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Comparative psychology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Comparative psychology refers to the scientific study of the behavior and mental processes of non-human animals, especially as these relate to the phylogenetic history, adaptive significance, and development of behavior. Research in this area addresses many different issues, uses many different methods and explores the behavior of many different species from insects to primates.[1][2]

Comparative psychology is sometimes assumed to emphasize cross-species comparisons, including those between humans and animals. However, some researchers feel that direct comparisons should not be the sole focus of comparative psychology and that intense focus on a single organism to understand its behavior is just as desirable; if not more so. Donald Dewsbury reviewed the works of several psychologists and their definitions and concluded that the object of comparative psychology is to establish principles of generality focusing on both proximate and ultimate causation.[3]

Using a comparative approach to behavior allows one to evaluate the target behavior from four different, complementary perspectives, developed by Niko Tinbergen.[4] First, one may ask how pervasive the behavior is across species (i.e. how common is the behavior between animal species?). Second, one may ask how the behavior contributes to the lifetime reproductive success of the individuals demonstrating the behavior (i.e. does the behavior result in animals producing more offspring than animals not displaying the behavior)? Theories addressing the ultimate causes of behavior are based on the answers to these two questions.

Third, what mechanisms are involved in the behavior (i.e. what physiological, behavioral, and environmental components are necessary and sufficient for the generation of the behavior)? Fourth, a researcher may ask about the development of the behavior within an individual (i.e. what maturational, learning, social experiences must an individual undergo in order to demonstrate a behavior)? Theories addressing the proximate causes of behavior are based on answers to these two questions. For more details see Tinbergen's four questions.

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • Animal Behavior - CrashCourse Biology #25
  • Mice to Men the Use of Animals in Experimental Psychology
  • Rachel Kristiansen at Saturday U- The Thinking Animal: A Look at Comparative Psychology
  • Talk to the Animals - Science Nation
  • Impossible Escape: Tonic immobility as a defense. (English subtitles)


