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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Case Studies

Case studies frequently occur in psychological research. And has contributed greatly to our understanding of psychology (see cases such as Phineas Gage or Miss A). However most of these cases occured before psychology began placing an emphasis on the importance of having a scientific basis for research. Therefore this blog will address the question of whether we should still be conducting case studies.

Obviously there are some places where case studies are not appropriate, in drug studies, for example case studies would be inappropriate. The last thing that a research wants to do is to test a new depression drug on a one participant, find it has no side effects, only to find out later on that it causes 90% of people who take the drug’s heads to explode.

Having said that case studies are invaluable in certain situations, much of our understanding of how the brain works is based on case studies, extensive research of people with amnesia such as Clive Wearing and H.M has greatly improved our understanding of memory. Case studies like these have helped us understand memory because of the rich quality of the data they provide. This is because researchers can spend a more time examining the cause and effect of the brain injuries and how they effect a person’s memory.

Case studies can also be more cost effective. In my case, for my dissertation, I am studying parental training programmes. Now ideally I would travel to different areas of England and Wales to see how easy it for richer parents to achieve the Government’s 5 a day parenting tips compared to single mothers who work from 9 to 5.  Unfortunately I only have a budget of £30 therefore I need to be cost efficient. A case study would be the Ideal way to save money as I would only have to travel to visit one participant (preferably one in Bangor). It would also save me money on printing as I would only need one set of questionnaires. However I cannot draw any conclusions as to the effectiveness of following the Government’s advice because one parent is not going to be like another, therefore a wide range of participants is best.

In the end case studies still provide us with rich data and therefore will still have a place in psychological research, however research with a large group of participants should always be the preference of researchers as it will provide greater validity to a study’s findings.


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13 thoughts on “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Case Studies

  1. Case studies can be very important in research. This has been shown many times in the past. As an axample it could be worth looking at Broca’s patient Leborgne, or Werkicke’s patient Tan. These case studies are especially important as patients with such lesions are extremely rare. However for testing certain hypothesis such as the N170 stimulus not being face selective (Thierry et al.2007), large sample has to be used as, having graph of an average brain activity of one individual does not tell you anything.

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  3. It seems to me that case studies are a useful aide to determining a research question that can lead to the building of theories. For example, in the case of Phineas Gage, the doctors involved likely used Gage’s injury to formulate a hypothesis on the change in behaviour. The lack of generalisability can be overcome if case studies are used as the basis for further testing in a way that may have more scientific use.

  4. Hello, really enjoyed your blog. I would just like to add that even in the present day (where Psychology and it’s techniques have developed thoroughly) I still think that case studies can be very important in researching phenomenon that we cannot replicate (such as brain activity/damage after a stroke or other brain lesions. Here is a link that lists many recent studies that are adding to our knowledge of the relationship between the structure and methods of the brain and our behaviour. Look forward to reading your next blog!

  5. I believe you present some very interesting case studies over the years; some can easily discredit and not care for case studies, due to some ambiguity in the methodology undertaken (Freud, 1909). However, the BPS, in terms of ethics and procedures, put great emphasis on the welfare of the individual within society. What better a way than an in depth study on a specific person, in an attempt to help them recover from any illnesses. They may not be the most cost effective, but they are certainly effective in other ways, and should not just be disregarded. And even if not generalisable to other populations, they can form the basis for new research questions previously unthought of. And from beginning to start this process of formulating new research questions myself, I believe researchers need all the inspiration they can get! It’s not easy; breakthroughs don’t happen everyday.
    I’ve also talked about case studies in my blog if you’re interested.

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  7. Interesting blog topic, personally i think that case studies are an interesting way of gaining information about a specific topic. However the main problem with them is of course the generalizeability, i.e. when dealing with individual cases it can be hard to generalize to other people. This is why i think case studies are only useful when, either dealing with individuals (as in Behaviour intervention or qualitative studies) or when there is a biological basis for the case studied, like with Phineas Gage, where the change in his behaviour was because of something (an iron rod) changing something biologically inside him.

  8. You make a good point about case studies lacking generalisability; even if there are 50 case studies of the same phenomenon (for arguments’ sake, lets go with brain lesions), you still haven’t had experimental control over anything in those people’s environments (because you’ve had no interest in them until after something has happened to them that interests you!), so despite there being 50 people all with the same brain injury and apparent effects of said injury, you can’t really prove anything. maybe all 50 of those people had also been exposed to something in the environment which caused their behaviours and actually had nothing to do with the brain lesions. Case studies are interesting and definitely a good source of information and a way to spark new research, but in no way should they be taken as hard facts.

  9. I think case studies are very important to psychological research, as you mentioned, amnesia patients such as Clive Wearing and H.M. have given us so much knowledge about memory and amnesia. There are many areas of psychology in which case studies are important as well as necessary, from the devlopment of a child, to the progression of mental illness and diseases such as schizophrenia or dementia. Despite being expensive I really think case studies are just as important as research carried out over a shorter peroid of time.

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  13. Good blog here, you’ve managed to look at it from quite a few angles. I agree that the modern approach is slightly better for tangible measurements, but it does not negate the depth case studies open up. If we were to look at all of the ones you’ve mentioned including other ones such as Broca’s patient Leborgne, these case studies allowed a unique insight through their specific conditions that opened up new information that is directly applicable to the rest of us, without these case studies we wouldn’t have the breadth of information or insight we do today. We simply might not have stumbled on it and be way behind on what weare today in terms of knowledge. They definatly have equal weighting to more quantative studies in gaining understanding, they can even create points of study. Where a general knowledge is gained from them which is then extended to a more quantitative study to gain more ‘scientific’ ground power as it were. Still, a well written blog if I don’t say so myself:).

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