Case Study Research Method in Psychology

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

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Case studies are in-depth investigations of a person, group, event, or community. Typically, data is gathered from various sources using several methods (e.g., observations & interviews).

The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e., the patient’s personal history). In psychology, case studies are often confined to the study of a particular individual.

The information is mainly biographical and relates to events in the individual’s past (i.e., retrospective), as well as to significant events that are currently occurring in his or her everyday life.

The case study is not a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies.

Freud (1909a, 1909b) conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses.

This makes it clear that the case study is a method that should only be used by a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist, i.e., someone with a professional qualification.

There is an ethical issue of competence. Only someone qualified to diagnose and treat a person can conduct a formal case study relating to atypical (i.e., abnormal) behavior or atypical development.

case study

 Famous Case Studies

  • Anna O – One of the most famous case studies, documenting psychoanalyst Josef Breuer’s treatment of “Anna O” (real name Bertha Pappenheim) for hysteria in the late 1800s using early psychoanalytic theory.
  • Little Hans – A child psychoanalysis case study published by Sigmund Freud in 1909 analyzing his five-year-old patient Herbert Graf’s house phobia as related to the Oedipus complex.
  • Bruce/Brenda – Gender identity case of the boy (Bruce) whose botched circumcision led psychologist John Money to advise gender reassignment and raise him as a girl (Brenda) in the 1960s.
  • Genie Wiley – Linguistics/psychological development case of the victim of extreme isolation abuse who was studied in 1970s California for effects of early language deprivation on acquiring speech later in life.
  • Phineas Gage – One of the most famous neuropsychology case studies analyzes personality changes in railroad worker Phineas Gage after an 1848 brain injury involving a tamping iron piercing his skull.

Clinical Case Studies

  • Studying the effectiveness of psychotherapy approaches with an individual patient
  • Assessing and treating mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD
  • Neuropsychological cases investigating brain injuries or disorders

Child Psychology Case Studies

  • Studying psychological development from birth through adolescence
  • Cases of learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD
  • Effects of trauma, abuse, deprivation on development

Types of Case Studies

  • Explanatory case studies : Used to explore causation in order to find underlying principles. Helpful for doing qualitative analysis to explain presumed causal links.
  • Exploratory case studies : Used to explore situations where an intervention being evaluated has no clear set of outcomes. It helps define questions and hypotheses for future research.
  • Descriptive case studies : Describe an intervention or phenomenon and the real-life context in which it occurred. It is helpful for illustrating certain topics within an evaluation.
  • Multiple-case studies : Used to explore differences between cases and replicate findings across cases. Helpful for comparing and contrasting specific cases.
  • Intrinsic : Used to gain a better understanding of a particular case. Helpful for capturing the complexity of a single case.
  • Collective : Used to explore a general phenomenon using multiple case studies. Helpful for jointly studying a group of cases in order to inquire into the phenomenon.

Where Do You Find Data for a Case Study?

There are several places to find data for a case study. The key is to gather data from multiple sources to get a complete picture of the case and corroborate facts or findings through triangulation of evidence. Most of this information is likely qualitative (i.e., verbal description rather than measurement), but the psychologist might also collect numerical data.

1. Primary sources

  • Interviews – Interviewing key people related to the case to get their perspectives and insights. The interview is an extremely effective procedure for obtaining information about an individual, and it may be used to collect comments from the person’s friends, parents, employer, workmates, and others who have a good knowledge of the person, as well as to obtain facts from the person him or herself.
  • Observations – Observing behaviors, interactions, processes, etc., related to the case as they unfold in real-time.
  • Documents & Records – Reviewing private documents, diaries, public records, correspondence, meeting minutes, etc., relevant to the case.

2. Secondary sources

  • News/Media – News coverage of events related to the case study.
  • Academic articles – Journal articles, dissertations etc. that discuss the case.
  • Government reports – Official data and records related to the case context.
  • Books/films – Books, documentaries or films discussing the case.

3. Archival records

Searching historical archives, museum collections and databases to find relevant documents, visual/audio records related to the case history and context.

