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.
Practice: Find and read a published article in psychology that reports new single-subject research. (An archive of articles published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis can be found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/journals/309/) Write a short summary of the study.
Practice: Design a simple single-subject study (using either a reversal or multiple-baseline design) to answer the following questions. Be sure to specify the treatment, operationally define the dependent variable, decide when and where the observations will be made, and so on.
Does positive attention from a parent increase a child’s tooth-brushing behavior?
Does self-testing while studying improve a student’s performance on weekly spelling tests?
Does regular exercise help relieve depression?
Practice: Create a graph that displays the hypothetical results for the study you designed in Exercise 1. Write a paragraph in which you describe what the results show. Be sure to comment on level, trend, and latency.
Discussion: Imagine you have conducted a single-subject study showing a positive effect of a treatment on the behavior of a man with social anxiety disorder. Your research has been criticized on the grounds that it cannot be generalized to others. How could you respond to this criticism?
Discussion: Imagine you have conducted a group study showing a positive effect of a treatment on the behavior of a group of people with social anxiety disorder, but your research has been criticized on the grounds that “average” effects cannot be generalized to individuals. How could you respond to this criticism?
Practice: Redesign as a group study the study by Hall and his colleagues described at the beginning of this chapter, and list the strengths and weaknesses of your new study compared with the original study.
Practice: The generation effect refers to the fact that people who generate information as they are learning it (e.g., by self-testing) recall it better later than do people who simply review information. Design a single-subject study on the generation effect applied to university students learning brain anatomy.