At some point in your study of psychology, you may be required to write a case study. These are often used in clinical cases or in situations when lab research is not possible or practical. In undergraduate courses, these are often based on a real individual, an imagined individual, or a character from a television show, film, or book.
The specific format for a case study can vary greatly. In some instances, your case study will focus solely on the individual of interest.
Other possible requirements include citing relevant research and background information on a particular topic. Always consult with your instructor for a detailed outline of your assignment.
What Is a Case Study?
A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. 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, Phineas Gage, and Genie.
In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. The hope is that learning gained from studying one case 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.
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.
The case study of Genie, for example, allowed researchers to study whether language could be taught even after critical periods for language development had been missed.
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 otherwise impossible to reproduce phenomena.
There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might utilize:
- Explanatory case studies are often used to do causal investigations. In other words, researchers are interested in looking at factors that may have actually caused certain things to occur.
- Exploratory case studies 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.
- Descriptive case studies involve starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.
- Intrinsic case studies are a type of case study in which 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.
- Collective case studies involve studying a group of individuals. Researchers might study a group of people in a certain setting or look at an entire community of people.
- Instrumental case studies occur when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.
There are also different methods that can be used to conduct a case study:
- 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 are those that 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 individuals life to determine risk factors that may have contributed to the onset of the illness.
Sources of Information Used
There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. The six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:
- 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.
- Interviews: One of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involves structured survey-type questions or more open-ended questions.
- Documents: Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc.
- Archival records: Census records, survey records, name lists, etc.
- Physical artifacts: Tools, objects, instruments and other artifacts often observed during a direct observation of the subject.
- Participant observation: Involves the researcher actually serving as a participant in events and observing the actions and outcomes.
Section 1: A Case History
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Your Diagnosis
Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the clients symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.
Section 2: The Intervention
The second section of your paper will focus on the intervention used to help the client. Your instructor might require you to choose from a particular theoretical approach or ask you to summarize two or more possible treatment approaches.
Some of the possible treatment approaches you might choose to explore include:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
- Do not refer to the subject of your case study as "the client." Instead, use his or her name or a pseudonym.
- Remember to use APA format when citing references.
- Read examples of case studies to gain and idea about the style and format.
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 can be 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.
Gagnon, YC. The Case Study as a Research Method: A Practical Handbook. Quebec: PUQ; 2010.
Yin, RK. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. Sage Publications; 2013.
A researcher in human intelligence at Utah Valley University has analysed the 29 best-selling introductory psychology textbooks in the US – some written by among the most eminent psychologists alive – and concluded that they present a highly misleading view of the science of intelligence (see full list of books below).
Russell T Warne and his co-authors found that three-quarters of the books contain inaccuracies; that the books give disproportionate coverage to unsupported theories, such as Gardner’s “multiple intelligencies”; and nearly 80 per cent contain logical fallacies in their discussions of the topic.
Reporting their findings in an open-access article in Archives of Scientific Psychology, Warne and his colleagues say that altogether the widely used books contained “43 inaccurate statements, 129 questionably accurate statements and 51 logical fallacies” and therefore “members of the public [are] likely to learn some inaccurate information about intelligence in their psychology courses.”
In terms of topic coverage, over 93 per cent of the books covered Gardner’s multiple intelligences and over 89 per cent covered Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence (both of which challenge the idea of there being a unitary “intelligence” per se), even though neither of these theories are mainstream or well-supported by evidence, according to Warne. In contrast, fewer than a quarter of the books covered the most strongly supported contemporary, hierarchical theories, such as Carroll’s three-statrum model and CHC theory each of which posits the influence of a general intelligence on other cognitive abilities.
To identify factual inaccuracies, Warne’s team used as a benchmark a consensus statement on intelligence research published in 1997 by Linda Gottfredson et al, and a 1996 APA report on the state of the field. Although no longer cutting edge, Warne chose these references because they reflect consensus in the field and because they are old enough for the information in them to have filtered through to non-specialist textbook authors.
The most common inaccuracy (appearing in nearly half the books) was that intelligence tests are biased against particular groups or individuals. This contradicts the 1997 consensus statement which tackles this issue and concludes that “intelligence tests are not culturally biased”.
Other common inaccuracies included promotion of the idea that it is not possible to measure intelligence in a meaningful way (in fact, Warne and his colleagues point out that “it is actually easier to measure intelligence than many other psychological constructs”), and claims that intelligence is only relevant in academic settings (in fact, intelligence correlates with many non-academic life outcomes, from life expectancy to risk of dying in a car accident, and is among the strongest predictors of career success).
Among the logical fallacies in the books is what’s known as “Lewontin’s fallacy” – this idea, advanced in six of the books, states that because humans share about 99 per cent of the same genes, that genes cannot therefore have a role in the differences between individuals or groups. In fact, “slight differences in genotypes among organisms can result in major phenotype differences”, according to Warne and his team. Twelve other fallacies appeared in the books – see full list above – such as giving less scrutiny to politically correct ideas or claiming that intelligence doesn’t exist because it is a collection of abilities (suggesting the textbook authors had failed to understand the principle of g or “general intelligence”).
In terms of questionable accuracy (i.e. errors not covered by the consensus statements), Warne highlights issues around the discussion of the taboo topic of race and IQ; textbook authors overplaying the role of “stereotype threat“, and authors having a tendency to overestimate environmental influences on intelligence (the books largely neglected the work of scholars who study the genetic influences on intelligence, such as the British researchers Ian Deary and Robert Plomin).
Warne and his team admit there is an element of subjectivity in their analysis of the textbooks. However, they tried to mitigate this by using the two consensus publications from the 1990s as a reference point, by being as lenient as possible in their judgments of the books, and by being explicit in the how they went about their analysis.
This new analysis helps explain why the public and lay journalists often express a scepticism toward intelligence and intelligence testing that is at odds with expert opinion (perhaps best captured by the hackneyed claim that “intelligence tests only measure your ability to take intelligence tests”). Over a million students take introductory psych courses every year in the USA alone (a majority of whom are taking the course as part of a different degree subject), and judging by the content of most popular introductory psych textbooks in America, it seems likely these students are getting a highly distorted view of the field.
An obvious issue for our domestic readers is that it’s not clear if the same inaccuracies and bias toward intelligence research also appear in British and European introductory textbooks. In fact this is a recurring shortcoming in our coverage of investigations into psychology textbooks – there simply doesn’t seem to be the same scrutiny of psychology textbooks here as there is in America.
“Improving the public’s understanding about intelligence starts in psychology’s own backyard with improving the content of undergraduate courses and textbooks,” Warne and his colleagues conclude. And for anyone who would like to know more about intelligence, they recommend Intelligence: All That Matters by Research Digest guestcontributorStuartRitchie, and Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Deary – these books are “not only accurate, but they also have a breezy writing style that makes them easily digestible”.
—What do undergraduates learn about human intelligence? An analysis of introductory psychology textbooks
Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest