lots of problems. For example, it slows publication down and may prevent unusual, new work being published. Some reviewers might use it as an opportunity to prevent competing researchers from publishing work.

Some people doubt whether peer review can really prevent the publication of fraudulent research.

The advent of the internet means that a lot of research and academic comment is being published without official peer reviews than before, though systems are evolving on the internet where everyone really has a chance to offer their opinions and police the quality of research.

Types of Data

  • Quantitative data is numerical data e.g. reaction time or number of mistakes. It represents how much or how long, how many there are of something. A tally of behavioral categories and closed questions in a questionnaire collect quantitative data.
  • Qualitative data is virtually any type of information that can be observed and recorded that is not numerical in nature and can be in the form of written or verbal communication. Open questions in questionnaires and accounts from observational studies collect qualitative data.
  • Primary data is first-hand data collected for the purpose of the investigation.
  • Secondary data is information that has been collected by someone other than the person who is conducting the research e.g. taken from journals, books or articles.

Validity means how well a piece of research actually measures what it sets out to, or how well it reflects the reality it claims to represent.

Validity is whether the observed effect is genuine and represents what is actually out there in the world.

  • Concurrent validity is the extent to which a psychological measure relates to an existing similar measure and obtains close results. For example, a new intelligence test compared to an established test.
  • Face validity : does the test measure what it’s supposed to measure ‘on the face of it’. This is done by ‘eyeballing’ the measuring or by passing it to an expert to check.
  • Ecological validit y is the extent to which findings from a research study can be generalized to other settings / real life.
  • Temporal validity is the extent to which findings from a research study can be generalized to other historical times.

Features of Science

  • Paradigm – A set of shared assumptions and agreed methods within a scientific discipline.
  • Paradigm shift – The result of the scientific revolution: a significant change in the dominant unifying theory within a scientific discipline.
  • Objectivity – When all sources of personal bias are minimised so not to distort or influence the research process.
  • Empirical method – Scientific approaches that are based on the gathering of evidence through direct observation and experience.
  • Replicability – The extent to which scientific procedures and findings can be repeated by other researchers.
  • Falsifiability – The principle that a theory cannot be considered scientific unless it admits the possibility of being proved untrue.

Statistical Testing

A significant result is one where there is a low probability that chance factors were responsible for any observed difference, correlation or association in the variables tested.

If our test is significant, we can reject our null hypothesis and accept our alternative hypothesis.

If our test is not significant, we can accept our null hypothesis and reject our alternative hypothesis. A null hypothesis is a statement of no effect.

In Psychology, we use p < 0.05 (as it strikes a balance between making a type I and II error) but p < 0.01 is used in tests that could cause harm like introducing a new drug.

A type I error is when the null hypothesis is rejected when it should have been accepted (happens when a lenient significance level is used, an error of optimism).

A type II error is when the null hypothesis is accepted when it should have been rejected (happens when a stringent significance level is used, an error of pessimism).

Ethical Issues

  • Informed consent is when participants are able to make an informed judgment about whether to take part. It causes them to guess the aims of the study and change their behavior.
  • To deal with it, we can gain presumptive consent or ask them to formally indicate their agreement to participate but it may invalidate the purpose of the study and it is not guaranteed that the participants would understand.
  • Deception should only be used when it is approved by an ethics committee, as it involves deliberately misleading or withholding information. Participants should be fully debriefed after the study but debriefing can’t turn the clock back.
  • All participants should be informed at the beginning that they have the right to withdraw if they ever feel distressed or uncomfortable.
  • It causes bias as the ones that stayed are obedient and some may not withdraw as they may have been given incentives or feel like they’re spoiling the study. Researchers can offer the right to withdraw data after participation.
  • Participants should all have protection from harm . The researcher should avoid risks greater than those experienced in everyday life and they should stop the study if any harm is suspected. However, the harm may not be apparent at the time of the study.
  • Confidentiality concerns the communication of personal information. The researchers should not record any names but use numbers or false names though it may not be possible as it is sometimes possible to work out who the researchers were.

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In psychology researches, several methods are used, for example experiment, observation and case studies. What are the strengths and weaknesses of case study method?

weaknesses of case study in psychology

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Case Study Method in Psychology Advantages and Disadvantages

weaknesses of case study in psychology

Case Study Method in Psychology Advantages and Disadvantages.

The case study method is a research technique used in psychology and other social sciences to study an individual or a group of individuals in great detail. The advantages and disadvantages of the case study method are discussed below:

Case Study Method in Psychology Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages of Case Study Method in Psychology  :

1) In-depth analysis: 

The case study method allows researchers to gather detailed information about the subject of study, which can be difficult to obtain through other research methods. Researchers can obtain a deep understanding of the subject’s experiences, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and this information can be used to develop theories and hypotheses.

2) Flexibility: The case study method is a flexible research method that can be used to study a wide range of phenomena, including rare and unusual conditions. Researchers can adapt the method to fit the unique needs of the study, and this can lead to new insights and discoveries.

