What Is The Most Famous Case Study Psychology Has Seen?

By: Nicole Beasley

Updated March 15, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

Case studies are often used in psychology to help psychologists and researchers understand how the human mind works. There have been a lot of famous case studies in psychology over the years. Some of these case studies have proven how memory and personality work. Other case studies have been disproven over time. Although every case study is important, they must be used appropriately. Here are some examples of the most famous case studies psychology has seen.

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Phineas Gage

The case of Phineas Gage is one of the most cited cases in psychology. The case study showed how the different areas of the brain related to personality and cognitive ability. In the case of Phineas Gage, the man had a rod go through his cheek and brain but survived. As a result of the accident his personality and ability to learn new things seemed to be greatly affected.

This is also an example of a case study that cannot be definitive. Although the case is frequently cited and referenced, it has been found that relatively little information is known about the man's life before and after the accident. Researchers discovered that the last two decades of his life were spent in the same job, which would not have been possible if the extent of his injuries were what was originally believed. Still, the case study was a jumping off point for research into how the brain works with memory and personality, and that makes it very important.

The Feral Child

Feral children are children who are raised without social and human interaction. They are usually the result of abuse or neglect. One famous case study of a feral child was the child known as Genie. She was raised in a single bedroom with little human interaction. She never did gain the cognitive ability of a normal adult, even though she was found at age 13. In fact, in older age, she regressed and stopped speaking. Her case has been studied quite a bit so that psychologists can understand how enculturation relates to cognitive development.

Henry Molaison

This is a case study that has greatly helped psychologists understand memory. It is perhaps the most famous case study in neuroscience and psychology. Henry Molaison was in an accident as a child that left him with debilitating seizures. Doctors stopped the seizures by removing slivers of the hippocampus of the brain, not fully understanding what they were doing. As a result, scientists learned how important the hippocampus is to form new long term memories. The man was no longer able to form long term memories, and his short term memory was very brief. The case study was the jumping off point for further research into memory and the brain.

Jill Price

The case study of Jill Price is the opposite of Henry Molaison. Ms. Price is one of few documented cases of hyperthymesia or an overactive memory that allows her to remember mundane things, such as what she had for dinner on an average day in August 20 years ago. The case study has been used to research how the memory works and why some people like Jill have exceptional memories. However, through more research, it was discovered that she does not have excessive memory skills, but only remembers things from her own life. She has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and her memories are part of her obsession. The case study is still relevant because it is helping psychologists recognize how mental illness affects memory.

The John/Joan Case

In the John/Joan case study, a reputable sexologist tested his theory that nurtures not nature determined gender. The case study has been cited over and over again and laid the groundwork for other research into gender identity. Unfortunately, the case study was not legitimate. In the case, Dr. John Money performed surgery on an infant whose penis was damaged during circumcision. The boy was raised as a girl, but never identified as female and eventually went through more surgery to be male again. Because Dr. Money didn't follow up appropriately with the patient and did not report the adverse findings, the case study is still often cited as being successful.

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Anna O.

Anna O. was the pseudonym given to a German woman who was one of the first to undergo psychoanalysis. Her case inspired much of the theories of Freud and other prominent psychologists of the time. It was determined at the time that Anna's symptoms of depression and illness were eliminated through talk therapy. In recent times, it has been suggested that Anna O. had another illness, such as epilepsy, which may have become better over the days and weeks that the psychoanalysis or talk therapy was ongoing. This case study is still cited as a reason why psychologists believe that psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can be helpful to many patients.

Chris Sizemore

One of the most famous case studies in psychology is that of Chris Sizemore. She was one of the most famous people to first be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder. In her case, her personalities were merged into one personality over which she has control. She does still remember things in her life happening specifically to one personality over another, however. Her case, diagnosis, and treatment were an inspiration for treatment of this mental illness in a variety of cases over the years, and it was even turned into a movie "Eve."

Ethical Use Of Case Studies

As you can see, case studies are not definitive proof of any psychological theory. While case studies can provide valuable information and be jumping-off points for further research and study, case studies are not definitive proof of a theory. It is important to remember that case studies must be used ethically and legitimately. Case studies can be used to prove theories, but it must be done through definitive research.

When case studies are flawed, such as not having enough information or the wrong information, they can be harmful. Research hours and resources can be wasted while theories are used for inappropriate treatment until the case study is found to be inaccurate. Case studies can often cause as much harm as good, and psychologists must be careful about how and when they are used.

It is important that the layperson doesn't try to make too much out of case studies. Psychologists and doctors often disagree on how case studies should be used and when they are appropriate. A layperson could not hope to be able to tell when a case study is built on a faulty premise or misinformation, and you may be applying the case study incorrectly to a situation that you are not familiar with. If you think a case study you have found applies to your case or that of a loved one, the best thing to do is bring the matter to the attention of a professional so that they can determine if it is appropriate or not.

Other Ethical Concerns

Some other ethical concerns can arise when case studies are made. Case studies are individual cases of real people that demonstrate a psychological theory or prove a theory. As such, that individual is studied intensively and is often written about in medical journals and textbooks. While some patients are happy to be studied for science, many patients are not happy with their role as a test subject. Also, some subjects are not treated with dignity and respect. Sometimes psychologists become ruthless in the pursuit of knowledge, and the humanity of the interaction between researcher and patient is lost.

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It can be very helpful when looking at case study psychology that you think of the cases as being those of real, individual people. When you strip away the science of the research and look at the case as a whole person in a unique situation, often you will get more out of the case study than if you simply look at all the commentary.

How Case Studies Are Used In Therapy

Case studies are sometimes used in therapy sessions or by psychologists to determine the best course of treatment. If there is a famous case study in psychology that aligns with your situation, the therapist may use the same treatment methods as outlined in the case study in hopes that it will work for you. Case studies are also used by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to understand mental illness and its treatment.

If you need therapy and consider your situation a unique case, there is help available for you. Better Help therapists are licensed and knowledgeable in famous case studies. They can help you find the correct treatment for your mental illness or emotional issues. Regardless of the problems you may face, a therapist can use case studies and other resources to treat you with appropriate psychotherapy confidently. Contact Better Help today to get started if you need this type of help.

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