Public archives like newspapers, organizational records, photographic collections could all include potentially relevant pieces of information to shed light on attitudes, cultural perspectives, common practices and historical contexts related to psychology.

4. Organizational records

Organizational records offer the advantage of often having large datasets collected over time that can reveal or confirm psychological insights.

Of course, privacy and ethical concerns regarding confidential data must be navigated carefully.

However, with proper protocols, organizational records can provide invaluable context and empirical depth to qualitative case studies exploring the intersection of psychology and organizations.

  • Organizational/industrial psychology research : Organizational records like employee surveys, turnover/retention data, policies, incident reports etc. may provide insight into topics like job satisfaction, workplace culture and dynamics, leadership issues, employee behaviors etc.
  • Clinical psychology : Therapists/hospitals may grant access to anonymized medical records to study aspects like assessments, diagnoses, treatment plans etc. This could shed light on clinical practices.
  • School psychology : Studies could utilize anonymized student records like test scores, grades, disciplinary issues, and counseling referrals to study child development, learning barriers, effectiveness of support programs, and more.

How do I Write a Case Study in Psychology?

Follow specified case study guidelines provided by a journal or your psychology tutor. General components of clinical case studies include: background, symptoms, assessments, diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes. Interpreting the information means the researcher decides what to include or leave out. A good case study should always clarify which information is the factual description and which is an inference or the researcher’s opinion.

1. Introduction

  • Provide background on the case context and why it is of interest, presenting background information like demographics, relevant history, and presenting problem.
  • Compare briefly to similar published cases if applicable. Clearly state the focus/importance of the case.

2. Case Presentation

  • Describe the presenting problem in detail, including symptoms, duration,and impact on daily life.
  • Include client demographics like age and gender, information about social relationships, and mental health history.
  • Describe all physical, emotional, and/or sensory symptoms reported by the client.
  • Use patient quotes to describe the initial complaint verbatim. Follow with full-sentence summaries of relevant history details gathered, including key components that led to a working diagnosis.
  • Summarize clinical exam results, namely orthopedic/neurological tests, imaging, lab tests, etc. Note actual results rather than subjective conclusions. Provide images if clearly reproducible/anonymized.
  • Clearly state the working diagnosis or clinical impression before transitioning to management.

3. Management and Outcome

  • Indicate the total duration of care and number of treatments given over what timeframe. Use specific names/descriptions for any therapies/interventions applied.
  • Present the results of the intervention,including any quantitative or qualitative data collected.
  • For outcomes, utilize visual analog scales for pain, medication usage logs, etc., if possible. Include patient self-reports of improvement/worsening of symptoms. Note the reason for discharge/end of care.

4. Discussion

  • Analyze the case, exploring contributing factors, limitations of the study, and connections to existing research.
  • Analyze the effectiveness of the intervention,considering factors like participant adherence, limitations of the study, and potential alternative explanations for the results.
  • Identify any questions raised in the case analysis and relate insights to established theories and current research if applicable. Avoid definitive claims about physiological explanations.
  • Offer clinical implications, and suggest future research directions.

5. Additional Items

  • Thank specific assistants for writing support only. No patient acknowledgments.
  • References should directly support any key claims or quotes included.
  • Use tables/figures/images only if substantially informative. Include permissions and legends/explanatory notes.
  • Provides detailed (rich qualitative) information.
  • Provides insight for further research.
  • Permitting investigation of otherwise impractical (or unethical) situations.

Case studies allow a researcher to investigate a topic in far more detail than might be possible if they were trying to deal with a large number of research participants (nomothetic approach) with the aim of ‘averaging’.

Because of their in-depth, multi-sided approach, case studies often shed light on aspects of human thinking and behavior that would be unethical or impractical to study in other ways.

Research that only looks into the measurable aspects of human behavior is not likely to give us insights into the subjective dimension of experience, which is important to psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists.

Case studies are often used in exploratory research. They can help us generate new ideas (that might be tested by other methods). They are an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person’s life are related to each other.

The method is, therefore, important for psychologists who adopt a holistic point of view (i.e., humanistic psychologists ).

