Idiographic and Nomothetic Approaches in Psychology

Updated on July 18, 2019
Angel Harper profile image

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes to go to university next year.

The idiographic and nomothetic approaches have different focusses. The idiographic emphasises the subjective and unique experience of an individual, whereas the nomothetic approach studies the numerical and statistical side to draw universal conclusions.


The Idiographic Approach in Psychology

The idiographic approach focusses on individual insights and feelings, it collects qualitative data in order to gain in-depth and unique details on individuals rather than the numerical data.

For example, Freud's (1909) analysis of Little Hans ( a boy whose fear of horses stemmed from his jealousy towards his father) consisted of 150 pages of notes. Freud spent a lot of time collecting detailed information about Little Hans in order to understand why he behaved the way he did.

Humanistic psychologists also use the idiographic approach because they believe that a person's subjective experience is more important to gain an understanding of humans than a universal generalisation.

Allport (1961) is another who used the idiographic approach and even came up with the term. He believed that the idiographic approach can tell us more about human behaviour and that personality tests that provide quantitative data are not as insightful.

The Nomothetic Approach in Psychology

In contrast, the nomothetic approach studies a large number of people at once to collect quantitate research. They aim to generate explanations of behaviour that can be universal and generalised to entire populations, they argue that qualitative data doesn't provide such generalisations.

For example, the biological approach seeks universal explanations for behaviour, and this can lead to drug therapies that can be used for all individuals. The research into fight or flight suggested that it was a universal response to stress. However, research by Taylor suggested otherwise (women have a 'tend and befriend' response). This shows how universal explanations ignore the differences that the idiographic approach focus on.

Eysenck, a direct contrast to Allport, also studied personality but used the nomothetic approach. He tested a large group of people and used their data to divide them into personality types such as 'introverted-neurotic' or 'extroverted-neurotic'. This method allows personality to be easily and quickly sorted into a universal personality test.

Eysenck's personality wheel
Eysenck's personality wheel | Source

Evaluation of the Idiographic Approach

A criticism of the humanistic approach (which uses the idiographic method) is that it isn't scientific. Positive psychologists criticise the humanistic approach for lacking evidence-based findings, thus making them meaningless. Despite this limitation, other idiographic approaches are scientific. An example of this is case studies. Case studies use the scientific method and also collects qualitative data. Although the humanist approach isn't scientific, other idiographic approaches are.

Another limitation of the idiographic approach is that it cannot provide general predications about behaviour. Such generalisations can be useful for some treatments of mental illness such as drug therapies. It is far too difficult and time consuming to construct unique treatments for every individual - it just isn't possible. However, Allport argues that the idiographic approach can produce generalisations. Researchers can collect detailed information about individuals then use this information to create a universal prediction. Hall and Lindzey believe that this is means that idiographic is in fact nomothetic and that there is no actual distinction between the two.

Thirdly, an issue with the idiographic approach is that it is time consuming. Collecting lots of data about only one or two individuals takes a lot of time. In the time it takes for a researcher to collect lots of data about just one person, a researcher using the nomothetic approach can gather data about a large group of people. The nomothetic approach can analyse data about a large group of people in much less time, the idiographic approach is less efficient.

Holt believes that there is no distinction between the two approaches and that they are actually the same. He argues that there is no such thing as a unique individual so both approaches ultimately produce generalised predictions of human behaviour.

Evaluation of the Nomothetic Approach

An advantage of the nomothetic approach is that large samples of people can be used to produce a reliable and representative finding. It is also scientific, so the experiments conducted are replicable and reliable.

However, a limitation of the nomothetic approach is that, as humanistic psychologists argue, it has lost sight of what it means to be human. It lacks an individual and unique perspective and assumes universal laws of behaviour apply to all people (and cultural and gender differences may not be taken into account). Allport believed that the only way to predict an individual's behaviour is to get to know them, the nomothetic method does not allow this.

Most experiments for the nomothetic approach are in a lab. In a lab, it lacks realism, so findings from these studies may not apply to real life. The results are therefore superficial and not always a true reflection of reality.


To Conclude

Overall, the idiographic approach focuses on subjective and unique experiences of individuals. In contrast, the nomothetic approach focuses on numerical data and universal explanations of behaviour.

Despite arguments that the two are not compatible, Millon and Davis suggest that researchers begin by using the nomothetic method, then once they have gained the general information, they can use the idiographic approach to gain more insightful information.

Which Approach Do You Think Is Most Useful in Creating Behaviour Predictions?

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Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

© 2018 Angel Harper


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    • tajwershakir profile image

      Tajwer Shakir 

      21 months ago

      Good work angel


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