Behavior is action in response to a stimulus. My cat Cameo is now responding to both an external stimulus the sound of a bag of treats, and an internal stimulus her hunger, or at least her insatiable desire for treats. Sometimes animal behavior can seem really far out, but if you look closely enough, you can see how all behavior serves a purpose to help an animal mate, eat, avoid predators, and raise young. And since behaviors can come with advantages like these, natural selection acts on them just as it acts on physical traits ensuring the success of animals who engage in beneficial behaviors, while weeding out those that do stupid, dangerous or otherwise unhelpful stuff. The most beneficial behaviors are those that make an animal better at doing the only two things in the world that matter: eating and sex. Still, that doesn't mean all behavior is about just looking out for number one. It turns out some advantageous behavior is actually pretty selfless. More on that in a minute. But first, behavior is really just a product of a pair of factors: Morphology, or the physical structure of an animal and physiology, or the function of that morphology. Now, an animal's behavior is obviously limited by what its body is capable of doing for example, Cameo does not have opposable thumbs, so, much as she would like to get into the treat bag, by herself, she cannot. This limitation is strictly hereditary no cats can open treat bags with their thumbs because no cats have opposable thumbs. Though some cats do have thumbs. In the same way that a penguin can't fly to escape a predator; or a gazelle can't reach the same leaves as a giraffe can. Similarly, behavior is constrained by an animal's physiology. Like, Cameo's built for chasing down little critters and eating meat, not beds of lettuce. This is because her physiology, everything from her teeth to her digestive system, are geared for eating meat. If she pounced on and ate every blade of grass she came across... let's just say I would not want to be in charge of that litter box. Now the traits that make up an animal's morphology and physiology are often heritable, so we generally talk about selection acting on those traits. But as natural selection hones these traits, it's really selecting their associated behaviors. It's the USE of the trait, using wings and feathers to escape predators, or using a long neck to reach leaves, that provides the evolutionary advantage. Still, that doesn't mean all behavior is coded in an animal's genes some behaviors are learned. And even for animals that learn how to do things, natural selection has favored brain structures that are capable of learning. So one way or another, most behaviors have some genetic underpinning, and we call those behaviors adaptive. Problem is, it's not always obvious what the evolutionary advantages are for some of the nutty things that animals do. Like, why does a snapping turtle always stick out its tongue? How does a tiny Siberian hamster find its mate, miles across the unforgiving tundra? Why does a bower bird collect piles of garbage? To answer questions like those, we have to figure out what stimulus causes these behaviors, and what functions the behaviors serve. To do this, I'm going to need the help of one of the first animal behavior scientists ever, or ethologists, Niko Tinbergen. Tinbergen developed a set of four questions aimed at understanding animal behavior. The questions focus on how a behavior occurs, and why natural selection has favored this particular behavior. Determining how a behavior occurs actually involves two questions: One: what stimulus causes it? And two: what does the animal's body do in response to that stimulus? These are the causes that are closest to the specific behavior we're looking at, so they're called the proximate causes. In the case of the male Siberian hamster, the stimulus is a delicious smelling pheromone that the sexy female hamster releases when she's ready to mate. The male hamster's response, of course, is to scuttle, surprisingly quickly, over several miles if necessary to find and mate with her. So the proximate cause of this behavior was that the girl hamster signaled that she was ready to knock boots, and the male ran like crazy to get to the boot-knockin'. Asking the more complex question of why natural selection has favored this behavior requires asking two more questions: One: what about this behavior helps this animal survive and/or reproduce? And two: what is the evolutionary history of this behavior? These, as you can tell, are bigger-picture questions, and they show us the ultimate causes of the behavior. The answer to the first question, of course, is that the ability of a male hamster to detect and respond to the pheromones of an ovulating female is directly linked to his reproductive success! As for the second question, you can also see that male hamsters with superior pheromone detectors will be able to find females more successfully than other male hamsters, and thereby produce more offspring. So natural selection has honed this particular physical ability and behavior over generations of hamsters. So, who would have thought to ask these questions in the first place? And where's my chair? Niko Tinbergen was one third of a trifecta of revolutionary ethologists in the 20th century. Along with Austrians Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz, he provided a foundation for studying animal behavior and applied these ideas to the study of specific behaviors and for that all three shared the Nobel Prize in 1973. You may have seen the famous photos of young graylag geese following obediently in a line behind a man. That was Lorenz, and his experiments first conducted in the 1930s introduced the world to imprinting, the formation of social bonds in infant animals, and the behavior that includes both learned and innate components. When he observed newly hatched ducklings and geese, he discovered that waterfowl in particular had no innate recognition of their mothers. In the case of graylag geese, he found the imprinting stimulus to be any nearby object moving away from the young! So when incubator-hatched goslings spent their first hours with Lorenz, not only did they follow him, but they showed no recognition of their real mother or other adults in their species! Unfortunately, Lorenz was also a member of the Nazi party from 1938 to 1943. And in response to some of his studies on degenerative features that arose in hybrid geese, Lorenz warned that it took only a small amount of "tainted blood" to have an influence on a "pure-blooded" race. Unsurprisingly, Nazi party leaders were quick to draw some insane conclusions from Lorenz's behavioral studies in the cause of what they called race hygiene. Lorenz never denied his Nazi affiliation but spent years trying to distance himself from the party and apologizing for getting caught up in that evil. Now how exactly does natural selection act on behavior out there in the world? That's where we turn to those two types of behavior that are the only things in the world that matter: eating and sex-having. Behavior associated with finding and eating food is known as foraging, which you've heard of, and natural selection can act on behaviors that allow animals to exploit food sources while using the least amount of energy possible this sweet spot is known as the optimal foraging model. And the alligator snapping turtle has optimal foraging all figured out. Rather than running around hunting down its prey, it simply sits in the water, and food comes to him. See, the alligator snapping turtle has a long, pink tongue divided into two segments, making it look like a tasty worm to a passing fish. In response to the stimulus of a passing fish, it sticks out its tongue out and wiggles it. Natural selection has, over many generations, acted not only on turtles with pinker and more wiggly tongues to catch more fish, it's also acted on those that best know how and when to wiggle those tongues to get the most food. So it's selecting both the physical trait and the behavior that best exploits it. And what could be sexier than a turtle's wiggly tongue dance? Well, how about sex? As we saw with our friend the horny Siberian hamster, some behaviors and their associated physical features are adapted to allow an animal to reproduce more, simply by being better at finding mates. But many times, animals of the same species live close together or in groups, and determining who in what group gets to mate creates some interesting behaviors and features. This is what sexual selection, is all about. Often, males of a species will find and defend a desirable habitat to raise young in, and females will choose a male based on their territory. But what about those species, and there are many of them, where the female picks a male not because of that, but because of how he dances, or even weirder, how much junk he's collected? Take the male bower bird. He builds an elaborate hut, or bower, out of twigs and bits of grass, then spends an enormous amount of time collecting stuff, sometimes piles of berries, and sometimes piles of pretty, blue, plastic crap. Ethologists believe that he's collecting the stuff to attract the female to check out his elaborate house. Once the female's been enticed to take a closer look, the male starts to sing songs and dance around, often mimicking other species, inside of his little house for her. Females will inspect a number of these bowers before choosing who to mate with. Now, doing more complex dances and having more blue objects in your bower scores bigger with females. And ethologists have shown that a higher level of problem solving, or intelligence, in males correlates to both of these activities. So yeah, it took some brawn to build that bower and collect all that junk, but chicks also dig nerds who can learn dances! So the bowerbird's brain is evolving in response to sexual selection by females. This intelligence likely also translates into other helpful behaviors like avoiding predators. So thanks to the evolution of behavior, we're really good at taking care of our nutritional and sexual needs. But what's confused scientists for a long time is why animals often look after others' needs. For instance, vampire bats in South America will literally regurgitate blood into the mouths of members of its clan who didn't get a meal that night. How do you explain animals who act altruistically like that? We actually did a whole SciShow episode on this very subject but basically, we can thank British scientist William Hamilton for coming up with an equation to explain how natural selection can simultaneously make animals fit and allow for the evolution of altruism. Hamilton found that the evolution of altruism was best understood at the level of larger communities, especially extended animal families. Basically, altruism can evolve if the benefit of a behavior is greater than its cost on an individual, because it helped the individual's relatives enough to make it worth it. Hamilton called this inclusive fitness, expanding Darwin's definition of fitness basically, how many babies somebody's making to include the offspring of relatives. So I guess the only question left is, if I forget to feed you two, who is going to regurgitate blood into the other one's mouth? Yeah, there's probably a reason that only happens with bats. Thank you for watching this episode of Crash Course Biology. Thank you to Cameo for being such a good kitty. Yeah, she finally gets her treats. There's a table of contents, of course. If you want to reinforce any of the knowledge that you gained today. If you have questions or ideas for us you can get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, or of course, in the comments below. We'll see you next time.