Limitations

  • Lacking scientific rigor and providing little basis for generalization of results to the wider population.
  • Researchers’ own subjective feelings may influence the case study (researcher bias).
  • Difficult to replicate.
  • Time-consuming and expensive.
  • The volume of data, together with the time restrictions in place, impacted the depth of analysis that was possible within the available resources.

Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group, we can never be sure if the case study investigated is representative of the wider body of “similar” instances. This means the conclusions drawn from a particular case may not be transferable to other settings.

Because case studies are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e., descriptive) data , a lot depends on the psychologist’s interpretation of the information she has acquired.

This means that there is a lot of scope for Anna O , and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.

For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit particular behavioral theories (e.g., Little Hans ).

This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study (Diamond, 1997) when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.

Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1895).  Studies on hysteria . Standard Edition 2: London.

Curtiss, S. (1981). Genie: The case of a modern wild child .

Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine , 151(3), 298-304

Freud, S. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Freud, S. (1909b). Bemerkungen über einen Fall von Zwangsneurose (Der “Rattenmann”). Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch ., I, p. 357-421; GW, VII, p. 379-463; Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, SE , 10: 151-318.

Harlow J. M. (1848). Passage of an iron rod through the head.  Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 39 , 389–393.

Harlow, J. M. (1868).  Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar through the Head .  Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society. 2  (3), 327-347.

Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972).  Man & Woman, Boy & Girl : The Differentiation and Dimorphism of Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Money, J., & Tucker, P. (1975). Sexual signatures: On being a man or a woman.

Further Information

  • Case Study Approach
  • Case Study Method
  • Enhancing the Quality of Case Studies in Health Services Research
  • “We do things together” A case study of “couplehood” in dementia
  • Using mixed methods for evaluating an integrative approach to cancer care: a case study

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5 Fascinating Clinical Psychology Case Studies

clinical psychology cases

If you pursue work as a clinical psychologist, you’ll be able to make a major difference in people’s lives. In most cases, these psychologists are the first practitioners to recognize and diagnose mental health disorders. Many clinical psychologists also practice “talk therapy,” where they talk through issues with patients and help them develop better coping mechanisms. But what’s it really like to work in clinical psychology? Take a look at each case study psychology below to get an idea.

A Day in the Life of a Clinical Psychologist

As you might be able to tell from the name, a clinical psychologist applies psychology knowledge in a clinical setting. Using their knowledge of different mental disorders and how they present, clinical psychologists help patients identify and then treat mental health disorders. They also can help patients work through psychological issues even if no disorder is present.

However, it’s important to note that clinical psychologists do not prescribe medication. Often, once a clinical psychologist makes a diagnosis that requires medication, they will refer a patient to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist handles the medication, but a clinical psychologist will often help a patient manage some of their symptoms through some form of talk therapy. In the case of some complex disorders, a psychologist may be able to coordinate with the patient’s psychiatrist in order to ensure the best care possible.

Some people believe that talk therapy is just a patient talking while the psychologist listens. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Clinical psychologists are tasked with assessing each patient and developing an individualized treatment plan. Often, that plan includes delving into the patient’s issues and helping them understand their roots. From there, the psychologist can help the patient develop healthier coping mechanisms for dealing with those issues.

Usually, clinical psychologists primarily work with patients on an individual basis. They do this either as part of a group practice or in private practice. Sometimes, they may teach classes, although this usually isn’t the bulk of their workload. Clinical psychologists often will conduct and publish research that sometimes involves case studies of patients.

Becoming a Clinical Psychologist

become a clinical psychologist

To become a clinical psychologist, you will need to pursue a doctoral degree. Most clinical psychologists have either a Ph.D. or a PsyD, though the Ph.D. is more common in the field and will usually afford you more career opportunities. PsyD programs tend to accept more applicants than Ph.D. programs. A PsyD degree places more focus on applying concepts of psychology to the clinical setting. A Ph.D. program certainly applies concepts of psychology as well, but it has much more of a focus on research than PsyD programs do.

