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Idiographic and Nomothetic Approaches

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Idiographic and Nomothetic Approaches

The debate about idiographic and nomothetic approaches to psychology is a philosophical debate about studying people. In psychology, we can study humans using an idiographic or nomothetic approach, both of which have advantages and disadvantages. We will consider each of the approaches in turn.

The nomothetic approach

The term ‘nomothetic’ comes from the Greek word nomos, meaning law. The nomothetic approach describes the study of people as a total population. Psychologists using this approach study large groups of people and make general laws about behaviour that apply to all. The nomothetic approach generally uses quantitative research methods and statistical analysis. Research methods used in the nomothetic approach include experiments, correlations, and meta-analyses.

We can divide the general laws identified into several types:

  • The classification of people into groups (e.g., the DSM for mood disorders).

  • Principles such as the behavioural laws of learning.

  • Dimensions such as Eysenck's personality inventory, which allows comparisons between people. Eysenck's personality theory is based on three dimensions: introversion vs extroversion, neuroticism vs stability, and psychoticism vs socialisation.

Next, we will examine the idiographic approach and how it differs from a nomothetic approach.

The idiographic approach

The term 'idiographic' comes from the Greek word idios, which means 'personal' or 'private'. Psychologists who take an idiographic approach focus on a person's individual and unique aspects. The idiographic approach generally uses qualitative methods such as unstructured interviews, case studies, and thematic analysis. The idiographic approach does not formulate laws or generalise findings.

The idiographic approach focuses on individual perceptions and feelings and collects qualitative data to obtain in-depth and unique details about individuals instead of numerical data. We can often see humanistic and psychodynamic psychologists' idiographic approaches in case studies.

Difference between the idiographic and nomothetic approach

The idiographic approach emphasises the uniqueness of the individual through their emotions, behaviour, and experiences. It aims to gather in-depth information about a person. The idiographic approach to studying personality assumes that our mental structures are unique and remarkable and possess different characteristics and qualities. On the other hand, the nomothetic approach aims to find the commonalities among people and tries to generalise behaviour through laws that apply to all people.

Although the two methods take opposing approaches, some argue that working with both methods supports psychologists' broader perspectives on their study cases.

Cognitive psychology approaches combine both methods. They use a nomothetic approach to establish general laws of cognitive process and apply an idiographic approach to work on case studies.

Idiographic and nomothetic approach examples

Here are some examples of idiographic and nomothetic approaches to get a good grip on the topic at hand.

Classical and operant conditioning

Operant conditioning of behaviour is an excellent example of a nomothetic approach. When Pavlov and Skinner conducted their research with rats, dogs, and pigeons to test learning behaviours, they developed general laws of learning classical and operant conditioning. Watson also generalised these laws and applied them to humans. They are still used in behavioural therapies for phobias, systematic desensitisation, and other problems.

Conformity and obedience: situational factors

Social psychologists Asch and Milgram argue that situational factors are another nomothetic approach. When they researched to understand the situational factors involved in social behaviour, they concluded that situational factors could influence the degree of conformity and obedience to anyone because they apply a general law.

What are examples of the idiographic approach?

Humanistic psychology and the psychodynamic approach are good examples of idiographic methodology.

Little Hans Oedipus Complex

Freud's (1909) case study of Little Hans is an example of an idiographic approach. Freud conducted meticulous research on his patients' cases to understand their psychological problems better. The case study of Little Hans is about a five-year-old boy who was afraid of horses. Freud collected detailed data that spanned over one hundred and fifty pages and months of work. He concluded that Little Hans behaved this way out of jealousy of his father because Freud believed that Little Hans was going through the Oedipus complex.

Humanistic psychology

Humanistic psychology applies a person-centred approach. Therefore, it is considered idiographic because it promotes a focus exclusively on subjective experience. It is usually used in a clinical setting because it focuses on the individual.

Idiographic and nomothetic approach: evaluation

This section will compare and contrast the idiographic to nomothetic approach to show the strengths and weaknesses.

Advantages of a nomothetic approach

  • Large samples of individuals can be used to obtain representative results.

  • It uses a scientific methodology, and experiments can be replicable and reliable.

  • Since this approach is scientific, it can be used to predict behaviour. For example, one of the explanations for OCD is low serotonin levels in the brain. Therefore, drugs are being developed to improve serotonin uptake and treat OCD.

Disadvantages of a nomothetic approach

  • It lacks awareness of individual and unique perspectives because it assumes that universal laws of behaviour apply to everyone.

  • Cultural and gender differences may not be considered in nomothetic methods.

  • Most experiments are conducted in a laboratory. The results may lack realism, and these studies may not apply to real-world circumstances.

Advantages of an idiographic approach

  • Therefore, the idiographic approach focuses on individuals and can provide a more in-depth explanation of behaviour.

  • Humanistic psychologists argue that we can only predict their actions at a given moment if we know a person. The results are a source of ideas or hypotheses for the studies.