3) Source of hypotheses: Case studies can be used to generate new hypotheses or to test existing ones. Researchers can use the information gathered from the case study to develop hypotheses, which can then be tested using other research methods.

4) Validity: The case study method allows for the collection of rich, detailed data that is often more valid than data obtained through other research methods. This is because the researcher is able to gather data directly from the subject, rather than relying on second-hand accounts or self-report measures.

Read Also : Mind-blowing Psychological Facts about Studying

Disadvantages of Case Study Method in Psychology :

1) Limited generalizability: 

The findings from a case study cannot be generalized to other individuals or groups. The unique nature of the subject and the specific context in which the study was conducted make it difficult to apply the findings to other situations.

2) Subjectivity:  

The case study method is subject to the biases and preconceptions of the researcher. The researcher’s own beliefs, values, and experiences can influence the way in which they interpret the data.

3) Time-consuming:  

The case study method is a time-consuming research method that requires a significant investment of time and resources. It can take months or even years to collect and analyze the data.

4) Ethical issues:  

The case study method can raise ethical issues, particularly when studying vulnerable populations. Researchers must take steps to ensure that the study does not harm the subject or infringe upon their rights and privacy.

Case study method is a valuable research method that can provide rich, detailed data that is often difficult to obtain through other research methods.

Benefits of Case Study for Students

There are several benefits of case studies for students, including:

  • Real-world application: Case studies provide students with an opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world situations. This can help students better understand how concepts and theories can be applied in practice.
  • Problem-solving skills: Case studies often present complex and challenging problems, which can help students develop their problem-solving skills. By analyzing the case and identifying potential solutions, students can learn to think critically and creatively.
  • Active learning: Case studies are an interactive form of learning that requires students to actively engage with the material. This can help students retain information more effectively than passive forms of learning.
  • Collaborative learning: Case studies often require students to work in groups, which can help them develop collaboration and teamwork skills.
  • Exposure to different perspectives: Case studies often present multiple perspectives on a problem or situation, which can help students understand different viewpoints and develop empathy and cultural competence.
  • Preparation for the workforce: Case studies can help prepare students for the workforce by providing them with experience analyzing real-world problems and developing solutions.

Case studies can be a valuable tool for students to develop critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and prepare for their future careers.

Case Study Strengths And Weaknesses

Case studies are a research method that involves in-depth analysis of a particular case or phenomenon. Like any research method, case studies have both strengths and weaknesses.

Case Study Strengths:

  • In-depth analysis: Case studies allow for a thorough and detailed analysis of a particular case or phenomenon. This can provide a rich and nuanced understanding of the topic.
  • Real-world context: Case studies are often conducted in real-world settings, which allows for a more accurate representation of the phenomena being studied.
  • Multiple sources of data: Case studies often involve multiple sources of data, including interviews, observations, and documents. This can help to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the case.
  • Unique cases: Case studies often focus on unique cases that are not easily replicable in a laboratory setting. This can provide valuable insights that may not be obtained through other research methods.

Case Study Weaknesses:

  • Limited generalizability: The findings from a case study may not be generalizable to other cases or populations. This is because case studies often focus on a specific case or phenomenon, which may not be representative of other cases or phenomena.
  • Bias: The researcher conducting the case study may have preconceived notions or biases that can affect the interpretation of the data.
  • Subjectivity: Case studies often involve subjective interpretation of data, which can lead to differing conclusions depending on the researcher's perspective.
  • Time-consuming: Case studies can be very time-consuming and resource-intensive, which can limit the number of cases that can be studied.

Overall, case studies can be a valuable research method for gaining a detailed understanding of a particular case or phenomenon. However, researchers should be aware of the potential limitations of this method and take steps to minimize bias and subjectivity.

Case Study Method in Psychology Advantages and Disadvantages

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Strengths and Weaknesses of Case Studies

There is no doubt that case studies are a valuable and important form of research for all of the industries and fields that use them. However, along with all their advantages, they also have some disadvantages. In this article we are going to look at both.

Advantages of Case Studies

Intensive Study

Case study method is responsible for intensive study of a unit. It is the investigation and exploration of an event thoroughly and deeply. You get a very detailed and in-depth study of a person or event. This is especially the case with subjects that cannot be physically or ethically recreated.

This is one of the biggest advantages of the Genie case. You cannot lock up a child for 13 years and deprive them of everything. That would be morally and ethically wrong in every single way. So when the opportunity presented itself, researchers could not look away. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about feral children.

Genie was a feral child. She was raised in completed isolation, with little human contact. Because of the abuse she withstood, she was unable to develop cognitively. From infancy she was strapped to a potty chair, and therefore never acquired the physicality needed for walking, running and jumping.