Regardless of which program you choose, becoming a clinical psychologist involves a considerable time commitment. The first step is obtaining a four-year bachelor’s degree. From there, some candidates pursue a master’s degree, while others go straight into a Ph.D. training program.

Most PsyD programs take four to five years to complete, while most Ph.D. programs take between five and seven years. In the case of a Ph.D., graduates will need to complete a residency program much like medical doctors. Residency programs usually last about one to three years. During that time, new psychologists are overseen by an experienced psychologist. Upon completion of the residency, a clinical psychologist must also take and pass a licensure exam in order to practice in their state. Most states will also allow you to obtain different certifications in specialized areas.

As you can see, the decision to become a clinical psychologist isn’t one to make on a whim. Usually, though, you’ll be able to get a sense of the field from the undergraduate courses you take early on.

What’s a Case Study?

In a moment, we’ll take you through five interesting case studies from real clinical psychologists. But what exactly is a case study?

Simply put, a case study is a very detailed account of an individual patient’s case. (The case studies below are abbreviated versions of case studies.) Psychologists usually keep notes on all patients, but a case study is much more formal. Each study is an in-depth exploration of a patient’s disorder, and it usually contains information on the patient’s personal history as well as how their disorder presents. Most case studies also have information on treatments that have worked (and those that have not worked) for a given patient.

So why is a single case study valuable, especially when most studies survey larger groups of patients? For one, case studies are extremely valuable in the case of rare conditions. With very rare mental health disorders, it can be near-impossible to find larger studies. With case studies, it’s still possible to get an accurate picture of the disorder and what it looks like in different patients.

Case studies can also help future clinical psychologists to sharpen their diagnostic skills. In a broader study, you might learn about some of the common symptoms of a diagnose. But individual patients have their own quirks, and the same disorder can look different from patient to patient. Reading case studies can be a great way to see how different mental health issues can look in different people.

Lastly, case studies can be useful in supporting or refuting existing research. In some cases, they may point to issues that need to be researched further.

To really start to get a sense of what it’s like to be a clinical psychologist, check out these five interesting case studies reported by actual clinicians:

Wishing for Death

psychology cases

Even if you seem to have a promising future, it’s still possible to deal with severe depression. This is what happened to Jessica, a woman who had successfully completed medical school and obtained a residency at a large hospital. In Jessica’s case, her mental state declined seemingly overnight; she awoke one day feeling especially sad. But instead of lifting, that sadness continued and even worsened.

As is the case with many people with depression, Jessica lost interest in things she had previously enjoyed. She stopped having sex with her husband and even found interacting with her children to be a chore. She even found that her job was in jeopardy, as she stopped caring about work and began missing shifts.

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Often, people suffering from severe depression will consider suicide. Some will go as far as making and going through with suicide plans. Jessica wasn’t considering or fantasizing about suicide. But she did begin to wish she was dead, and these thoughts slowly became all-consuming. Despite feeling drained from her low mood, Jessica still had trouble sleeping at night. This is when her thoughts of death were at their worst.

Jessica continued to insist that nothing was wrong. But her coworkers at the hospital saw that something was off. Jessica wasn’t being lazy or slacking for no reason; it was clear her mental health was suffering. Her colleagues were able to convince Jessica to see a mental health professional. She was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, a mental health disorder that causes severe and persistent sadness and loss of interest.

College Struggles

Many mental health issues present themselves when people are college-aged, and this is what happened to Gerry, a 21-year-old college student who got good grades. Gerry got along well with his friends and roommates until he started having trouble sleeping. At night, his thoughts began to race and felt as though they were spinning out of control.

But that wasn’t all. Gerry was usually a kind and mild-mannered person, but he began calling his friends at all hours of the night, becoming angry if they didn’t give him the attention he wanted. Within a few days, Gerry started to believe his roommates were spying on him. He told them as much. Instead of writing it off as simply a quirk, his friends became very concerned. They talked to Gerry and explained the strange changes they’d been seeing in his behavior. Ultimately, they were able to convince Gerry to seek mental health help.

