How Comparative Psychologists Study Animal Behavior

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Comparative psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the study of animal behavior. Modern research on animal behavior began with the work of Charles Darwin and Georges Romanes, and the field has grown into a multidisciplinary subject. Today, biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, ecologists, geneticists, and many others contribute to the study of animal behavior.

Comparative psychology often utilizes a comparative method to study animal behavior. The comparative method involves comparing the similarities and differences among species to gain an understanding of evolutionary relationships. The comparative method can also be used to compare modern species of animals to ancient species.

A Brief History

Pierre Flourens, a student of Charles Darwin and George Romanes, became the first to use the term in his book Comparative Psychology (Psychologie Comparée), which was published in 1864. In 1882, Romanes published his book Animal Intelligence, in which he proposed a science and system of comparing animal and human behaviors. Other important comparative thinkers included C. Lloyd Morgan and Konrad Lorenz.

The development of comparative psychology was also influenced by learning psychologists, including Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike, and by behaviorists, including John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner.

Why Study Animal Behavior?

Studying what animals do and comparing different species can offer useful information about human behaviors.

To gain insight into evolutionary processes. The Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology, which is a division of the American Psychological Association, suggests that looking at the similarities and differences between human and animal behaviors can also be useful for gaining insights into developmental and evolutionary processes.

To generalize information to human beings. Another purpose of studying animal behavior in the hope that some of these observations may be generalized to human populations. Historically, animal studies have been used to suggest whether certain medications might be safe and appropriate for humans, whether certain surgical procedures might work in humans, and whether certain learning approaches might be useful in classrooms.

Consider the work of learning and behaviorist theorists. Ivan Pavlov’s conditioning studies with dogs demonstrated that animals could be trained to salivate at the sound of a bell. This work was then taken and applied to training situations with humans as well. B.F. Skinner’s research with rats and pigeons yielded valuable insights into the operant conditioning processes that could then be applied to situations with humans.

To study developmental processes. Comparative psychology has also famously been used to study developmental processes. In Konrad Lorenz's well-known imprinting experiments, he discovered that geese and ducks have a critical period of development in which they must attach to a parental figure, a process known as imprinting. Lorenz even found that he could get the birds to imprint on himself. If the animals missed this vital opportunity, they would not develop attachment later in life.

During the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a series of disturbing experiments on maternal deprivation. Infant rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers. In some variations of the experiments, the young monkeys would be reared by wire "mothers." One mother would be covered in cloth while the other provided nourishment. Harlow found that the monkeys would primarily seek the comfort of the cloth mother versus the nourishment of the wire mother.

The results of Harlow's experiments indicated that this early maternal deprivation led to serious and irreversible emotional damage. The deprived monkeys became unable to integrate socially, unable to form attachments, and were severely emotionally disturbed. Harlow's work has been used to suggest that human children also have a critical window in which to form attachments. When these attachments are not formed during the early years of childhood, psychologists suggest, long-term emotional damage can result.

Major Topics of Interest

Comparative psychologists sometimes focus on individual behaviors of certain animal species, like primates, to learn more about topics such as personal grooming, play, nesting, hoarding, eating, and movement behaviors. Other topics that comparative psychologists might study include reproductive behaviors, imprinting, social behaviors, learning, consciousness, communication, instincts, and motivations.

Comparative Psychologists Often Study:

  • Evolution: How evolutionary processes have contributed to certain patterns of behavior
  • Heredity: How genetics contributes to behavior
  • Adaptation and learning: How the environment contributes to behavior
  • Mating: How different species reproduce
  • Parenting: How parental behaviors contribute to offspring behavior

A Word From Verywell

The study of animal behavior can lead to a deeper and broader understanding of human psychology. Research on animal behavior has led to numerous discoveries about human behavior, such as Ivan Pavlov's research on classical conditioning or Harry Harlow's work with rhesus monkeys. Students of biological sciences and social sciences can benefit from studying comparative psychology.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Lahousen T, Unterrainer HF, Kapfhammer HP. Psychobiology of Attachment and Trauma-Some General Remarks From a Clinical Perspective. Front Psychiatry. 2019;10:914. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00914

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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.