Why Professors should use Case Studies to Teach Psychology

By Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D.

When most teachers of psychology think of case studies, our immediate association is how they are used for research purposes. Medical case studies, like those used by Oliver Sacks or highlighted on TV shows like “House,” are interesting for rare problems, but in general not preferred in psychology due to potential issues of lacking generalization. That said, publication of case studies in psychology has grown over the last century. Searching for relevant keywords in databases like PsycINFO shows this increase, going from .14% of the database in 1899 to 4.6% now:











But how can case studies be used in teaching? Professors who have been around for a while have probably experienced this anecdote: You happen upon a student who took your class many years ago. She happily greets you, tells you that she enjoyed your class, and says that she remembers a funny story you told once about a family vacation. You’re sort of flattered, but in the back of your mind you think, “Does she actually remember any psychology?”

Students—at least, my students—love it when I tell stories in class. Ideally, of course, I tell stories that highlight something important about the history of psychology or an application of a theory. In fact, I’d guess that the vast majority of psychology professors use case studies in teaching more than you realize. We talk about Phineas Gage and his famous brain injury. We cover Clive Wearing and his unique case of amnesia. We discuss the murder of Kitty Genovese and how it inspired years of research on bystander intervention. And these stories seem to be what makes psychology lectures really come alive for students. They immediately relate to the “real people” in the stories, they see how psychology evolved due to historical events, and they can apply what might have been an abstract theory (say, the surprising negative correlation between number of bystanders and likelihood someone will be helped) to reality and their own lives. These are our goals when teaching psychology.

When I realized that I was already using case studies in my classes, and that students enjoyed them much more than simple theoretical explanations or diagrams of dogs and saliva, I started to use them more purposely. My specialization is social psychology, which requires a discussion of Asch, Milgram, Zimbardo, and how their famous studies helped explain the psychology of the Holocaust. For years, I’ve been teaching these studies with the lesson that the “power of the situation” overwhelms most people—that most of us, in the classroom room right now, give in to conformity and social pressure. Most of us will do bad things if the situation puts enough pressure on us, regardless of our personality, history, or any other individual differences. In some ways, that’s often the end of the story in social psychology.

But if that’s the message I’m giving to my students, it’s both shortsighted and pessimistic. Honestly, as someone who has studied self-fulfilling prophecies, telling my students that they’re a bunch of Nazis-in-waiting is a really, really bad idea. Why not use case studies to explore the people who didn’t give in to conformity? Consider this famous photograph:

Here you see a man who was probably August Landmesser. He’s at a Nazi parade, and everyone else is giving the standard salute. Landmesser defiantly refuses. Why? He was in love with a Jewish woman. The story doesn’t have a happy ending: His lover was killed in a concentration camp. He was drafted into a penal infantry and disappeared, presumed dead.

So yes, of course, standing up for what’s right is dangerous. But it’s also inspirational. He believed in love and courage and ethics and honesty and all of the things we hope our students have. And it wasn’t just Landmesser who stood up. When Milgram reported about the minority of participants who did not complete his controversial procedure (they didn’t go all the way to 450 volts on his phony shock machine), a few case studies of these participants are just as inspiring.

When one participant was told by Milgram that he “had no other choice” but to continue shocking an innocent man, he replied:

I do have a choice. Why don’t I have choice? I came here on my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that, or if I was in his place, too, I wouldn’t stay there. I can’t continue. I’m very sorry. I think I’ve gone too far already, probably.

And even more heart-wrenching, one of the women in Milgram’s study was an immigrant from Germany. She had been raised in the Hitler youth program and had personally witnessed the Holocaust before coming to the U.S. She stopped at 210 volts in the study and refused to continue. When Milgram asked her why, she simply stated:

Perhaps we have seen too much pain.

These are the case studies I want my students to remember, and these are the stories I now use when I teach psychology. They are also highlighted in our new textbook on Social Psychology (co-authored by Tom Heinzen, published by SAGE Publishing), and in our companion book Case Studies in Social Psychology: Critical Thinking and Application. We all loved stories as we grew up; we remember them and the lessons they taught us. I’d like to believe we can still use stories to reach adults, to help them remember psychology, and to emphasize the real reasons we are all studying human nature.

Wind Goodfriend is a professor of psychology at Buena Vista University in Iowa and co-author of the new textbook Social Psychology.

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