After talking with a clinician, Gerry was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It can be an intimidating diagnosis to receive, but Gerry was referred to a psychiatrist who could work with him to find the right medication. The combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy helped him to return back to his normal self.

A Case of Obsession

ocd clinical psychology case

Plenty of people are fastidious about certain things, but one salesman took it a little too far. The salesman was having trouble leaving his house on time to get to work because he had an overwhelming and obsessive need to follow a set of rituals. Many of them were about securing the home. It started with double-checking and triple-checking that doors were locked.

The salesman also became incredibly worried about the electrical wiring in the home. He began to obsess over whether it would cause an electrical fire. If he didn’t complete the various rituals he felt compelled to do, the man believed he would experience bad luck.

Once he saw a psychologist, the man was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Since this disorder involves holding onto irrational beliefs, cognitive-behavioral therapy is essential. The man’s psychologist worked with him through therapy and helped him to manage and then overcome his obsessive thoughts. Ultimately, the salesman was able to get back to a much more normal life.

Unexpected Panic

Panic disorders and anxiety disorders can seem to poison your life. That’s what it felt like for one forest ranger. Up until his mid-30s, he didn’t suffer from more than normal anxiety. But one day, while standing in line at the grocery store, he suddenly felt an overwhelming wave of panic. His heart rate went up and he started sweating. The panic attack was so bad that the forest ranger thought he would pass out, so he abandoned his shopping cart and returned to the car.

Naturally, the forest ranger didn’t want the same thing to happen again. Because that first panic attack had occurred in a grocery store, he began avoiding supermarkets. But that didn’t help for long. He began to experience intense anxiety in many areas of his life. His symptoms were so severe that his family life began to suffer, so he sought help.

The forest ranger saw a psychologist and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Though some people with anxiety disorders benefit from medication, the forest ranger was able to work through and manage his symptoms through cognitive behavioral therapy.

Bizarre Behaviors

Most severe mental disorders don’t start in childhood. When they do appear, these disorders often involve someone who previously seemed outwardly normal suddenly exhibiting strange behaviors. This is what happened to a 21-year-old business student. He suddenly began becoming agitated for no ostensible reason. During his bouts of agitation, other people heard him whispering angrily to himself.

The young man’s friends and family were very concerned, but they were unable to reach him by phone. He explained that aliens had placed a chip in his brain and that it would explode if he answered his phone.

Sometimes, symptoms like those the young man had can be caused or made worse by abusing alcohol or drugs. However, the young man didn’t abuse either. A family history of mental illness can sometimes be a risk factor, and the man did say he had an aunt who had been treated at psychiatric hospitals several times.

Thanks in part to the concern of his friends and family, the young man talked to a psychologist and gave a detailed account of his symptoms. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. This is a difficult diagnosis to receive. But as the young man found, schizophrenia is possible to manage with good care. The young man’s psychologist was able to continue therapy, and he was also referred to a psychiatrist for help with medication. Often, for those diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a combination of therapy and the right medications can effectively manage symptoms.

Each case study psychology above is just a short introduction to the types of cases you may encounter working as a clinical psychologist. And when working in the field, you’ll be asked to write your own case studies, too. While in school, you’ll learn the correct way to write case studies and how sharing case studies with other psychologists can help the field grow as a whole. Hopefully, these case studies have also shed some light on one of the best parts of working as a clinical psychologist — you can help people confront and work through mental health challenges and work toward healthier, happier lives.

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What Is a Case Study?

Weighing the pros and cons of this method of research

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

clinical case studies psychology

Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.

clinical case studies psychology

Verywell / Colleen Tighe

  • Pros and Cons

What Types of Case Studies Are Out There?

Where do you find data for a case study, how do i write a psychology case study.

A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. Case studies can be used in many different fields, including psychology, medicine, education, anthropology, political science, and social work.

The point of a case study is to learn as much as possible about an individual or group so that the information 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.

While case studies focus on a single individual or group, they follow a format similar to other types of psychology writing. If you are writing a case study, we got you—here are some rules of APA format to reference.  

