It has long been known that the mental and behavioral lives of non-human animals are much richer than one might at first assume. Comparative psychology is an effort to understand the logics behind how these lifestyles act, think, and feel.
Of course, it is also a field of study which is not exempt from criticisms both on its use of the comparative method and on 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, based on the idea that there are certain characteristics of these two areas that have evolved over time.
So, comparative psychology is not only a type of research in which the similarities and differences of different types of animals are simply compared (including here in our own species), but it assumes that behind these similarities and differences, there is a story about how the mental life and behavior of these life forms evolved through the passage from one generation to the next and the creation of new species.
The use of the comparative method
So comparative psychology uses the comparative method, Which involves studying the psychological processes in some species and seeing how these findings can be extrapolated to other species.
In general, studies aim to see at what point in evolutionary history certain psychological characteristics appear and, from there, to check how they evolved to reach the most “evolved” animal species in a certain characteristic.
In practice, this means that the species whose behavior and mental processes are meant to be studied by investigating indirectly with related species is almost always ours. However, many researchers believe that the goal of comparative psychology should not be an excuse to end up talking about human psychology, but rather the mental life and behavior of non-human animal species are of interest in themselves.
Animal experimentation or observation?
In principle, there is nothing in the definition of what comparative psychology is that one can suppose to depend 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 popular option in comparative psychology, for two reasons:
- It’s cheaper and faster.
- Any unforeseen events are avoided.
- This makes it possible to isolate the variables much better.
- Rejecting the influence of a species-specific natural environment makes it easier to draw conclusions that provide information about human behavior.
Of course, that made comparative psychology much criticized for cases of animal abuseLike that of the experience Harry Harlow and the monkeys who are deprived of contact with their mother during their first weeks of life.
Comparative psychology and behavioralism
Historically, behavioralism has been the mainstream in psychology that has used comparative psychology the most for discovery.
Indeed, since behavioral researchers have focused on those components of psychology that can be objectively recorded and quantified, they have assumed that contingencies, which for them were the basic components of building behavioral patterns they can be studied in their most basic elements in life forms with a less complex nervous system than human.
So, for example, BF Skinner became well known for his experiments with pigeons, and Edward Thorndike, who was one of the precedents of behavioralism, established theories on the use of intelligence while experimenting with cats.
Of course, Ivan Pavlov, who laid the groundwork for the development of behaviorism by studying simple conditioning, experienced with dogs in the field of physiology. Even Edward Tolman, a behavioral researcher who challenged the assumptions of this psychological stream, did so by studying rats.
The possibilities of this branch of psychology
The wild appearance of the animals, the absence of facial gestures such as humans and language make us tend to assume that anything related to the psychology of these life forms is straightforward. Comparative psychology attaches great importance to the behavior of animals.
Either way, there’s a lot of debate as to whether she does it through the eyes of human beings or whether she seeks a true understanding of the mental life of these organisms. There are many different animal species, and comparative psychology has traditionally been primarily studied. non-human primates and certain animals capable of adapting 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 around us and also with a deeper knowledge of patterns of behavior inherited from millennia through our evolutionary lineage.
Its limits are linked to the use of the comparative method and to it is never clear to what extent it is possible to extrapolate conclusions from one species to another. And, of course, the ethical questions raised by animal experimentation have entered fully into the debate on the usefulness or otherwise of comparative psychology.