If Genie made a noise, her father beat her. Therefore, she learned to not make a noise. Once she was found, researchers studied her language skills, and attempted to find ways to get her to communicate. They were successful. While she never gained the ability to speak, she did develop other ways to communicate. However, the public soon lost interest in her case, and with that, the funds to conduct the study.

However, her case was extremely important to child development psychology and linguistic theory. Because of her, we know that mental stimulation is needed for proper development. We also now know that there is a "critical period" for the learning of language.

Developing New Research

Case studies are one of the best ways to stimulate new research. A case study can be completed, and if the findings are valuable, they can lead to new and advanced research in the field. There has been a great deal of research done that wouldn't have been possible without case studies.

An example of this is the sociological study Nickel and Dimed. Nickel and Dimed is a book and study done by Barbara Ehrenreich. She wanted to study poverty in America, and did so by living and working as a person living on minimum wage.

Through her experiment, she discovered that poverty was almost inescapable. As soon as she saved a little money, she was hit with a crisis. She might get sick, or her car might break down, all occurrences that can be destructive when a person doesn't have a safety net to fall back on.

It didn't matter where she lived or what she did. Working a minimum wage job gave her no chances for advancement or improvement whatsoever. And she did the experiment as a woman with no children to support.

This study opened a lot of eyes to the problem of the working poor in America. By living and working as the experiment, Ehrenreich was able to show first-hand data regarding the issues surrounding poverty. The book didn't end with any solutions, just suggestions for the reader and points for them to think about.

Using this case study information, new studies could be organized to learn better ways to help people who are fighting poverty, or better ways to help the working poor.

Contradicting Established Ideas or Theories

Oftentimes there are theories that may be questioned with case studies. For example, in the John/John case study, it was believed that gender and sexual identity were a construct of nurture, not nature.

John-John focused on a set of twin boys, both of whom were circumcised at the age of 6 months. One of the twin's circumcisions failed, causing irreparable damage to the penis. His parents were concerned about the sexual health of their son, so they contacted Dr. John Money for a solution.

Dr. Money believed that sexuality came from nurture, not nature, and that the injured baby, Bruce, could be raised as a girl. His penis was removed and he was sexually reassigned to become a girl. Bruce's name was changed to Brenda, and his parents decided to raise him as a girl.

In this case, Dr. Money was dishonest. He believed that gender could be changed, which has since been proven false. Brenda's parents were also dishonest, stating that the surgery was a success, when in fact that wasn't the case.

As Brenda grew up, she always acted masculine and was teased for it at school. She did not socialize as a girl, and did not identify as a female. When Brenda was 13 she learned the truth, and was incredibly relieved. She changed her name to David, and lived the rest of her life as a male.

This case proved that the general theory was wrong, and is still valuable, even though the study author was dishonest.

Giving New Insight

Case studies have the ability to give insight into phenomena that cannot be learned in any other way. An example of this is the case study about Sidney Bradford. Bradford was blind from the age of 10 months old, and regained his sight at the age of 52 from a corneal transplant.

This unique situation allowed researchers to better learn how perception and motion changes when suddenly given sight. They were able to better understand how colors and dimensions affect the human process. For what it is worth, Bradford continued to live and work with his eyes closed, as he found sight too stimulating.

Another famous study was the sociological study of Milgram.

Stanley Milgram did a study from 1960 to 1974 in which he studied the effects of social pressure. The study was set up as an independent laboratory. A random person would walk in, and agree to be a part of the study. He was told to act as a teacher, and ask questions to another volunteer, who was the learner.

The teacher would ask the learner questions, and whenever he answered incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to give the learner an electric shock. Each time the learner was wrong, the shock would be increased by 15 volts. What the teacher didn't know was that the learner was a part of the experiment, and that no shocks were being given. However, the learner did act as if they were being shocked.

If the teachers tried to quit, they were strongly pushed to continue. The goal of the experiment was to see whether or not any of the teachers would go up to the highest voltage. As it turned out, 65% of the teachers did.

This study opened eyes when it comes to social pressure. If someone tells you it is okay to hurt someone, at what point will the person back off and say "this is not ok!" And in this study, the results were the same, regardless of income, race, gender or ethnicity.

This study opened up the sociological world of understanding the divide between social pressure and morality.

Disadvantages of Case Studies

Inability to Replicate

As demonstrated with the Genie case study, many studies cannot be replicated, and therefore, cannot be corroborated. Because the studies cannot be replicated, it means the data and results are only valid for that one person. Now, one could infer that that results of the Genie study would be the same with other feral children, without additional studies we can never be 100% certain.

Also, Genie was a white, American female. We do not know whether someone with a different gender, race or ethnicity would have a different result.

Key Term! Hawthorne Effect

The effect in which people change their behavior when they are aware they are being observed.

Researcher Bias

When conducting a case study, it is very possible for the author to form a bias. This bias can be for the subject; the form of data collection, or the way the data is interpreted. This is very common, since it is normal for humans to be subjective. It is well known that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, was often biased in his case histories and interpretations.

