Small is beautiful: In defense of the small-N design

Psychon Bull Rev. 2018 Dec;25(6):2083-2101. doi: 10.3758/s13423-018-1451-8.


The dominant paradigm for inference in psychology is a null-hypothesis significance testing one. Recently, the foundations of this paradigm have been shaken by several notable replication failures. One recommendation to remedy the replication crisis is to collect larger samples of participants. We argue that this recommendation misses a critical point, which is that increasing sample size will not remedy psychology's lack of strong measurement, lack of strong theories and models, and lack of effective experimental control over error variance. In contrast, there is a long history of research in psychology employing small-N designs that treats the individual participant as the replication unit, which addresses each of these failings, and which produces results that are robust and readily replicated. We illustrate the properties of small-N and large-N designs using a simulated paradigm investigating the stage structure of response times. Our simulations highlight the high power and inferential validity of the small-N design, in contrast to the lower power and inferential indeterminacy of the large-N design. We argue that, if psychology is to be a mature quantitative science, then its primary theoretical aim should be to investigate systematic, functional relationships as they are manifested at the individual participant level and that, wherever possible, it should use methods that are optimized to identify relationships of this kind.

Keywords: Inference; Mathematical psychology; Methodology; Replication.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Group Processes
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Least-Squares Analysis
  • Mathematics
  • Psychology*
  • Psychophysics
  • Reaction Time
  • Research Design*
  • Sample Size*
  • Visual Perception