12.5: Single-Subject Research (Summary)
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- Single-subject research—which involves testing a small number of participants and focusing intensively on the behavior of each individual—is an important alternative to group research in psychology.
- Single-subject studies must be distinguished from qualitative research on a single person or small number of individuals. Unlike more qualitative research, single-subject research focuses on understanding objective behavior through experimental manipulation and control, collecting highly structured data, and analyzing those data quantitatively.
- Single-subject research has been around since the beginning of the field of psychology. Today it is most strongly associated with the behavioral theoretical perspective, but it can in principle be used to study behavior from any perspective.
- Single-subject research designs typically involve measuring the dependent variable repeatedly over time and changing conditions (e.g., from baseline to treatment) when the dependent variable has reached a steady state. This approach allows the researcher to see whether changes in the independent variable are causing changes in the dependent variable.
- In a reversal design, the participant is tested in a baseline condition, then tested in a treatment condition, and then returned to baseline. If the dependent variable changes with the introduction of the treatment and then changes back with the return to baseline, this provides strong evidence of a treatment effect.
- In a multiple-baseline design, baselines are established for different participants, different dependent variables, or different settings—and the treatment is introduced at a different time on each baseline. If the introduction of the treatment is followed by a change in the dependent variable on each baseline, this provides strong evidence of a treatment effect.
- Single-subject researchers typically analyze their data by graphing them and making judgments about whether the independent variable is affecting the dependent variable based on level, trend, and latency.
- Differences between single-subject research and group research sometimes lead to disagreements between single-subject and group researchers. These disagreements center on the issues of data analysis and external validity (especially generalization to other people).
- Single-subject research and group research are probably best seen as complementary methods, with different strengths and weaknesses, that are appropriate for answering different kinds of research questions.
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