The researcher can become close to a study participant, or may learn to identify with the subject. When this happens the researcher loses their perspective as an outsider.

No Classification

Any classification is not possible due to studying a small unit. This generalization of results is limited, since the study is only focusing on one small group. However, this isn't always a problem, especially if generalization is not one of the study's goals.

Time Intensive

Case studies can be very time consuming. The data collection process can be very intensive and long, and this is something new researchers are not familiar with. It takes a long period of time to develop a case study, and develop a detailed analysis.

Many studies also require the authors to immerse themselves in the case. For example, in the Genie case, the lead researchers spent an abnormal amount of time with Genie, since so few people knew how to handle her. David Rigler, one of the lead researchers, actually had Genie live with him and his family for years. Because of this attachment, many questioned the veracity of the study data.

Possibility of Errors

Case study method may have errors of memory or judgment. Since reconstructing case history is based on memory, this can lead to errors. Also, how one person perceived the past could be different for another person, and this can and does lead to errors.

When considering various aspects of their lives, people tend to focus on issues that they find most important. This allows them to form a prejudice and can make them unaware of other possible options.

Ethical Issues

With small studies, there is always the question of ethics. At what point does a study become unethical? The Genie case was riddled with accusations of being unethical, and people still debate about it today.

Was it ethical to study Genie as deeply as she was studied?

Did Genie deserve to live out her life unbothered by researchers and academics trying to use her case to potentially further their careers?

At what point does the pursuit of scientific knowledge outweigh the right to a life free from research?

Also, because the researchers became so invested in the study, people questioned whether a researcher would report unethical behavior if they witnessed it.

Advantages and Disadvantages in Real-Life Studies

Two of these case studies are the Tylenol Scandal and the Genie language study.

Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of these two studies.

Genie – Advantages

Uniqueness of study – Being able to study a feral child is a rare occurrence.

Genie – Disadvantages

Ethics - The lead researcher David Rigler provided a home for Genie, and was paid for being a foster parent. This is often seen as unethical, since Rigler had a financial interest in Genie and her case.

Tylenol – Advantages

Uniqueness of study – What happened to Tylenol was very unique and rare. While companies face crisis all the time, a public health crisis of this magnitude is very unique.

Tylenol – Disadvantages

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Case study definition

weaknesses of case study in psychology

Case study, a term which some of you may know from the "Case Study of Vanitas" anime and manga, is a thorough examination of a particular subject, such as a person, group, location, occasion, establishment, phenomena, etc. They are most frequently utilized in research of business, medicine, education and social behaviour. There are a different types of case studies that researchers might use:

• Collective case studies

• Descriptive case studies

• Explanatory case studies

• Exploratory case studies

• Instrumental case studies

• Intrinsic case studies

Case studies are usually much more sophisticated and professional than regular essays and courseworks, as they require a lot of verified data, are research-oriented and not necessarily designed to be read by the general public.

How to write a case study?

It very much depends on the topic of your case study, as a medical case study and a coffee business case study have completely different sources, outlines, target demographics, etc. But just for this example, let's outline a coffee roaster case study. Firstly, it's likely going to be a problem-solving case study, like most in the business and economics field are. Here are some tips for these types of case studies:

• Your case scenario should be precisely defined in terms of your unique assessment criteria.

• Determine the primary issues by analyzing the scenario. Think about how they connect to the main ideas and theories in your piece.

• Find and investigate any theories or methods that might be relevant to your case.

• Keep your audience in mind. Exactly who are your stakeholder(s)? If writing a case study on coffee roasters, it's probably gonna be suppliers, landlords, investors, customers, etc.

• Indicate the best solution(s) and how they should be implemented. Make sure your suggestions are grounded in pertinent theories and useful resources, as well as being realistic, practical, and attainable.

• Carefully proofread your case study. Keep in mind these four principles when editing: clarity, honesty, reality and relevance.

Are there any online services that could write a case study for me?

Luckily, there are!

We completely understand and have been ourselves in a position, where we couldn't wrap our head around how to write an effective and useful case study, but don't fear - our service is here.

We are a group that specializes in writing all kinds of case studies and other projects for academic customers and business clients who require assistance with its creation. We require our writers to have a degree in your topic and carefully interview them before they can join our team, as we try to ensure quality above all. We cover a great range of topics, offer perfect quality work, always deliver on time and aim to leave our customers completely satisfied with what they ordered.

The ordering process is fully online, and it goes as follows:

• Select the topic and the deadline of your case study.

• Provide us with any details, requirements, statements that should be emphasized or particular parts of the writing process you struggle with.

• Leave the email address, where your completed order will be sent to.

• Select your payment type, sit back and relax!

With lots of experience on the market, professionally degreed writers, online 24/7 customer support and incredibly low prices, you won't find a service offering a better deal than ours.

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Psychological Research

Descriptive Research

Learning objectives.

