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Study Notes

Issues & Debates: The Nomothetic Approach


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The term ‘nomothetic’ comes from the Greek word ‘nomos’ which means ‘law’. Psychologists who take a nomothetic approach are concerned with establishing general laws, based on the study of large groups of people, and the use of statistical (quantitative) techniques to analyse data. This means that experiments, correlations, psychometric testing and other quantitative methods are favoured among nomothetic researchers.

The nomothetic approach is the main approach within scientifically oriented psychology. For example:

  • Biological Psychologists take a nomothetic approach when explaining psychological disorders, such as OCD and depression. They typically pinpoint biological factors, such as neurotransmitters, that are responsible for such disorders and use biological therapies (e.g. drugs) to treat all patients.
  • Behaviourists, such as Pavlov and Skinner, conducted experiments with animals in order to establish laws of learning (classical and operant conditioning) that could be generalised to humans and non-human animals.
  • Cognitive Psychologists, such as Atkinson and Shiffrin, developed general laws, such as the Multi-Store Model of Memory, which they believed could be generalised to everyone.
  • Social Psychologists, such as Milgram and Asch, used a nomothetic approach to create general conclusions about human behaviour: that situational factors are responsible for both obedience and conformity.
  • Furthermore, in the area of Psychopathology, classification manuals such as DSM-V and ICD-10 take a nomothetic approach as they classify people with psychological disorders on the basis of specific symptoms.

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