Idiography: Where have we come from, where should we go to?

Marilyn Piccirillo (email) is a graduate student in the Washington University Clinical Science Ph.D. program. She is primarily interested in idiographic methodology and how psychologists can implement these methods into clinical and applied settings. Recently, she authored two papers on idiography in collaboration with her mentor – Tom Rodebaugh – and fellow grad student – Emorie Beck. A brief summary of these papers is presented here. The first paper reviews the history of idiographic methods in psychology and the second paper details ways that clinical scientists can implement these methods into their work.

Idiography – or the study of individuals – is achieving new prominence within psychology. In a field that seems inextricably linked to the study of an individual’s experience, personality, relationships, and symptomatology, it seems almost strange that idiographic methodology hasn’t always been at the forefront of psychological research. To be fair, numerous psychologists and therapists in the 20th century designed person-centered studies or integrated idiographic methodology into their clinical work. However, these earlier studies were limited by the use of (understandably) rudimentary methodology. Over the past decade or so, there has been substantial improvement in the data collection and statistical methodology available for N = 1 studies and a notable increase in the accessibility of these methods for psychologists. This has allowed those interested in idiography to model more complex psychological dynamics of an individual’s experience.

History of Idiography in Psychology

There has been a long history of idiographic work during the 20th century. Raymond Cattell introduced the use of the data-box as a method for orienting psychologists to person-centered research. A figure of the data-box is shown below. As opposed to studying several variables in many people at one point in time (see the front panel of the databox), a researcher could instead measure a set of variables in one individual over several points in time (see the shaded panel of the databox).

Clinicians and clinical scientists continued in this direction using analytic methods like P-technique or dynamic factor analysis to analyze a single patient’s psychotherapy. Similarly, psychologists began using these methods to examine the structure of personality. Numerous other researchers published ground-breaking idiographic studies, and reading their work can quickly turn into a delightful dive into the history of psychology and psychology methodology (personal experience of Marilyn L. Piccirillo, 2017 comprehensive exam studying)! A selected reading list of these historical studies can be found here.

During this early era of idiography, data collection and statistical methodology was understandably more basic and less comprehensive. With advancements in data collection techniques, we’re now able to use experience sampling methodology to collect in-vivo assessments of the individual’s mood or experience rather than relying on retrospective self-report. Likewise, our statistical methods are increasingly able to capture the complexity of psychological time-series data.

Contemporary Idiographic Work in Psychology

Several researchers have promoted idiography through the use of these improved methods. In a review of idiographic studies within psychology that I authored with Tom Rodebaugh, we highlighted work from Aaron Fisher, Aidan Wright, and colleagues who have published results demonstrating the idiographic nature of symptomatology in generalized anxiety and borderline personality disorders, respectively. Additionally, using a factor-based time-series approach, Peter Molenaar, Emilio Ferrer, John Nesselroade, and colleagues have examined the affective dynamics of interpersonal interactions between various close relatives. Notably, the work of Laura Bringmann, Ellen Hamaker, and colleagues in developing and testing time-varying analytic methods marks an important improvement in idiography. These analytic approaches can assist with modeling more complex psychological processes and can account for some violations to stationarity.

Other researchers have worked with group-level approaches that are also able to model individual-level processes. Methods such as group iterative multiple model estimation (GIMME) used by researchers including, Adriene Beltz, Kathleen Gates, Stephanie Lane, and Aidan Wright, as well as multilevel dynamic structural equation modeling, used by Ellen Hamaker and colleagues improve upon our ability to study individual-level processes within the context of the group. Most notably, in the case of the GIMME method, group-level models are constructed from individual-level models rather than relying on averages calculated across individuals. A selected reading list of more contemporary idiographic studies is included here.

It was truly exciting to review the work from our colleagues who are working to move the field of idiography forward. Their work demonstrated substantial progress towards using newer and more advanced time series methods. Yet, there is also considerable work ahead if we are to continue working towards integrating idiographic methods into applied areas, especially clinical work. Lian van der Krieke and colleagues have conducted some of the first dissemination and implementation work by developing an automated platform to collect and analyze idiographic data using vector autoregression (autoVAR). They have published studies measuring reactions and attitudes towards this automated platform, and the use of an automated platform may help to improve the accessibility of idiographic methods.

However, studies integrating idiographic methods into applied settings are still limited, which may be due to the lack of accessible information about how to best design an idiographic study. In a tutorial for clinical scientists and clinicians, Emorie Beck, Tom Rodebaugh, and I put forth our suggestions for designing an idiographic study based on the papers reviewed above and information gathered via personal communications at conferences, email, and academic Twitter.

Designing An Idiographic Study

Our main takeaways for designing an idiographic study are included below:

  1. Select items that can be measured continuously and use a continuous scale (i.e., preferably a 0 – 100 scale). Without a continuous scale, there may not be enough variance around each item to analyze.
  2. When possible, use more than one item to assess a given construct. Although participant burden is a concern, there are plenty of issues that can arise from relying on single item measurement. In terms of data analysis, you will also want to consider compositing items that are highly correlated or modeling latent variables.
  3. Be cautious about stationarity! Many of the easily accessible time-series methods assume stationarity around a given process, yet it is an open question as to whether psychological processes can ever be truly stationary. Consider collecting data during times of likely stationarity – such as when symptom change has stabilized. When it comes time to analyze your data, examine the data for trends that can be accounted for through detrending procedures or use a time-varying approach that can appropriately model nonstationarity.
  4. Consider the timing of your assessments. This may be one of the trickiest decision points, because we don’t have much, if any, empirical evidence as to the within and between person time trends of an emotional experience or symptom. Our best advice is to strike a compromise between numerous assessment points and participant burden. Our previous studies have administered surveys at 5 – 7 time points throughout a 12 – hour period. Regardless, be prepared to analyze data at different lags (i.e., Lag 1, Lag 2, Lag 3), as this will allow you to model multiple timescales of item and inter-item relationships.

The final two points above represent big hurdles for the field of idiography, and I’m looking forward to advancements in our understanding of how psychological systems change over time, both within and between individuals. In a field that is inherently focused on the individual, it is exciting to witness the rapid evolution of idiographic methodology as it can be used to improve our theoretical and clinical understanding of psychological systems!


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