  • Differentiate between descriptive, experimental, and correlational research
  • Explain the strengths and weaknesses of case studies, naturalistic observation, and surveys

There are many research methods available to psychologists in their efforts to understand, describe, and explain behavior and the cognitive and biological processes that underlie it. Some methods rely on observational techniques. Other approaches involve interactions between the researcher and the individuals who are being studied—ranging from a series of simple questions to extensive, in-depth interviews—to well-controlled experiments.

The three main categories of psychological research are descriptive, correlational, and experimental research. Research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables are called descriptive, or qualitative, studies . These studies are used to describe general or specific behaviors and attributes that are observed and measured. In the early stages of research it might be difficult to form a hypothesis, especially when there is not any existing literature in the area. In these situations designing an experiment would be premature, as the question of interest is not yet clearly defined as a hypothesis. Often a researcher will begin with a non-experimental approach, such as a descriptive study, to gather more information about the topic before designing an experiment or correlational study to address a specific hypothesis. Descriptive research is distinct from correlational research , in which psychologists formally test whether a relationship exists between two or more variables. Experimental research goes a step further beyond descriptive and correlational research and randomly assigns people to different conditions, using hypothesis testing to make inferences about how these conditions affect behavior. It aims to determine if one variable directly impacts and causes another. Correlational and experimental research both typically use hypothesis testing, whereas descriptive research does not.

Each of these research methods has unique strengths and weaknesses, and each method may only be appropriate for certain types of research questions. For example, studies that rely primarily on observation produce incredible amounts of information, but the ability to apply this information to the larger population is somewhat limited because of small sample sizes. Survey research, on the other hand, allows researchers to easily collect data from relatively large samples. While this allows for results to be generalized to the larger population more easily, the information that can be collected on any given survey is somewhat limited and subject to problems associated with any type of self-reported data. Some researchers conduct archival research by using existing records. While this can be a fairly inexpensive way to collect data that can provide insight into a number of research questions, researchers using this approach have no control on how or what kind of data was collected.

Correlational research can find a relationship between two variables, but the only way a researcher can claim that the relationship between the variables is cause and effect is to perform an experiment. In experimental research, which will be discussed later in the text, there is a tremendous amount of control over variables of interest. While this is a powerful approach, experiments are often conducted in very artificial settings. This calls into question the validity of experimental findings with regard to how they would apply in real-world settings. In addition, many of the questions that psychologists would like to answer cannot be pursued through experimental research because of ethical concerns.

The three main types of descriptive studies are case studies, naturalistic observation, and surveys.

Case Studies

In 2011, the New York Times published a feature story on Krista and Tatiana Hogan, Canadian twin girls. These particular twins are unique because Krista and Tatiana are conjoined twins, connected at the head. There is evidence that the two girls are connected in a part of the brain called the thalamus, which is a major sensory relay center. Most incoming sensory information is sent through the thalamus before reaching higher regions of the cerebral cortex for processing.

Link to Learning

To learn more about Krista and Tatiana, watch this video about their lives as conjoined twins.

The implications of this potential connection mean that it might be possible for one twin to experience the sensations of the other twin. For instance, if Krista is watching a particularly funny television program, Tatiana might smile or laugh even if she is not watching the program. This particular possibility has piqued the interest of many neuroscientists who seek to understand how the brain uses sensory information.

These twins represent an enormous resource in the study of the brain, and since their condition is very rare, it is likely that as long as their family agrees, scientists will follow these girls very closely throughout their lives to gain as much information as possible (Dominus, 2011).

In observational research, scientists are conducting a clinical or case study when they focus on one person or just a few individuals. Indeed, some scientists spend their entire careers studying just 10–20 individuals. Why would they do this? Obviously, when they focus their attention on a very small number of people, they can gain a tremendous amount of insight into those cases. The richness of information that is collected in clinical or case studies is unmatched by any other single research method. This allows the researcher to have a very deep understanding of the individuals and the particular phenomenon being studied.

If clinical or case studies provide so much information, why are they not more frequent among researchers? As it turns out, the major benefit of this particular approach is also a weakness. As mentioned earlier, this approach is often used when studying individuals who are interesting to researchers because they have a rare characteristic. Therefore, the individuals who serve as the focus of case studies are not like most other people. If scientists ultimately want to explain all behavior, focusing attention on such a special group of people can make it difficult to generalize any observations to the larger population as a whole. Generalizing refers to the ability to apply the findings of a particular research project to larger segments of society. Again, case studies provide enormous amounts of information, but since the cases are so specific, the potential to apply what’s learned to the average person may be very limited.

Naturalistic Observation

If you want to understand how behavior occurs, one of the best ways to gain information is to simply observe the behavior in its natural context. However, people might change their behavior in unexpected ways if they know they are being observed. How do researchers obtain accurate information when people tend to hide their natural behavior? As an example, imagine that your professor asks everyone in your class to raise their hand if they always wash their hands after using the restroom. Chances are that almost everyone in the classroom will raise their hand, but do you think hand washing after every trip to the restroom is really that universal?

