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.
Clinical psychology is a fascinating field where you’ll get to work with a diverse group of people. As you prepare for practice, you’ll read case studies that help you learn how to diagnose mental disorders and help patients. Here are five of the most interesting case studies practicing clinicians have shared.
The Increasingly Hyper College Student
Gerry, a successful 21-year-old college student, suddenly found that he was unable to sleep and couldn’t quiet his thoughts at night. It wasn’t long before his friends began to worry about the sudden change in his demeanor. He’d always been respectful but suddenly began demanding the attention of his friends at odd hours of the night. A few days later, Gerry began accusing his roommates of spying on him. His friends convinced him to see a counselor. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and worked towards preventing relapse with a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.
A Sudden Case of Panic
A forest ranger in his mid 30s was in line at the grocery store when he suddenly felt panicked and dizzy. He began sweating and noticed an increase in his pulse rate. Convinced that he was going to pass out, the man abandoned his shopping cart in the supermarket line and left. He didn’t know what had happened, but he didn’t want to repeat the experience so began avoiding supermarkets. The forest ranger slowly became anxious about other activities too. His family life was suffering, so he went to a psychologist. He underwent cognitive behavioral therapy and learned how to cope with his anxiety disorder.
Obsession and the Salesman
A British psychologist worked with a salesman who had a hard time leaving his house in the morning due to an obsessive need to complete certain activities. Many of the man’s preoccupations revolved around safety, and he’d developed the idea that he would have bad luck if he didn’t carry through with his rituals. He checked door locks repeatedly and became obsessed with his home’s electrical wiring. The psychologist who worked with the salesman used cognitive behavioral therapy to help him overcome his obsessive behavior and the irrational fear that abandoning his rituals would lead to bad luck.
The Woman Who Wished She Was Dead
Jessica, a medical resident in a large hospital, woke up in a sad mood one day and couldn’t shake it. She lost interest in work and started missing shifts for no reason. At home, she had difficulties interacting with her kids and stopped having sex with her husband. Jessica didn’t think about suicide, but she did find herself wishing she was dead. She often thought about being dead when she couldn’t sleep but repeatedly told her husband that nothing was wrong. Her coworkers convinced Jessica to seek help, and she was treated for major depressive disorder.
The Business Student Who Behaved Bizarrely
New, strange behaviors that the subject doesn’t recognize can be an indication of a serious psychological disorder. Consider a 21-year-old business student whose bizarre behaviors worried friends and family. He became increasingly agitated, and several people overheard him whispering in an angry voice. Friends and family reached out, but the young man claimed that he couldn’t answer the phone because a chip placed in his brain by aliens would explode if he did. He didn’t abuse drugs or alcohol, but his aunt had been in and out of mental institutions. The young man’s psychologist recognized that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and referred him for comprehensive psychiatric care.
As a clinical psychologist, you’ll encounter plenty of interesting cases of your own. Learn how to write case studies while you’re in school so that you can contribute to professional discourse in your field after you graduate.
Related: Top 6 Most Affordable Online PhD/PsyD Programs in Clinical Psychology