Methods of Personality Research ? Clinical vs. Experimental

C.L. O'Connor

The development of personality has long been an area of extreme interest to psychologists and psychoanalysts alike and many different theories of personality have developed over the years. From Sigmund Freud to B.F. Skinner, everyone seems to have not only an opinion of what personality is and how it develops but also an idea as to what is the best way to measure and report their findings. In order to test their theories, it was necessary to formulate methods of research that were effective, ethical and would provide a solid foundation for future personality research.

Although both the clinical and experimental methods of personality research have lent themselves to our present day understanding of the human psyche and personality, each has done so in vastly different ways. Freud and his colleagues, who pioneered the clinical research method, chose to observe their clients in an up close and personal fashion. A great deal of their research findings came from interviews with psychologically disturbed patients. Personality psychologists who opt for the clinical method of research regard their work as both a method of gathering information and testing hypothesis as well as an opportunity to provide therapy and encourage healing. Therefore, the clinical method is very person oriented and allows for a more intimate study of the individual personality.

Proponents of the experimental method are equally as dedicated to their methods of research. Not unlike clinical researchers, experimental researchers regard their methods as the best way of gathering information to support hypothesis regarding personality. Although their methods are not as up close and personal as those who study using the clinical method, they are certainly valuable. Experimental research is often regarded as the best form of research, due to its strict adherence to rigid research guidelines.

Although neither of these two methods are infallible, each has its own merits and downfalls. In order to be best able to critique these methods one must have a general knowledge of each method, and an understanding of what has allowed them their staying power in the field of psychological research.

The Clinical Research Method


The clinical method of personality research developed literally at the patient?s bedside. During this time in the life of psychoanalytic research, the subjects were usually afflicted with one type of psychotic disorder or another. This bedside approach to analysis allowed for the psychiatrist or psychologist to observe the patient in their most natural surroundings. It also allowed the patient the freedom to talk and act without inhibition. With this freedom to speak openly, the therapist and patient were able to establish a professional relationship built on a mutual trust. This trust enabled the patient to open up and begin the psychological healing process while it allowed the therapist the opportunity to study him or her as a unique human being.

This respect of individuality is part of what makes the clinical approach successful. The individual approach allows for an extremely in depth analysis of the individual. Unfortunately, it is also often considered to be the largest downfall of the clinical method. Each person has a unique history, frame of reference, and state of mind and this very personalized study of one individual is not necessarily indicative of the situation of many others. In as much as this individualistic approach allows for a great deal of hypothesis formation, it does not necessarily allow for the opportunity to confirm or refute the initial supposition.

Clinical research is qualitative research. It is more flexible in its style and is more intense and less formal than the experimental method. The objective of qualitative research is to develop theories and refine concepts. Clinical researchers focus on individuals or small groups in a natural and relaxed atmosphere, unlike experimental researchers who focus on larger groups, while controlling certain variables. The therapist, from his or her own observation may find similarities between individuals experiences, and be able to form a hypothesis regarding the cause of these similarities.

Clinical therapists feel that we can only truly understand a personality by studying it through the clinical method. Their reason for claiming this is due to their belief that each individual person is unique. They believe that personality is the sum of one?s life experience. Therefore, to genuinely understand personality, one must first understand the person, their experiences, values, and beliefs. In order to do so, the patient must be observed in as