This is very similar to the phenomenon mentioned earlier in this module: many individuals do not feel comfortable answering a question honestly. But if we are committed to finding out the facts about hand washing, we have other options available to us.

Suppose we send a classmate into the restroom to actually watch whether everyone washes their hands after using the restroom. Will our observer blend into the restroom environment by wearing a white lab coat, sitting with a clipboard, and staring at the sinks? We want our researcher to be inconspicuous—perhaps standing at one of the sinks pretending to put in contact lenses while secretly recording the relevant information. This type of observational study is called naturalistic observation : observing behavior in its natural setting. To better understand peer exclusion, Suzanne Fanger collaborated with colleagues at the University of Texas to observe the behavior of preschool children on a playground. How did the observers remain inconspicuous over the duration of the study? They equipped a few of the children with wireless microphones (which the children quickly forgot about) and observed while taking notes from a distance. Also, the children in that particular preschool (a “laboratory preschool”) were accustomed to having observers on the playground (Fanger, Frankel, & Hazen, 2012).

A photograph shows two police cars driving, one with its lights flashing.

It is critical that the observer be as unobtrusive and as inconspicuous as possible: when people know they are being watched, they are less likely to behave naturally. If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how your driving behavior might differ in two situations: In the first situation, you are driving down a deserted highway during the middle of the day; in the second situation, you are being followed by a police car down the same deserted highway (Figure 1).

It should be pointed out that naturalistic observation is not limited to research involving humans. Indeed, some of the best-known examples of naturalistic observation involve researchers going into the field to observe various kinds of animals in their own environments. As with human studies, the researchers maintain their distance and avoid interfering with the animal subjects so as not to influence their natural behaviors. Scientists have used this technique to study social hierarchies and interactions among animals ranging from ground squirrels to gorillas. The information provided by these studies is invaluable in understanding how those animals organize socially and communicate with one another. The anthropologist Jane Goodall, for example, spent nearly five decades observing the behavior of chimpanzees in Africa (Figure 2). As an illustration of the types of concerns that a researcher might encounter in naturalistic observation, some scientists criticized Goodall for giving the chimps names instead of referring to them by numbers—using names was thought to undermine the emotional detachment required for the objectivity of the study (McKie, 2010).

(a) A photograph shows Jane Goodall speaking from a lectern. (b) A photograph shows a chimpanzee’s face.

The greatest benefit of naturalistic observation is the validity, or accuracy, of information collected unobtrusively in a natural setting. Having individuals behave as they normally would in a given situation means that we have a higher degree of ecological validity, or realism, than we might achieve with other research approaches. Therefore, our ability to generalize the findings of the research to real-world situations is enhanced. If done correctly, we need not worry about people or animals modifying their behavior simply because they are being observed. Sometimes, people may assume that reality programs give us a glimpse into authentic human behavior. However, the principle of inconspicuous observation is violated as reality stars are followed by camera crews and are interviewed on camera for personal confessionals. Given that environment, we must doubt how natural and realistic their behaviors are.

The major downside of naturalistic observation is that they are often difficult to set up and control. In our restroom study, what if you stood in the restroom all day prepared to record people’s hand washing behavior and no one came in? Or, what if you have been closely observing a troop of gorillas for weeks only to find that they migrated to a new place while you were sleeping in your tent? The benefit of realistic data comes at a cost. As a researcher you have no control of when (or if) you have behavior to observe. In addition, this type of observational research often requires significant investments of time, money, and a good dose of luck.

Sometimes studies involve structured observation. In these cases, people are observed while engaging in set, specific tasks. An excellent example of structured observation comes from Strange Situation by Mary Ainsworth (you will read more about this in the module on lifespan development). The Strange Situation is a procedure used to evaluate attachment styles that exist between an infant and caregiver. In this scenario, caregivers bring their infants into a room filled with toys. The Strange Situation involves a number of phases, including a stranger coming into the room, the caregiver leaving the room, and the caregiver’s return to the room. The infant’s behavior is closely monitored at each phase, but it is the behavior of the infant upon being reunited with the caregiver that is most telling in terms of characterizing the infant’s attachment style with the caregiver.

Another potential problem in observational research is observer bias . Generally, people who act as observers are closely involved in the research project and may unconsciously skew their observations to fit their research goals or expectations. To protect against this type of bias, researchers should have clear criteria established for the types of behaviors recorded and how those behaviors should be classified. In addition, researchers often compare observations of the same event by multiple observers, in order to test inter-rater reliability : a measure of reliability that assesses the consistency of observations by different observers.

Often, psychologists develop surveys as a means of gathering data. Surveys are lists of questions to be answered by research participants, and can be delivered as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally (Figure 3). Generally, the survey itself can be completed in a short time, and the ease of administering a survey makes it easy to collect data from a large number of people.

