What Is The Most Famous Case Study Psychology Has Seen?

By: Nicole Beasley

Updated February 01, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

Case studies are used to help psychologists and other researchers understand the human mind. There have been many famous case studies in psychology over the years. Some case studieshave shownhow psychological phenomena like memory and personality work. Other studieshave been disproven over time. In considering case studies, which are narratives or stories, it is important to keep in mind what we can and cannot conclude from the information presented. 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. This famous case study showed how different areas of the brain affect personality and cognitive ability. While working as a construction foreman on a railroad, Phineas Gagewas involved in an accident in which a rod was pushed through his cheek and brain. He survived, but as a result of the accident,both his personality and his ability to learn new things were greatly affected.

This is an example of a case study that cannot lead to definitive conclusions. Although the case is frequently cited and referenced, in truth, relatively little information is known about Gage's life before and after the accident. In fact, researchers have discovered that the last two decades of his life were spent in his original job, which is unlikely to have been possible if the extent of his injuries were as severe as originally believed. Still, hiscase study was a starting point for research of how memory and personality work in the brain,and it isa seminal study for that reason.

The Feral Child

Feral children are children who are raised without human interaction, usually as 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 gained the cognitive ability of a normal adult, even though she was found at age 13. In fact, later in life, she regressed and stopped speaking altogether. Her case has been studied extensivelyby psychologists who want to understand how enculturation affects cognitive development.

Henry Molaison

This is a case study that has helped psychologists understand memory. It is perhaps the most famous case study in neuroscience. Henry Molaison was in a childhood accident that left him with debilitating seizures. Doctors were able to stop the seizures by removing slivers of his brain’shippocampus, though at the time they did not fully understanding what they were doing. As a result, scientists learned how important the hippocampus is to forminglong-term memories. After the surgery, Molaison was no longer able to form long-term memories, and his short-term memory was very brief. The case study started further research into memory and the brain.

Jill Price

The case study of Jill Price is in some ways the opposite of that of Henry Molaison. Ms. Price is one of a few documented cases of hyperthymesia, or an overactive memory that allowed her to remember such mundane things as what she had for dinner on an average day in August 20 years previously. Hercase study was used as a jumping-off point to research how the memory works and why some people have exceptional memories. However, through more research, it was discovered that her overall memory was not exceptional; rather, sheonly remembereddetails of her own life. She was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, withmemories beingpart of her obsession. Thiscase study is still relevant because it hashelpedmodern psychologists understandhow mental illness affects memory.

The John/Joan Case

In the John/Joan case study, a reputable sexologist tested his theory that nurture, not nature, determined gender. The case study has been cited extensively and laid the groundwork for other research into gender identity. Unfortunately, the case study was not legitimate. In this study, Dr. John Money performed surgery on an infant whose penis was damaged during circumcision. The boy was raised as a girl; however, henever identified as female and eventually went through more surgery to become male again. Because Dr. Money didn't follow up with the patient appropriatelyand did not reportadverse 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 people to undergo psychoanalysis. Her case inspired manyof 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. More recently, it has been suggested that Anna O. had another illness, such as epilepsy, from which she may have recoveredduringthe period of time that the therapy lasted. This case study is still cited as a reason 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 first people to be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder. In her case, the “alter”personalities were all merged into one personality over which she had control. She did, however,remember specific eventsin her life as happening to specific personalities. Her case, diagnosis, and treatment informed treatingthis mental disorderin a variety of cases over the years, and it was even turned into a movie,Eve.

Ethical Use Of Case Studies

As shown above, while case studies can provide valuable information and mayinspire further research and study, they 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 supporttheories, but the research must be sound.

When case studies are flawed —for example, through not having enough information or havingthe wrong information — they can be harmful. Valuable research hours and other resources can be wasted while theories are used for inappropriate treatment. Case studies can thereforecause as much harm as good, and psychologists must be careful about how and when they are used.

Laypeople must be careful as well. Psychologists and doctors often disagree on how case studies should be applied. Most laypeople can’ttell whether a case study is built on a faulty premise or misinformation, and it is also possibletogeneralize case studies to situations for which they do not apply. If you think a case study might applyto your case or that of a loved one, the best thing to do is ask a mental health professional.

Other Ethical Concerns

Case studies are descriptions of real people Thoseindividualsarestudied intensively and areoften written about in medical journals and textbooks. While some patients are happy to be studied for science, others are not as happy with their role as test subject. Also, some subjects are not treated with dignity and respect. Sometimes psychologists become ruthless in their pursuit of knowledge, and the humanity of the interaction between researcher and subjectis lost.

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It can be helpful when looking at case study psychology to think of the cases as stories of real individuals. When you strip away the science and look at the case as a whole person in a unique situation, you will often get more out of the study than if you look at it as research that proves a theory.

How Case Studies Are Used In Therapy

Case studies are sometimes used in psychotherapy to determine the best course of treatment. If a case study in psychology aligns with your situation, yourtherapist may use the treatment methods outlined in the study. Case studies are also used by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to understand mental illness and its treatment.

If you need therapy for a challenging life situation or mental disorder, help is available. BetterHelp therapists can help you find the correct treatment. Whatever problem you may face, a therapist can use case studies and other resources to treat you appropriately. Contact BetterHelp today to get started.

How Case Studies Can Inform Therapy

Researchers have reviewed the role of case studies in counseling and psychotherapy. In one study, the authors discussed howreading case studies benefits therapists, providing a conceptual guide for clinical work, i.e., an understanding of the theory behind the practice. They also stressed the importance of teaching psychotherapy trainees to do better case study research, and theyencouraged practitioners to publish more case studies documenting the methods they use in their practice.

The Benefits of Online Therapy

As discussed above, case studies can inform the work of good therapists. But when you’re experiencing mental illness, it can sometimes be hard to leave home for therapy. This is where online therapy comes in. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. There’s no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your busy workday to drive to your appointment; you can speak with your licensed therapist from wherever you have an internet connection. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped people based on case studies. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists.

Counselor Reviews

“Amanda provides an excellent balance of warmth, accountability, and security. She keeps you on topic while actively listening and providing guidance as needed. Her credentials and expertise are well applied to our sessions and I am so grateful for her.”

“She's been amazing, helped me process my feelings and work on the things I needed to heal in order to grow stronger and be content with my life. She was available everyday, I managed to connect with her deeply, she was supportive. I never expected to meet someone who'd have such a big positive effect on my life. I want to continue my journey with her and I trust the lessons I've learnt from her will continue to be useful for my present and future.”


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