At a Glance

A case study, or an in-depth study of a person, group, or event, can be a useful research tool when used wisely. In many cases, case studies are best used in situations where it would be difficult or impossible for you to conduct an experiment. They are helpful for looking at unique situations and allow researchers to gather a lot of˜ information about a specific individual or group of people. However, it's important to be cautious of any bias we draw from them as they are highly subjective.

What Are the Benefits and Limitations of Case Studies?

A case study can have its strengths and weaknesses. Researchers must consider these pros and cons before deciding if this type of study is appropriate for their needs.

One of the greatest advantages of a case study is that it allows researchers to investigate things that are often difficult or impossible to replicate in a lab. Some other benefits of a case study:

  • Allows researchers to capture information on the 'how,' 'what,' and 'why,' of something that's implemented
  • Gives researchers the chance to collect information on why one strategy might be chosen over another
  • Permits researchers to develop hypotheses that can be explored in experimental research

On the other hand, a case study can have some drawbacks:

  • It cannot necessarily be generalized to the larger population
  • Cannot demonstrate cause and effect
  • It may not be scientifically rigorous
  • It can lead to bias

Researchers may choose to perform a case study if they want to explore a unique or recently discovered phenomenon. Through their insights, researchers develop additional ideas and study questions that might be explored in future studies.

It's important to remember that the insights from case studies cannot be used to determine cause-and-effect relationships between variables. However, case studies may be used to develop hypotheses that can then be addressed in experimental research.

Case Study Examples

There have been a number of notable case studies in the history of psychology. Much of  Freud's work and theories were developed through individual case studies. Some great examples of case studies in psychology include:

  • Anna O : Anna O. was a pseudonym of a woman named Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of a physician named Josef Breuer. While she was never a patient of Freud's, Freud and Breuer discussed her case extensively. The woman was experiencing symptoms of a condition that was then known as hysteria and found that talking about her problems helped relieve her symptoms. Her case played an important part in the development of talk therapy as an approach to mental health treatment.
  • Phineas Gage : Phineas Gage was a railroad employee who experienced a terrible accident in which an explosion sent a metal rod through his skull, damaging important portions of his brain. Gage recovered from his accident but was left with serious changes in both personality and behavior.
  • Genie : Genie was a young girl subjected to horrific abuse and isolation. The case study of Genie allowed researchers to study whether language learning was possible, even after missing critical periods for language development. Her case also served as an example of how scientific research may interfere with treatment and lead to further abuse of vulnerable individuals.

Such cases demonstrate how case research can be used to study things that researchers could not replicate in experimental settings. In Genie's case, her horrific abuse denied her the opportunity to learn a language at critical points in her development.

This is clearly not something researchers could ethically replicate, but conducting a case study on Genie allowed researchers to study phenomena that are otherwise impossible to reproduce.

There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might use:

  • Collective case studies : These involve studying a group of individuals. Researchers might study a group of people in a certain setting or look at an entire community. For example, psychologists might explore how access to resources in a community has affected the collective mental well-being of those who live there.
  • Descriptive case studies : These involve starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed, and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.
  • Explanatory case studies : These   are often used to do causal investigations. In other words, researchers are interested in looking at factors that may have caused certain things to occur.
  • Exploratory case studies : These 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 .
  • Instrumental case studies : These occur when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.
  • Intrinsic case studies : This type of case study is when the researcher has a personal interest in the case. Jean Piaget's observations of his own children are good examples of how an intrinsic case study can contribute to the development of a psychological theory.

The three main case study types often used are intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Intrinsic case studies are useful for learning about unique cases. Instrumental case studies help look at an individual to learn more about a broader issue. A collective case study can be useful for looking at several cases simultaneously.

The type of case study that psychology researchers use depends on the unique characteristics of the situation and the case itself.

There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. Six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:

  • Archival records : Census records, survey records, and name lists are examples of archival records.
  • 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.
  • Documents : Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc., are the types of documents often used as sources.
  • Interviews : Interviews are one of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involve structured survey questions or more open-ended questions.
  • Participant observation : When the researcher serves as a participant in events and observes the actions and outcomes, it is called participant observation.
  • Physical artifacts : Tools, objects, instruments, and other artifacts are often observed during a direct observation of the subject.