  • Case studies can help develop nomothetic laws by providing more information. For example, the case of HM has dramatically helped our understanding of memory.

Disadvantages of an idiographic approach

  • Idiographic methods lack scientific evidence.

  • Since fewer people are studied, no general laws or predictions can be made.

  • A narrow and limited approach.

Idiographic and Nomothetic Approaches - Key takeaways

  • The term 'nomothetic' comes from the Greek word nomos, meaning law. The nomothetic approach focuses on establishing general laws about human behaviour, generally using quantitative data. Methods that support research using a nomothetic approach include experiments, correlations, and meta-analysis.
  • The term 'idiographic' comes from the Greek word idios, meaning 'personal' or 'private'. The idiographic approach focuses on individual perceptions, emotions, and behaviours and collects qualitative data to obtain in-depth and unique details about individuals.
  • Examples of the nomothetic approach include classical and operant conditioning, conformity, and obedience.
  • Examples of the idiographic approach include the Little Hans case study and the humanistic approach.

Frequently Asked Questions about Idiographic and Nomothetic Approaches

The idiographic emphasises the individual’s uniqueness through their emotions and experiences. An idiographic approach to studying personality proposes that our mental structures are unique and remarkable, possessing different attributes and qualities. They find it challenging to establish laws generalising these complex and unique systems like nomothetic methodologies would. The nomothetic methodology meditates the numerical and measurable side to draw all-inclusive conclusions.

The idiographic and nomothetic approaches have specific focuses. The idiographic emphasises an individual’s uniqueness through their emotions and experiences, while the nomothetic approach considers the numerical and measurable aspects to get conclusions.

The nomothetic approach describes the study of people as a whole population. Psychologists taking this approach study large groups of people and establish general laws concerning behaviour that applies to everyone.

The humanistic approach is an idiographic approach, as it promotes a person-centred approach.

The nomothetic approach describes the study of people as a whole population. It aims to establish general laws about human behaviour. The idiographic approach focuses on the individual and unique aspects of a person. It aims to collect in-depth and unique details on individuals.    

Final Idiographic and Nomothetic Approaches Quiz

Question

What are the methods supporting a nomothetic approach?

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Answer

The methods supporting research with a nomothetic approach include experiments, correlations, and meta-analysis.

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How does a nomothetic approach deal with behaviour?

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The nomothetic approach establishes general laws concerning behaviour.

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What is the aim of a nomothetic approach?

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The nomothetic approach aims to establish experimental methods by studying large groups of people.

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Can the general law applied to a nomothetic approach be classified into different groups?

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Yes. The laws can be classified into different groups. We establish different principles or dimensions by categorising people into different groups and comparing and classifying their moods.

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What is the aim of idiographic methodology?

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The aim is to understand behaviour by researching what makes individuals unique through comprehensive and qualitative methods by applying unstructured interviews, case studies, and thematic analysis.

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Does the idiographic approach formulate laws?

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No. The idiographic approach does not formulate laws or generalise results.

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What is the focus of the idiographic approach?

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The idiographic approach focuses on individual perceptions and feelings, collecting qualitative data to get in-depth and unique details on individuals.

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Where can we see an example of an idiographic approach?

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We can often see the idiographic approach in study cases humanistic and psychodynamic psychologists produce. 

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Can you give an example of an approach in psychology that uses both nomothetic and idiographic methodologies?

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Answer

Cognitive psychology approaches blend both methods, and they use a nomothetic approach to establish general laws of the cognitive process and apply an idiographic approach working in their study cases.

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What are the approaches in psychology that use a nomothetic methodology?

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Biological psychology, behaviourism, and social learning are nomothetic approaches in psychology.

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What is one example of a nomothetic approach applied in psychology?

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Conformity and obedience (situational factors), supported by social psychology.

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Why are conformity and obedience considered to have a nomothetic approach?

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Social psychologists Asch and Milgram argue that situational factors are another nomothetic approach. When they researched to understand the situational factors involved in social behaviour, they concluded that situational factors could influence the degree of conformity and obedience to anyone because they apply a general law.

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Question

Why is Freud Little’s Hans an example of an idiographic approach in psychology?

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Answer

Freud did not use any generalised laws on the little boy’s case. Since the case focuses on one individual, it is an example of an idiographic approach.

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Why is humanistic psychology considered to use an idiographic approach?

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Because it applies the person-centred approaches, they are considered idiographic. They exclusively encourage the case study method focusing on subjective experiences, making an effort not to create generalised laws. It is usually carried out within clinical settings as they focus on individuals. 

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What is one advantage of an idiographic approach?

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Answer

The idiographic approach focuses on individuals and their uniqueness when investigating and seeking data qualitatively.

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What is one disadvantage of a nomothetic approach?

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The nomothetic approach lacks awareness about individual and unique perspectives as it assumes universal laws of behaviour apply to everybody.

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