Comparing the Experimental and the Clinical Methods in Psychology

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The philosopher Sir Karl Raimund Popper once said, ‘Understanding a theory has, indeed, much in common with understanding a human personality. We may know or understand a man’s system of dispositions pretty well; that is to say, we may be able to predict how he would act in a number of different situations. But since there are infinitely many possible situations, of infinite variety, a full understanding of a man’s dispositions does not seem to be possible. ’ (Popper, 1972). One of the most challenging and complicated studies in psychology is the study of personality.

In fact, personality is so complicated that it has several definitions. The study of personality is a laborious process due to two reasons, different individuals have distinct profiles of psychological attributes and personality persists throughout life (Crowne, 2007). Clinical and experimental methods used to assess and test personality differ in several realms. Both methods are used to understand personality, but many clinicians seem to prefer one or the other. Experimental methods have superiority in regard to precision and viability of results.

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However, there seem to be more inclination towards the use of the clinical method due to its leniency and flexibility providing better techniques for the study of personality. The clinical procedure garners extensive amounts of personal information on clients to comprehend their circumstances and fathom their behaviour. Experimental methods, on the other hand, are more often used for studies in the field of psychopathology, providing useful knowledge by controlling and manipulating variables (Barlow et al. , 1995).

The clinical and experimental methods both disagree in the types of methods they approach to begin answering questions regarding personality. The word ‘clinical’, derived from the Greek word meaning ‘bed’, is still used today denoting contact with the ill and disturbed for the purpose of diagnosis and prognosis (Crowne, 2007). This method refers to the beside side treatment of patients, in the same way Freud treated his neurotic patients in bed. However, in current medical practices, the bedside treatment is no longer carried out (Crowne, 2007).

This method is used to thoroughly study individuals through interviews, physiological and psychological tests, observation, listening, and interpretation (Crowne, 2007). These techniques are useful in approaching a problem from different vantage points, so one can better fathom the complex meaning of personality. The study of disturbed persons is used to make conclusions about the human personality (Crowne, 2007). It might sound perturbing, but it is quite simple and appropriate. Since personality is a qualitative characteristic, it is presented on a continuum.

This implies that there is no distinct line separating normal from abnormal personality. Clinical methods can be adequately conducted when people are willing to test an idea, construct answerable questions, use clarified concepts, have cautious observation, and a reasonable pursue of generalizations (Crowne, 2007). It is a challenging method, requiring both observational and conceptual demand due to the intricate data assimilated in clinical interactions with individuals (Crowne, 2007).

This technique requires astute observation and the ability to obtain general principles out of seemingly immaterial information (Crowne, 2007). It is often formidable to be acutely attuned with the patient’s behaviour and words, and to decipher what the actions indicate afterwards (Crowne, 2007). This procedure is essential to the study of personality because it provides an insight on the behaviour and attitudes of persons without external influence. The clinical method collects historical and biological information on individuals.

This incorporates information on personal and family background, education, health, and work history, as well as the person’s opinions about the nature and causes of the problem being studied (Davidson, 1998). In contrast, an experiment involves the amassing of randomly selected individuals from a population. This method involves the manipulation of a random variable and the measurement of a dependant variable (Davidson, 1998). Thus, it provides a rigorous testing ground for hypotheses (Davidson, 1998).

The focus is not on a single individual, but rather on various individuals who are randomly sampled and assigned to different conditions. It is a useful and powerful method of research used in the study of psychopathological issues (Barlow et al. , 1995). On the other hand, it is inadequate for the study of personality. Experimental design is not possible for all questions, especially questions regarding poorly understood problems: such as some personality disorders (Crowne, 2007). The creation of personality by experimental manipulation is impossible because personality is deeply rooted and is immutable.

For example, the personality of people cannot be altered regardless of the strength of the external force. People acquire their personalities early in life, and this lingers into their adulthood. Another reason experiments are not popular in personality studies is because the method will not suffice if the natural behaviour is to be observed (Crowne, 2007). Findings need to be verified to see how they occur in real life situations, or when natural development is to be observed. For example, children language development cannot be looked into through the experimental method (Crowne, 2007).

Secondly, the properties of personality enable the clinical method to examine every aspect of personality while hindering the progress of the experimental method. Each person has a distinctive profile of psychological attributes such as: motives organization of experience in perception and thought, actions, and beliefs and attitudes (Crowne, 2007). The profile of a person is so complex that it cannot be reduced to dimensions manageable by the experimental method. Personality is long-term and resistant to change because we begin to attain the unique characteristics that make us distinct early in life (Crowne, 2007).

