Strengths and Limitations of The Case Study Method of Psychology

A discussion of the strengths and limitations of the use of case studies in clinical psychology.

Psychology is a study and profession highly driven by research. Through research psychologists are able to formulate theories about an individual’s behaviors, treatment methods, and therapy techniques. Through research, they are also able to go back and revise a theory, treatment, or therapy method, based on outcomes of observation. However, the type of observational research a psychologist chooses is also central to the knowledge being sought. Among different forms of observational research are unsystematic observation, naturalistic observation, controlled observation, and case studies. The latter is the specific form to be discussed within this text.

A case study is study conducted using an individual client or patient (terminology depending on the psychological viewpoint used) who is undergoing treatment (Trull, 2005, pp. 87). This method of psychological research has long been regarded as one of a clinicians most valuable resources in gaining understanding of a patient’s condition, and further research direction. Such cases as “The Case of Dora (Freud, 1905/1953a),” “The Case of Little Hans (Freud, 1909/1955),” “The Three Faces of Eve (Thigpen and Cleckley, 1957),” “The Mask of Sanity (Cleckley, 1964)”, and “Cases in Behavior Modification (Ullman and Krasner, 1965)” have all given clinicians a critical and crucial look into the behaviors and lives of different abnormal minds.*

It is important to understand that no one research method can definitely examine a psychological illness. Likewise, the case study method cannot set precedent for all cases with like patients. For example, a case study on patient Jane Doe, a psychopath, cannot necessarily create a universal principal that applies to all other psychopaths. This is one of the downsides that the case study method presents. However, case studies over history of psychology have been able to provide clinicians with valuable information about different psychological illnesses. Meaning, a particular study can be used as a means of insight into life with the illness, thoughts of the patient; and the formation of hypothesis on behavior, treatments, and further research on the issue at hand. This information is gathered through interviews, test responses, diaries, medical history, biographical and autobiographical accounts and data, treatment responses, etc. (Trull, 2005, pp. 87).

Another downside to the case study method is the completely open and uncontrolled environment in which it takes place. This eliminates it’s usefulness as an indicator of cause and effect since the variables in the study are uncontrolled. This makes it too difficult or presumptuous to state that one value correlates in any way to another. Instead, a clinician can develop a hypothesis on this relationship and use another research method to determine support for, or refutation for, their hypothesis. This is why it was mentioned earlier that case studies can lay down the foundations for further psychological research.

Today, case studies are still highly valued. Former case studies drive psychological education, and current studies expand our understanding of the patient and condition, while opening up new avenues of research. A case study is a very intimate and critical means of understanding an individual patient, especially a severely complex one. Thus, despite the limitations of case studies, they stand as an extremely useful method of psychological research.


Trull, T. (2005). Clinical Psychology, 7th Edition. Belmont, CA. Thomson Wadsworth.

* Case study information obtained from Trull, 2005.

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