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 you need to follow. If you are writing your case study for a professional publication, check with the publisher for their specific guidelines for submitting a case study.

Here is a general outline of what should be included in a case study.

Section 1: A Case History

This section will have the following structure and content:

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.

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.

Your diagnosis : Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the client's symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.

Section 2: Treatment Plan

This portion of the paper will address the chosen treatment for the condition. This might also include the theoretical basis for the chosen treatment or any other evidence that might exist to support why this approach was chosen.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Pharmacological approach : If treatment primarily involves the use of medications, explain which medications were used and why. Provide background on the effectiveness of these medications and how monotherapy may compare with an approach that combines medications with therapy or other treatments.

This section of a case study should also include information about the treatment goals, process, and outcomes.

When you are writing a case study, you should also include a section where you discuss the case study itself, including the strengths and limitiations of the study. You should note how the findings of your case study might support previous research. 

In your discussion section, you should also describe some of the implications of your case study. What ideas or findings might require further exploration? How might researchers go about exploring some of these questions in additional studies?

Need More Tips?

Here are a few additional pointers to keep in mind when formatting your case study:

  • Never refer to the subject of your case study as "the client." Instead, use their name or a pseudonym.
  • Read examples of case studies to gain an idea about the style and format.
  • Remember to use APA format when citing references .

Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach .  BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011;11:100.

Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011 Jun 27;11:100. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-100

Gagnon, Yves-Chantal.  The Case Study as Research Method: A Practical Handbook . Canada, Chicago Review Press Incorporated DBA Independent Pub Group, 2010.

Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Case Studies in Clinical Psychological Science: Bridging the Gap from Science to Practice

Case Studies in Clinical Psychological Science: Bridging the Gap from Science to Practice

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Case Studies in Clinical Psychological Science demonstrates in detail how the clinical science model can be applied to actual cases. It presents dialogues between leading clinical researchers regarding the treatment of a wide variety of psychological problems, from depression and Alzheimer's disease to Panic Disorder and chronic pain. Chapters describe what evidence-based practice consists of for various clinical problems and are followed by commentary sections in which other leading clinical researchers analyze the case at hand, pointing out additional assessment and treatment options and controversial issues. It examines the application of scientifically based interventions to actual cases and models thoughtful and collegial discussion among prominent clinical researchers

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A Case for the Case Study: How and Why They Matter

  • Original Paper
  • Published: 06 June 2017
  • Volume 45 , pages 189–200, ( 2017 )

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clinical case studies psychology

  • Jeffrey Longhofer 1 ,
  • Jerry Floersch 1 &
  • Eric Hartmann 2  

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In this special issue we have asked the contributors to make a case for the case study. The guest editors, Jeffrey Longhofer, Jerry Floersch and Eric Hartmann, intergrate ideas from across the disciplines to explore the complexties of case study methods and theory. In education, Gary Thomas explores the importance of ethnographic case studies in understanding the relationships among schools, teachers, and students. Lance Dodes and Josh Dodes use the case study to articulate a psychoanalytic approach to addiction. In policy and generalist practice, Nancy Cartwright and Jeremy Hardie elaborate a model for a case-by-case approach to prediction and the swampy ground prediction serves up to practitioners. Christian Salas and Oliver Turnbull persuasively write about the role of the case study in neuro-psychoanalysis and illustrate it with a case vignette. In political science, Sanford Schram argues for a bottom up and ethnographic approach to studying policy implementation by describing a case of a home ownership program in Philadelphia. Eric Hartman queers the case study by articulating its role in deconstructing normative explanations of sexuality. In applied psychology, Daniel Fishman describes a comprehensive applied psychology perspective on the paradigmatic case study. Richard Miller and Miriam Jaffe offer us important ways of thinking about writing the case study and the use of multi-media. Each contributor brings a unique perspective to the use of the case study in their field, yet they share practical and philosophical assumptions.