Experimental methods are rarely used in the study of personality due to the fact that the richness and validity of some aspects of people’s lives and behaviour are not considered (Davidson, 1998). Being tradeoffs, these attributes, such as the loving and hating, the striving, the emotional extremes, and the failures of people are unable to be used in experimental studied to better understand peoples’ personalities and lives (Crowne, 2007). Thirdly, there are factors, unique to each method, that affect the validity and accuracy that discriminate the two methods.

A significant vulnerability and disadvantage of the clinical method is that it lacks control. A control is a factor that does not receive a treatment (Barlow et al. , 1995). Controls provide a standard against which the effect of expressing emotion or cognitive therapy can be compared (Davidson, 1988). This method is unable to control potential influences on the behaviour and talking of patients (Barlow et al. , 1995). This can lead to the impediment of results, and consequently, to invalid deductions. Another drawback of this method is the inability to replicate the clinical observations (Crowne, 2007).

This means that the test-retest reliability is often inadequate (Davidson et al. , 1998). The clinical method is unable to provide competent evidence concerning cause-effect relationship due to the third variable effect; when a third unforeseen factor causes the results or correlation observed (Davidson, 1998). Therefore, it is does not confirm hypotheses, but it does generate them. The authors of the book Abnormal Psychology state, “The experiment is generally considered the most powerful tool for determining casual relationships between events” (Davidson, 1988).

Therefore, the means by which researchers are able to control experiments is superior and powerful. This is used in psychopathology to evaluate the effects of therapies (Davidson, 1998). The inclusion of a control group can sometimes ensure internal validity. Internally valid studies are studies in which the effect obtained can be attributed to the independent variable with confidence (Barlow et al. , 1995). Another benefit of the experimental method is the placebo effect (Barlow et al. , 1995).

This has been proven to recuperate the physiological and mental health of patients. In psychology, constructing a placebo devise that does not contain the component a researcher believes is effective is not always facile (Barlow et al. , 1995). Clients in the placebo groups are often given the same treatment devoid of the portions the scientist believes are responsible for improvement (Barlow et al. , 1995). The placebo effect cannot be applied in clinical methods because clinical methods focus on individual persons and not whole groups.

Finally, two kinds of approaches in psychology that have a preference in the method used are functionalism and structuralism. Functionalists, such as William James, ask why the mind works the way it does. William James assumed that the way the mind works has a great deal to do with the purpose of its various operations that is its function. He focused more on psychological findings and their relevance in everyday. Functionalists drew profoundly on the Darwinian evolutionary theory and tried to extend biological adaptation to psychological adaption.

Wilhelm Wundt wanted to identify the simples essential units of the mind. He was the first person to conduct controlled experiments with children. Structuralism focuses on what the elemental components of the mind are rather than on the question of why the mind works the way it does (Galotti, 2010). Functionalism and structuralism not only differ in their focus of study but the methods used as well. Structuralists preferred the use of a laboratory where experimental stimuli could be stripped of their everyday meanings to determine the true nature of the mind.

On the other hand, functionalists disagree sharply with this approach of method, and instead attempt to study mental phenomenon in real life situations. Their fundamental belief was that whole organisms should be studied in whole real life tasks (Galotti, 2010). Ultimately, it is apparent that there are salient differences between the clinical and experimental methods used in the study of personality. Clinical studies have been significantly valuable in the amelioration of psychology. Freud developed psychoanalytic theory and the methods of psychoanalysis on the basis of his observations of numerous cases.

Since the clinical method does not involve controlled variables like in the experimental method, results obtained might be specific to one person or may derive from a specific combination of factors that are not obvious. Generalizations might occur where there is a third variable affecting the results. Researchers can be partial or even influenced by dramatic events, rather than scientific evidence at times. Contrarily, the experimental method comprises controlled measures, and so lacks internal invalidity.

This method delivers strong evidence and can display causation; however it is not always feasible to use in the study of personality due to the complex nature of personality and it’s variability among different individuals. For these reasons scientists often gravitate to either one of the methods. However, the clinical method seems to be more prolific and useful due its success in the study of personality over the past few decades. In many aspects, this method appears to be successful in solving the ever so stubborn yet fickle phenomenon of human personality.

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Comparing the Experimental and the Clinical Methods in Psychology. (2017, Feb 20). Retrieved from

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