Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Can a Nomothetic Perspective inform an Idiographic Life?

Yep, using big words today. I've been thinking a lot lately about the tension between academic psychology (what I do), and clinical psychology (actually working with patients/clients). There is little communication between academic and clinical psychology, and I have found this troubling. Why don't clinical psychologists use the academic evidence more? Why don't academic psychologists listen to what really matters from those working in clinical settings?

Academic psychology usually takes a nomothetic approach -- we aim to make generalisable statements about human behaviour. I try and make general statements about family and child well-being based on numerical information from large(ish) numbers of families. Clinicians, on the other hand, take an idiographic approach -- considering the unique experiences of each individual. Clinicians might use similar techniques across their different patients, but the content of the sessions will be unique to each individual.

Academic psychology probably does a better job informing public policy than informing clinical practice. When it comes to parenting, I think the idiographic approach is (thankfully) much more natural for most people. Most parents naturally take into account the unique traits, capabilities, propensities of their child when making decisions. However, I still think that a nomothetic approach has something to offer. When faced with a particular problem, I do think it makes sense to look at the evidence base first. It's like hedging your bets -- it might not work for everyone, but it's a better bet than just winging it.

For a concrete example, we have found that household chaos (homes lacking in routines, that are noisy and chaotic), was at least as important as quality of parenting in predicting children's behaviour problems. This suggests that running a home in a more systematic way might be helpful. It's probably the case, however, that it is really important for some kids, and not at all important for others. Still, it's a place to start.

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