46-355 Lecture Notes - Lecture 10: Nomothetic, Behaviorism, Longitudinal Study
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Idiographic versus nomothetic approaches to psychology
The approach of investigating large
groups of people in order to find
general laws of behaviour that apply
The approach of investigating
individuals in personal, in-depth detail to
achieve a unique understanding of
Nomos= laws in ancient Greek; this
approach assumes that an individual is
a complex combination of many
universal laws; it is best to study people
on a large scale.
Idios= ‘private’ or ‘personal’ in ancient
Greek; this approach assumes that
humans are unique.
Quantitative Experimental methods
are best to identify the universal laws
The individual will be classified with
others and measured as a score upon a
dimension, or be a statistic supporting
a general principle (‘averaging’).
Qualitative methods are best; case study
method will provide a more complete and
global understanding of the individual
who should be studied using flexible,
long terms and detailed procedures in
order to put them in a ‘class of their own’.
The nomothetic approach is the main
approach within scientifically oriented
• Behaviourism: experiments with
animals (rats, cats and pigeons)
_establish laws of learning (B.F.
• Social psychology: Milgram e.g.
used the nomothetic approach and
made general conclusions on the
basis of his research.
• Psychological theories that propose
generalised principles of behaviour
have nomothetic assumptions (e.g.
intelligence theory of IQ)
• Classification manuals like the
DSM-IV classify people according
to particular types of disorders.
• Freud (1909) the clinical case study
method (patients interviewed over a
long period of time, notes of his
techniques (free association), and he
wrote up his notes at the end of the
day to allow a more free and natural
expression of the patients’ thoughts
• Piaget (1953) longitudinal studies of
cognitive development of his
children, keeping frequent notes and
using the flexible clinical interview
method and informal experiments to
gain detailed and ecologically valid
• Gardner and Gardner (1969) spent
long time interacting with and
observing the chimpanzee Washoe as
they tried to teach him sign language.
In line with the deterministic, law
abiding nature of science, useful in
predicting and controlling behaviour;
nomothetic findings on prejudice and
discrimination perhaps helpful (_reduce
More complete and global understanding
of an individual; sometimes the most
efficient; often lead to results that spark
off experimental investigation of
Superficial understanding of any one
person; even if two persons have same
IQ they may have answered different
questions in the test; a person may have
1% chance of developing depression
(but is he among the 1%?);
classification manuals are not accurate
and does not help people.
Difficult to generalise findings; Freud and
Piaget created universal theories on the
basis of a limited and unrepresentative
Idiographic research tends to be more
unreliable and unscientific (subjective,
long term and unstandardised procedures)
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