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How do psychologists find answers about what the causes and best treatments of mental illness are? In this lesson, we’ll look at important types of clinical research: case studies, correlational studies, and causal studies.

Clinical Research

Imagine that you are a psychologist, and Carrie comes into your office. She hasn’t been eating, and the more her family tries to get her to eat, the more she refuses. She’s suffering from an eating disorder. You have to find a way to help Carrie. But, imagine that you’ve never treated someone with an eating disorder before. What do you do? How can you find out how to treat Carrie?If you’re like most psychologists, you will go to articles and books written by psychologists who have done clinical research on eating disorders.

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Clinical research involves conducting research to find the safest and most effective treatment for disorders.You might be wondering how someone figures out what the safest and most effective treatment for a disorder is. Generally, clinical researchers are psychologists who do not see patients. Instead, they gather participants together to uncover more information, or they gather data and analyze it to find answers.Clinical researchers face three distinct challenges in abnormal psychology:1.

Measuring unconscious motives.Many psychological theories rest on subconscious motivations, but there’s no easy tool that can measure a person’s subconscious. Clinical researchers have to rely on other methods to try to understand the subconscious mind. For example, even Carrie doesn’t know what’s going on in her subconscious. If you ask her, she’ll say, ‘I don’t know.’2.

Assessing private thoughts.Again, it’s difficult to measure a person’s thoughts. What if you ask Carrie about her thoughts on food, and she doesn’t tell the whole truth? Maybe she’s scared of being judged, or maybe she just doesn’t want to talk about it. Either way, it’s hard to get at the private thoughts of the people you are studying.3. Monitoring mood changes.

While some behaviors give a clue as to mood, it can be hard to know exactly what a person is feeling at any given moment. As such, researchers have to try to notice the smallest hint about mood. For example, if Carrie is biting her nails when talking to you, it might mean that she’s nervous or anxious.There are many ways that clinical researchers try to overcome these issues. In this lesson, we’ll look at the three most common techniques used in clinical research: case studies, correlation and causation.

Case Studies

One of the oldest forms of research in psychology is the case study, whereby a researcher looks at one particular person in-depth.

Case studies are generally very detailed accounts of a person’s life, psychological issues and responses to treatment.Let’s go back to Carrie for a minute. You might want to study Carrie to learn more about eating disorders. As such, you would have detailed conversations with her and possibly her family about her life. You might try different treatments and note how she responds to each one.A case study is often where a theory begins.

It gives a detailed peek into a person’s psyche and can offer new ideas for why people feel or act the way they do. Sigmund Freud based many of his theories on case studies. Case studies often look at people who are different from the norm. If a person acts normally, they won’t be studied because abnormal psychology is the study of abnormal thoughts, behaviors and feelings.

Specifically, abnormal psychology often looks at mental disorders, and if a person doesn’t have a disorder, they won’t be studied.Also, if a person acts the same way others with their disorder act, then there’s no reason to study them. For example, if Carrie acts the same way that everyone else with an eating disorder does, she can’t add anything to what psychologists already know about eating disorders.But, what if she acts very different from other people with eating disorders? For example, what if most people with eating disorders are okay with eating food that’s red. Psychologists might have lots of evidence for this, and therefore treatment might center on feeding people with eating disorders red food.But, if Carrie doesn’t like red food, what does that mean? If psychologists have decided that people with eating disorders eat red food, and Carrie doesn’t, she is now showing an exception to the rule.

As a result, she is challenging the assumptions of what psychologists know. In general, case studies are either used when very little research has been done on a subject, as when Freud did case studies to develop his theories, or when there is a well-developed theory that a researcher wants to challenge.

Correlation vs. Causation

But, how do we go from the first case studies into more rigorous scientific research to give evidence for a theory? For example, how might a clinical researcher figure out if it’s true that people with eating disorders like red food?There are two main types of experiments that can be done to figure out whether a theory is true or not.

Correlational studies say whether two things have a relationship to each other, but they do not tell us whether something causes something else. For example, if a psychologist does a study and finds out that people with eating disorders like red food, he knows that there is a correlation between eating disorders and red food.But, he doesn’t know if having an eating disorder causes a person to like red food, if liking red food causes an eating disorder or something else causes a person to like red food and have an eating disorder. All he can say is that there is a relationship, or correlation, between the two.On the other hand, causal studies show that one thing causes another.

For example, if a researcher did research that found that eating disorders improve after taking a specific medication, she might be able to say that the medication causes an improvement in eating disorder symptoms.

Lesson Summary

Clinical research in psychology looks at the causes and treatments of mental illness. There are several types of research done by clinical researchers:

  • Case studies, which examine an individual’s psychological picture in-depth
  • Correlational studies, which show a relationship between two things without saying what causes what
  • Causal studies, which show that one thing causes another

Learning Outcomes

Upon completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe research challenges in the field of abnormal psychology
  • Explain the three most common types of research performed by clinical researchers
  • Differentiate between correlational studies, causal, and case studies

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