Nazis, Wizards, & Superheroes: Using Case Studies to Bolster Class Effectiveness

02 Mar 2020 8:28 PM | Anonymous

Wind Goodfriend (Buena Vista University) & Thomas Heinzen (William Paterson University)

In B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two, the fictional Professor Burris reflects on his long teaching career (Skinner, 1948, p. 6-7) with the following regret:

“My [former students] would gape with ignorance when I alluded to a field that we had once explored together—or so I thought—but they would gleefully remind me, word for word, of my smart reply to some question from the class or impromptu digression… I would have been glad to let them all proceed henceforth in complete ignorance of the science of psychology, if they would forget my opinion of chocolate sodas or the story of the amusing episode on a Spanish streetcar.”

Many of us have experienced the chagrin that Skinner is describing. Our students may choose to pay attention to our personal stories or anecdotes, focusing on what happened instead of the more important (in our opinion) point of why the story came up in the first place, and how it’s tied to the psychological topic of that day’s class. Why do students care about the stories? Because the stories are real, personal, engaging, and help the students see the psychology all around them, in their everyday lives.

Instead of dismissing such stories as regrettable distractions (as Skinner seems to be doing), why not capitalize on the power of story in the classroom? The effectiveness of case studies won’t be a surprise to those of us who have been showing pictures of “classics” in the history of psychology, such as Phineas Gage, Clive Wearing, Little Albert, and Kitty Genovese. We argue here that faculty should use case studies more. Walter Mischel noted the power of a good case study when he wrote (Mischel, 1979, p. 741):

“We all know that our students may ignore the weighty evidence we painstakingly convey in our lectures while to our dismay they remember for years one dramatic case study example or personal anecdote.”

And in the influential book Make It Stick, about how to master the effectiveness of lectures, Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel (2014) started almost all their chapters with a powerful case study. How can we use case studies more explicitly in our classes? Here are two examples.

Example 1: Non-Fiction

Almost all of us discuss the infamous Milgram studies, at least in Intro Psych. It’s a powerful procedure with even more powerful results. For years, we [the authors] emphasized to our students the “power of the situation” and that most of the participants went all the way to 450 volts—and that they (the students) would probably have done the same thing. In other words, many teachers focus on the peer pressure and power of obedience inherent in Milgram. Even Milgram knew the importance of case studies; he included in his book Obedience to Authority quotations from people who did go “all the way,” like this one (1974, p. 87):

“I said, ‘Good God, he’s dead; well, here we go, we’ll finish him.’ And I just continued all the way through to 450 volts.”

But here is a perfect opportunity to use case studies to inspire students to go against the self-fulfilling prophecy of giving in to obedience and peer pressure. Consider August Landmesser, shown in the link below, refusing to participate in the Nazi salute:


Landmesser was in love with a Jewish woman, so he stood up against authority and instead let his ethics guide his choices. That choice came at a great cost: His lover died in a concentration camp, and he died in a German penal battalion. But he didn’t give in. And Milgram saw this in his own participants—one third didn’t go to 450 volts. In Chapters 4 and 6 of Obedience to Authority, he profiles participants who disobeyed, and why.

When a participant hesitated, Milgram’s experimenter prodded them with phrases such as they “had no other choice” but to continue. One man, a Dutch immigrant who had seen Jewish people persecuted during the War, stopped at 255 volts and responded by stating (p. 51):

“I do have a choice. Why don’t I have a 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.”

In perhaps the most poignant case in the entire study, another participant refused to continue after 210 volts. She was a German immigrant who had been raised in the Hitler Youth program. After disobeying and being asked why she stopped, she calmly responded, “Perhaps we have seen too much pain” (p. 84). These are the case studies we want to emphasize to our students—these are the ones we want to inspire them in the future, when they remember our classes.


Example 2: Fiction

Students certainly spend a lot of their free time engaging in popular culture, including videogames, streaming TV, and movies. So, appealing to these interests may help students feel connected to the material. Here we discuss two examples of popular culture and how they relate to psychology.

First: Attachment Theory is a common subject in a wide variety of psych courses (Intro, Development, Relationships, Social, etc.). In the original model, Bowlby (1958) suggested three attachment styles. Each style results from how children interact with their primary caregiver and later causes different behavioral patterns in romantic relationships. All three styles are illustrated well in the trio of main characters in Harry Potter (see Goodfriend, 2007).

