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Comparative psychology: the animal part of psychology

Comparative psychology: the animal part of psychology

January 10, 2023

It has long been known that the mental and behavioral life of nonhuman animals is much richer than might be assumed at first glance. Comparative psychology is an effort to understand the logic behind the way of acting, thinking and feeling of these forms of life.

Of course, it is also a field of study that is not free from criticism both its use of the comparative method and its ethical approaches. Let's see what this branch of research in psychology consists of .

What is comparative psychology?

Comparative psychology has been defined as an effort to understand the behavior and mental life of animals In general, starting from the idea that there are certain characteristics of these two areas that have been evolving through the passage of time.

Thus, comparative psychology is not just a type of research in which the similarities and differences of different types of animals are compared (including our own species), but it assumes that behind these similarities and differences there is a history about how the mental life and behavior of these life forms have evolved through the passage from one generation to the next and through the creation of new species.

The use of the comparative method

So, comparative psychology uses the comparative method , which consists of studying psychological processes in certain species and see how these conclusions can be extrapolated to other species.

In general, the studies are focused to see at what point in the evolutionary history certain psychological characteristics appear and, from there, to check how they have evolved until they reach the most "evolved" animal species in a certain characteristic.

In practice, this means that the species whose behavior and mental processes are intended to be investigated indirectly with species related to it is almost always ours. However, many researchers believe that the goal of comparative psychology should not be an excuse to end up talking about the psychology of the human being, but that Mental life and behavior of non-human animal species have self-interest .

Experimenting with animals or observation?

In principle, there is nothing in the definition of what comparative psychology is of what can be assumed that it depends only on the experimental method; it could also be based on field observations made on the natural terrain in which a species lives, as ethology has traditionally done .

However, in practice, experimentation is the most used option in comparative psychology, for two reasons:

  • It is cheaper and faster.
  • Possible unforeseen events are avoided.
  • It allows to isolate the variables much better.
  • The fact of discarding the influence of the specific natural environment of a species makes it easier to draw conclusions that provide information about the behavior of human beings.

Of course, this has made comparative psychology very criticized for cases of animal abuse , like that of the Harry Harlow experiment and the monkeys that are deprived of contact with their mother during their first weeks of life.

Comparative psychology and behaviorism

Historically, behaviorism has been the current of psychology that has resorted most to comparative psychology to make discoveries.

This is so because, since behavioral researchers focused on the components of psychology that can be recorded objectively and quantified, they assumed that contingencies, which for them were the basic building blocks of behavior patterns, they can be studied in their most basic elements in life forms with a less complex nervous system than the human.

Thus, for example, B. F. Skinner became well known with his experiments with pigeons, and Edward Thorndike, who was one of the precedents of behaviorism, established theories about the use of intelligence experimenting with cats.

Of course, Iván Pavlov, who laid the foundations for behaviorism to be developed by studying simple conditioning, experimented with dogs from the field of physiology . Even Edward Tolman, a researcher trained in behaviorism who questioned the assumptions of this psychological current, did so through the study of rats.

The possibilities of this branch of psychology

The wild appearance of animals, the absence of facial gestures such as human and language make us tend to assume that everything related to the psychology of these forms of life is simple. Comparative psychology attaches great importance to the way animals behave .

In any case, it is very controversial if it does so with the eyes of human beings or if it seeks a genuine understanding of the mental life of these organisms. There are many different animal species, and traditionally comparative psychology has basically studied non-human primates and some animals that can adapt well to domestic life, like rats or guinea pigs.

The possibilities of comparative psychology have to do with a better understanding of the life forms that surround us and also with a deeper knowledge of patterns of behavior inherited from millennia through our evolutionary lineage.

Its limitations have to do with the use of the comparative method and with you never know very well to what extent it is possible to extrapolate conclusions from one species to another . And, of course, the ethical problems posed by animal experimentation have entered fully into the debate on whether comparative psychology is useful or not.


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