Surveys allow researchers to gather data from larger samples than may be afforded by other research methods . A sample is a subset of individuals selected from a population , which is the overall group of individuals that the researchers are interested in. Researchers study the sample and seek to generalize their findings to the population.

A sample online survey reads, “Dear visitor, your opinion is important to us. We would like to invite you to participate in a short survey to gather your opinions and feedback on your news consumption habits. The survey will take approximately 10-15 minutes. Simply click the “Yes” button below to launch the survey. Would you like to participate?” Two buttons are labeled “yes” and “no.”

There is both strength and weakness of the survey in comparison to case studies. By using surveys, we can collect information from a larger sample of people. A larger sample is better able to reflect the actual diversity of the population, thus allowing better generalizability. Therefore, if our sample is sufficiently large and diverse, we can assume that the data we collect from the survey can be generalized to the larger population with more certainty than the information collected through a case study. However, given the greater number of people involved, we are not able to collect the same depth of information on each person that would be collected in a case study.

Another potential weakness of surveys is something we touched on earlier in this module: people don’t always give accurate responses. They may lie, misremember, or answer questions in a way that they think makes them look good. For example, people may report drinking less alcohol than is actually the case.

Any number of research questions can be answered through the use of surveys. One real-world example is the research conducted by Jenkins, Ruppel, Kizer, Yehl, and Griffin (2012) about the backlash against the US Arab-American community following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Jenkins and colleagues wanted to determine to what extent these negative attitudes toward Arab-Americans still existed nearly a decade after the attacks occurred. In one study, 140 research participants filled out a survey with 10 questions, including questions asking directly about the participant’s overt prejudicial attitudes toward people of various ethnicities. The survey also asked indirect questions about how likely the participant would be to interact with a person of a given ethnicity in a variety of settings (such as, “How likely do you think it is that you would introduce yourself to a person of Arab-American descent?”). The results of the research suggested that participants were unwilling to report prejudicial attitudes toward any ethnic group. However, there were significant differences between their pattern of responses to questions about social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to other ethnic groups: they indicated less willingness for social interaction with Arab-Americans compared to the other ethnic groups. This suggested that the participants harbored subtle forms of prejudice against Arab-Americans, despite their assertions that this was not the case (Jenkins et al., 2012).

Think It Over

A friend of yours is working part-time in a local pet store. Your friend has become increasingly interested in how dogs normally communicate and interact with each other, and is thinking of visiting a local veterinary clinic to see how dogs interact in the waiting room. After reading this section, do you think this is the best way to better understand such interactions? Do you have any suggestions that might result in more valid data?

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  • Approaches to Research. Authored by : OpenStax College. Located at : https://openstax.org/books/psychology-2e/pages/2-2-approaches-to-research . License : CC BY: Attribution . License Terms : Download for free at https://openstax.org/books/psychology-2e/pages/1-introduction.
  • Descriptive Research. Provided by : Boundless. Located at : https://www.boundless.com/psychology/textbooks/boundless-psychology-textbook/researching-psychology-2/types-of-research-studies-27/descriptive-research-124-12659/ . License : CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables; they are used to describe general or specific behaviors and attributes that are observed and measured

tests whether a relationship exists between two or more variables

tests a hypothesis to determine cause and effect relationships

observational research study focusing on one or a few people

observation of behavior in its natural setting

inferring that the results for a sample apply to the larger population

when observations may be skewed to align with observer expectations

measure of agreement among observers on how they record and classify a particular event

list of questions to be answered by research participants—given as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally—allowing researchers to collect data from a large number of people

the collection of individuals on which we collect data.

a larger collection of individuals that we would like to generalize our results to.

General Psychology Copyright © by OpenStax and Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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  1. Case Study: Definition, Examples, Types, and How to Write

    Examples Types of Case Studies How to Write a Case Study A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior.

  2. The clinical case report: a review of its merits and limitations

    The major merits of case reporting were these: Detecting novelties, generating hypotheses, pharmacovigilance, high applicability when other research designs are not possible to carry out, allowing emphasis on the narrative aspect (in-depth understanding), and educational value.

  3. Ch 2: Psychological Research Methods

    Explain the strengths and weaknesses of case studies, naturalistic observation, and surveys; ... Example 4: A psychology study investigated whether people tend to display more creativity when they are thinking about intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (external) motivations (Ramsey & Schafer, 2002, based on a study by Amabile, 1985). The subjects ...

  4. Case study methods.

    Case study research continues to be poorly understood. In psychology, as in sociology, anthropology, political science, and epidemiology, the strengths and weaknesses of case study research—much less how to practice it well—still need clarification.

  5. Approaches to Research

    Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of case studies, naturalistic observation, surveys, and archival research Compare longitudinal and cross-sectional approaches to research There are many research methods available to psychologists in their efforts to understand, describe, and explain behavior and the cognitive and biological processes that ...