Harry grew up as an orphan being abused by his aunt and uncle; this results in his fearful/avoidant attachment. He struggles with close relationships in adolescence, showing the tendency to isolate himself when possible. Despite attraction to girls, he avoids interacting with them and only responds when they take the initiative.

In contrast, Ron shows an anxious-ambivalent style. His parents were inconsistent with him, sometimes showing love and support and sometimes being distracted or playing the role of harsh punisher. His attachment style comes out when he creates a co-dependent relationship with his first girlfriend (Lavender) and becomes highly jealous of Hermione’s interest in anyone except himself.

Finally, Hermione displays secure attachment. Her parents consistently showed her loving support, resulting in her high self-esteem, confidence, and choice of boyfriends because of mutual respect and common intellectual interests (e.g., Viktor Krum).

Second: Many courses also discuss the development of the “self” and self-concept. A common theory is Higgins’s (1987, 2012) self-discrepancy theory, which describes the actual, ought, and ideal self. The struggle between selves may be most salient when considering superheroes who have a secret identity. Which identity is their “actual” self, and which is their “ideal?” Can both really exist simultaneously? And is either of these selves reflective of social expectations and standards—thus, the “ought” self?

Wonder Woman, or Diana Prince, reveals these questions in interesting ways (see Goodfriend & Formichella-Elsden, 2017). While her “real” name is Diana, the character of Diana Prince that she plays to the public (e.g., glasses and a nurse or secretary role) is covering up the “actual” self she has in the extraordinary abilities she shows as Wonder Woman. Her love interest often compares the two women explicitly. He tells Diana, for example, that she’s acceptable—but nothing in comparison to Wonder Woman. He thus loves only one aspect of her.

Many panels from the original comic strips and books display her struggle between these parts of her self. Those early panels also present a public that judges her positively (e.g., when she helps the U.S. military defeat enemies) or negatively (for what are considered “scandalous” clothes for the time). These judgments again relate to the ought self. The example of Wonder Woman—or any other similar superhero with multiple sides of life—leads to interesting class discussions and memorable applications of Higgins’s ideas to students’ own lives.


Other people have noted the utility of case studies in the classroom (e.g., Krain, 2010, McManus, 1986, Oliver, 2019). Milgram himself knew the power of case studies in making a point. In Obedience to Authority, he wrote (1974, p. 44):

“We need to focus on the individuals who took part in the study not only because this provides a personal dimension to the experiment but also because the quality of each person’s experience gives us clues to the nature of the process.”

Individual instructors should, of course, feel free to select both fictional and non-fictional case studies that speak to them, personally. Students can sense authentic engagement and will enjoy their professors’ expertise about particular cases. One of us (Wind) enjoys discovering psychological insights already lurking in fictional popular culture, especially from wizards and superheroes. The other (Tom) derives similar enjoyment and meaning from discovering non-fictional historical details like the story of August Landmesser.

Choosing a range of studies from different contexts will likely be best for the variety and diversity of student interests in a given class. Regardless of the specific cases chosen, use of case studies appears to be a promising way to keep students engaged within the classroom, to help them retain material for testing purposes, and to apply those insights to the complicated lives they are already living (Bromley, 1986; Rolls, 2015).


Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39, 350-373.

Bromley, D. B. (1986). The case study method in psychology and related disciplines. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. M., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Goodfriend, W. (2007). Attachment styles at Hogwarts: From infancy to adulthood. In N. Mulholland (Ed.), Psychology of Harry Potter (pp. 73-88). Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

Goodfriend, W., & Formichella-Elsden, A. (2017). Multiple identities, multiple selves? Diana Prince’s actual, ideal, & ought selves. In T. Langley & M. Wood (Eds.), Wonder Woman psychology: Lassoing the truth (pp. 139-149). New York, NY: Sterling.

Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319-340.

Higgins, E. T. (2012). Regulatory focus theory. In Van Lange, P., Kruglanski, A. W., & Higgins, E. T. (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 483-504). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Krain, M. (2010). The effects of different types of case learning on student engagement. International Studies Perspectives, 11, 291-308.

McManus, J. L. (1986). “Live” case study/journal record in adolescent psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 13(2), 70-74.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority. New York, NY: Harper-Perennial.

Mischel, W. (1979). On the interface of cognition and personality: Beyond the person–situation debate. American Psychologist, 34(9), 740-754.

Oliver, J. A. (2019). Essays from E-xcellence in teaching (Vol. 18). Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Web site:

Rolls, G. (2015). Classic case studies in psychology (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden two. New York, NY: MacMillan.

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