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Longhofer, J., Floersch, J. & Hartmann, E. A Case for the Case Study: How and Why They Matter. Clin Soc Work J 45 , 189–200 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-017-0631-8

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    Other case studies provide a good template for some aspects of this Evidence-Based Case Study format. Related case studies that effectively address the first two outcome assessment criteria, but lack extensive verbatim clinical vignettes include Borckardt et al., 2008; Jones et al., 1993; and Porcerelli et al., 2007.

  9. A Case for the Case Study: How and Why They Matter

    As you read case studies across the disciplines, you will find that patterns emerge in the framing and production of cases. The paradigmatic approach in social work and psychology connects a specific clinical theory—e.g., psychodynamic, family systems, cognitive-behavioral—to specific client contexts or outcomes. The humanistic approach offers first-person practitioner accounts of ...

  10. Mike (social anxiety)

    Case Study Details. Mike is a 20 year-old who reports to you that he feels depressed and is experiencing a significant amount of stress about school, noting that he'll "probably flunk out.". He spends much of his day in his dorm room playing video games and has a hard time identifying what, if anything, is enjoyable in a typical day.

  11. CASE STUDY

    Case Study Details. John is a 56-year-old man who presents to you for treatment. His symptoms started slowly; he tells you that he was always described as an anxious person and remembers being worried about a lot of things throughout his life. For instance, he reported he was very afraid he'd contract HIV by touching doorknobs, even though he ...

  12. 6

    Summary. The case study approach has a rich history in psychology as a method for observing the ways in which individuals may demonstrate abnormal thinking and behavior, for collecting evidence concerning the circumstances and consequences surrounding such disorders, and for providing data to generate and test models of human behavior (see Yin ...

  13. Clinical Case Studies

    Preview abstract. Restricted access Research article First published December 19, 2023 pp. 230-249. xml GET ACCESS. Table of contents for Clinical Case Studies, 23, 3, Jun 01, 2024.

  14. PDF Psych 139: Case Studies in Clinical Psychology Summer

    TBD Case study, Defining and establishing "abnormality" TBD Major conceptual approaches in clinical psychology TBD Infant-family mental health concepts; DC 0-3R Readings: Shirilla & Weatherston, Chapters 1, 2 and 11 TBD Classification, Assessment and Intervention in IFMH TBD Case study and case reporting with Dr. Ann Chu

  15. Clinical case study: CBT for depression in a Puerto Rican adolescent

    The adolescent chosen for the case study had a therapist who was a doctoral level graduate student in clinical psychology trained in CBT who received weekly supervision from a licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. Qualitative data for this case study were analyzed by reviewing progress notes and video recordings of therapy sessions.

  16. Evidence-based case study guidelines

    Because evidence-based clinical case studies can be difficult to do well, this page provide some guidelines for preparing case studies for submission to the APA journal Couple and Family Psychology. ... Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 67, 300-307. Jacobson, N.S. & Truax (1991). Clinical Significance: A statistical approach to ...

  17. Clinical Case Studies in Psychoanalytic and Psychodynamic Treatment

    Abstract. This manuscript provides a review of the clinical case study within the field of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic treatment. The method has been contested for methodological reasons and because it would contribute to theoretical pluralism in the field. We summarize how the case study method is being applied in different schools of ...

  18. Psychology's 10 Greatest Case Studies

    Kitty Genovese. Sadly, it is not really Kitty Genovese the person who has become one of psychology's classic case studies, but rather the terrible fate that befell her. In 1964 in New York, Genovese was returning home from her job as a bar maid when she was attacked and eventually murdered by Winston Mosely.

  19. PDF Case Studies in Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology

    Case studies are an important venue for reporting clinical processes relevant to clinical care, research agendas, and interprofessional collaboration. Clinical Practice in Pedi-atric Psychology (CPPP) is actively soliciting case studies to further the mission of promoting evidence-based practice, highlighting important areas for further ...

  20. Psychological Treatments

    The American Psychological Association (APA) has identified "best research evidence" as a major component of evidence-based practice (APA Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice, 2006).This resource contains a list of psychological treatments with published evidence of efficacy as determined by a review of criteria established by the Society of Clinical Psychology (SCP).