  6. 2.2 Approaches to Research

    As it turns out, the major benefit of this particular approach is also a weakness. As mentioned earlier, this approach is often used when studying individuals who are interesting to researchers because they have a rare characteristic. Therefore, the individuals who serve as the focus of case studies are not like most other people.

  7. Strengths and Limitations of Case Formulation in ...

    Constructive therapists promoted the initial development of the practice of case formulation when they introduced the concepts of personal meanings and constructs. ... therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of ...

  8. Descriptive Research

    Case Studies. In 2011, the New York Times published a feature story on Krista and Tatiana Hogan, Canadian twin girls. These particular twins are unique because Krista and Tatiana are conjoined twins, connected at the head. There is evidence that the two girls are connected in a part of the brain called the thalamus, which is a major sensory relay center.

  9. Case Study Research Method in Psychology

    Strengths Limitations Case studies are in-depth investigations of a person, group, event, or community. Typically, data is gathered from various sources and by using several different methods (e.g., observations & interviews). The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e., the patient's personal history).

  10. What Is a Case Study in Psychology? (With Methods and Steps)

    Types of case studies in psychology. There are several types of case studies that psychologists and researchers can use to gather information. The kind of study a researcher uses can depend on the situation being studied, the characteristics of the event, and the case itself. ... personal strengths and weaknesses. 4. Identify the presenting problem

  11. Case Studies

    WEAKNESSES - There is little control over a number of variables involved in a case study, so it is difficult to confidently establish any causal relationships between variables. - Case studies are unusual by nature, so will have poor reliability as replicating them exactly will be unlikely.

  12. Case Study Methodology of Qualitative Research: Key Attributes and

    This article attempts to look into the various dimensions of a case study research strategy, the different epistemological strands which determine the particular case study type and approach adopted in the field, discusses the factors which can enhance the effectiveness of a case study research, and the debate surrounding the role of a case stud...

  13. What are the advantages and disadvantages of case studies?

    What are the advantages and disadvantages of case studies? Advantages: They provide a rich source of qualitative information and they often present an opportunity to research rare disorders or situations otherwise unethical to study. They may also offer some insight on how to conduct further research in the area.

  14. The 3 Descriptive Research Methods of Psychology

    Types of descriptive research. Observational method. Case studies. Surveys. Recap. Descriptive research methods are used to define the who, what, and where of human behavior and other ...

  15. Clinical Case Studies by Psychologists Strengths and Weaknesses of Case

    When evaluating the significance of case studies in light of clinical psychology, it can be asserted that several academic experts undervalue the procedure. A case study has the capacity to facilitate and highlight intricate knowledge regarding the subject that is primarily being studied. There are numerous means to attain this information.

  16. 10 Case Study Advantages and Disadvantages (2023)

    Case Study Advantages and Disadvantages Advantages 1. In-depth analysis of complex phenomena Case study design allows researchers to delve deeply into intricate issues and situations.

  17. Research Methods In Psychology

    Updated on September 26, 2023 Reviewed by Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc Research methods in psychology are systematic procedures used to observe, describe, predict, and explain behavior and mental processes.

  18. In psychology researches, several methods are used, for example

    Strengths: We can form conclusions about similar cases; weaknesses: cannot prove causation, may not be accurate. - Clinical research often takes the form of case studies to research clinical disorders. - A case study is an observation technique in which one person is studied in depth in the hope of revealing universal principles.

  19. Case Study Method in Psychology Advantages and Disadvantages

    1) Limited generalizability: The findings from a case study cannot be generalized to other individuals or groups. The unique nature of the subject and the specific context in which the study was conducted make it difficult to apply the findings to other situations. 2) Subjectivity:

  20. Sigmund Freud's Little Hans

    Learn about Sigmund Freud's Little Hans case study and the impact it had in the field of psychology. Explore the strengths and weaknesses of this case study. Updated: 11/21/2023

  21. The Strengths and Weaknesses of Case Studies

    The Strengths and Weaknesses of Case Studies Strengths and Weaknesses of Case Studies There is no doubt that case studies are a valuable and important form of research for all of the industries and fields that use them. However, along with all their advantages, they also have some disadvantages. In this article we are going to look at both.

  22. Best Case Study Writing Service

    The ordering process is fully online, and it goes as follows: • Select the topic and the deadline of your case study. • Provide us with any details, requirements, statements that should be emphasized or particular parts of the writing process you struggle with. • Leave the email address, where your completed order will be sent to.

  23. How to Write a Professional Case Study

    2 Choose a case that best satisfies your goal. Once you know the main goal of your professional case study, you can find the "case" that fits best. Naturally, choose a success story that shows your business in the most flattering light—but which success story depends on what you want to talk about.

  24. Descriptive Research

    Case Studies. In 2011, the New York Times published a feature story on Krista and Tatiana Hogan, Canadian twin girls. These particular twins are unique because Krista and Tatiana are conjoined twins, connected at the head. There is evidence that the two girls are connected in a part of the brain called the thalamus, which is a major sensory relay center.