Idiographic and Nomothetic

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  • The humanistic approach takes this view
  • Everyone is unique and therefore everyone must be studied individually
  • Emphasises laws for the individual- no general laws are possible because of chance, free will and the uniqueness of the individual
  • Includes numerous aspects of individuality, including: private, subjective and conscious experiences, feelings, belief and values

Methods of investigation

  • Tend to be qualitative (numerical measurements are not excluded but are rarely used)
  • The case study method is often used as it can provide a complete and global understanding of the individual
  • Other methods include: unstructured interviews, self-report, introspection and reflection, autobiographies, diaries and letters
  • In psychoanalysis, free association and dream analysis are acceptable methods for use
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Idiographic Evaluation


  • Satisfies some of the aims of science by providing a detailed decription and understanding of behaviour and so could complement the nomothetis approach.This suggests that some scientific principles can be applied to the study of the individual, Allport claimed that the idiographic approach could make predictions for a single individual
  • Provides a global and more complete understanding of the individual
  • Possible to investigate naturally occuring but unusual events that would be unethical to recreate in a lab, shedding further light on general laws of behaviour E.g. Koluchova's study of a pair of twins found that extreme maternal privation is in fact reversible, countering Bolby's general law and theory created through the nomothetic approach. E.g. Blakemore's case study of Clive Wearing gives a detailed account of the effects of selective impairments to memory function as a result of damage to certain parts of the brain, furthing our knowledge in this area E.g. Freud's case study of Little Hans provides a detailed account of the origin and developmental of Han's unconscious fear illustrating the application of castration anxiety and the Oedipus complex
  • Findings can serve as a source of ideas or hypotheses for later study
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Idiographic Evaluation


  • The use of individual studies, in particular case studies, means generalisation is not possible- this is a major limitation of psychoanalysis which generalises case studies to the wider population
  • Methods are subjective, flexible and unstadardised, making predicitions and replicartion very hard- cannot meet the rigours of scientific testing
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  • The Behaviourist approach takes this view
  • Focuses on general laws of behaviour
  • The extreme view states that scientists are concerned not with the uniqueness of the individual but with the development of general laws

According to Radford and Kirby these general laws can be of three kinds:

  • Classifying people in various groups- E.g. The DSM-V which provides a means of classifying more than 200 types of disorders
  • Establishing principles of behaviour that can be applied to people in general- E.g. Findings from conformity experiments in social psychology, has resulted in general principles of behaviour that apply to all people
  • Establishing dimensions on which people can be placed and compared- E.g. IQ scores allow comparisons to be made between people

Methods of investigation

  • Uses scientific and quantitative methods, usually experiments
  • Theories generare hypotheses that are then tested providing data that can be statistically analysed and predictions made about people in general
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Schuckit Study

  • Aim: To investigate how hereditary might affect alcohol abuse
  • Method: A matched pairs design was used with male participants being categorised as either high or low risk depending on if they had relatives who abused alcohol. All participants recieved either a placebno or strong alcoholic drink and were then asked to rate their feeling of drunkedness one hour later
  • Results: Participants in the high risk group who had taken the alcoholic drink gave lower ratings of drunkeness. All participants reported lower levels of drunkeness in the placebo group
  • Conclusion: People who are genetically prone to becoming problem drinkers may have an impaired ability to perceive the effects of alcohol


  • Isolates a major variable- the risk of alcoholism (high or low risk groups)
  • Well controlled- Matched pairs design matched participants on important variables, the control group was given a placebo
  • Findings can be statistically analysed and be generalised to others, allowing predictions to be made who differ on the 'high-low risk alcohol' dimension
  • Conclusions are in general terms only and so individual predictions cannot be made
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Nomothetic Evaluation


  • Emphasises the precise measurement, prediction and control of behaviour
  • Investigations involve large groups of people using objective and controlled methods that allow for replicability and generalisability
  • Gives psychology scientific status allowing for progression within the discipline
  • Radford and Kirby claim that, although such tests of personality or general laws may not be precise, they are a close psychological fit


  • Loses a sense of the 'whole person'- predictions can be made of group results but these may not apply to any one individual's behaviour, predictions about the individual cannot be made
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A requirement for both

"Every man is in certain respects like all other men, like some other men and like no other man" (Kluckholm and Murray)

  • Both have a role in psychology
  • The relative value of the two approches depends on the purpose of the research e.g. if want to understand the general aspects of behaviour then nomothetic would be more suitable but if you wanted to predict and individual's behaviour in a particular scenario then idiographic would be more suited
  • Freud- Psychoanalysis attempts to generalise its findings to all people, so in this sense the theory is considered nomothetic. However Freud used idiographic methods, in particular case studies
  • Piaget- The findings from Piaget's work with his own children (idiographic) became a source of inspiration for further research into cognitive development and the proposal of general laws (nomothetic)
  • Kuluchover- An idiographic approach shed further light on a general law behaviour- Bowlby's maternal deprivation theory- established through a nomothetic approach
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