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Study notes

Issues & Debates: Evaluating the Nomothetic Approach

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, OCR

Unlike the idiographic approach, the nomothetic approach is considered as generally scientific. 

The use of experimental (quantitative) methods, controlled measurement and the ability to predict behaviour, are all seen as strengths of the nomothetic approach. Furthermore, controlled methods allow for replication to examine the reliability of findings which has helped psychology establish itself as a scientific discipline. The development of theories and empirical testing are just one of the key features of science that are employed by the nomothetic approach.

Furthermore, because the nomothetic approach is viewed as scientific, it is useful for predicting and controlling behaviour. For example, Biological Psychologists take a nomothetic approach when explaining obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and claim that OCD is caused by higher levels of dopamine and lower levels of serotonin. Drug therapies are developed on the basis of nomothetic research and work by readdressing a biological imbalance. SSRIs are used to treat OCD and increase the availability and uptake of serotonin, thus reducing the anxiety associated with OCD which helps to improve the lives of people suffering from this condition, as a result of nomothetic the research.

However, as drug treatments are not successful for all patients, some psychologists argue that alternate treatments (e.g. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which are based on an idiographic approach are more suitable for treating individuals with such conditions, as they seek to understand and explain the disorder from a patient’s point of view.

Furthermore, some psychologists argue that the nomothetic approach loses sight of the ‘whole person’, due to its fixation on quantitative data and statistical analysis. Furthermore, these psychologists also claim that the nomothetic approaches only provides a superficial understanding of human behaviour. For example, Milgram’s research found that 65% of participants obeyed an authority figure and inflicted a 450-volt electric shock because they were ordered to do so. However, the results fail to provide an explanation of why each person obeyed, and there may have been very different circumstances that led to the obedience found in each participant.

Idiographic researchers would argue that Milgram’s research only allows us to make predictions on groups and not on individuals. While Milgram might predict that 65% of the population would obey an unjust order, he is unable to accurately predict what an individual would do. Allport (who first coined the term idiographic) argued that it is only by understanding an individual that we can make accurate predictions on individual behaviour.

Extension: A Combined Approach

Holt (1967) argues that the ideographic/nomothetic distinction is a false distinction. Many approaches in psychology take advantage of both approaches and therefore the two approaches can be viewed as complementary rather than contradictory. For example, while Cognitive Psychologists typically take a nomothetic approach and create general laws of cognitive processes (e.g. the Working Memory Model), they also take advantage of the idiographic approach when using case studies to provide evidence for a particular theory (e.g. Patient KF, Shallice and Warrington, 1970). In reality, many approaches make use of both approaches, and it could be argued that the distinction between idiographic and nomothetic is meaningless and that psychologists should employ both methods depending on the nature of the research question.

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