The earliest works on "the social organization of ants" and "animal communication and psychology" were written by al-Jahiz, a 9th-century Afro-Arab scholar who wrote many works on these subjects.[5] The 11th century Arabic writer Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) wrote the Treatise on the Influence of Melodies on the Souls of Animals, an early treatise dealing with the effects of music on animals. In the treatise, he demonstrates how a camel's pace could be hastened or retarded with the use of music, and shows other examples of how music can affect animal behavior, experimenting with horses, birds and reptiles. Through to the 19th century, a majority of scholars in the Western world continued to believe that music was a distinctly human phenomenon, but experiments since then have vindicated Ibn al-Haytham's view that music does indeed have an effect on animals.[6]

Charles Darwin was central in the development of comparative psychology; it is thought that psychology should be spoken in terms of "pre-" and "post-Darwin" because his contributions were so influential. Darwin's theory led to several hypotheses, one being that the factors that set humans apart, such as higher mental, moral and spiritual faculties, could be accounted for by evolutionary principles. In response to the vehement opposition to Darwinism was the "anecdotal movement" led by George Romanes who set out to demonstrate that animals possessed a "rudimentary human mind."[3] Romanes is most famous for two major flaws in his work: his focus on anecdotal observations and entrenched anthropomorphism.[1]

Near the end of the 19th century, several scientists existed whose work was also very influential. Douglas Alexander Spalding was called the "first experimental biologist,"[3] and worked mostly with birds; studying instinct, imprinting, and visual and auditory development. Jacques Loeb emphasized the importance of objectively studying behavior, Sir John Lubbock is credited with first using mazes and puzzle devices to study learning and Conwy Lloyd Morgan is thought to be "the first ethologist in the sense in which we presently use the word."[3]

Throughout the long history of comparative psychology, repeated attempts have been made to enforce a more disciplined approach, in which similar studies are carried out on animals of different species, and the results interpreted in terms of their different phylogenetic or ecological backgrounds. Behavioral ecology in the 1970s gave a more solid base of knowledge against which a true comparative psychology could develop. However, the broader use of the term "comparative psychology" is enshrined in the names of learned societies and academic journals, not to mention in the minds of psychologists of other specialisms, so the label of the field is never likely to disappear completely.

A persistent question with which comparative psychologists have been faced is the relative intelligence of different species of animal. Indeed, some early attempts at a genuinely comparative psychology involved evaluating how well animals of different species could learn different tasks. These attempts floundered; in retrospect it can be seen that they were not sufficiently sophisticated, either in their analysis of the demands of different tasks, or in their choice of species to compare.[1] However, the definition of "intelligence" in comparative psychology is deeply affected by anthropomorphism, and focuses on simple tasks, complex problems, reversal learning, learning sets, and delayed alternation are plagued with practical and theoretical problems.[1] In the literature, "intelligence" is defined as whatever is closest to human performance and neglects behaviors that humans are usually incapable of (e.g. echolocation).[7] Specifically, comparative researchers encounter problems associated with individual differences, differences in motivation, differences in reinforcement, differences in sensory function, differences in motor capacities, and species-typical preparedness (i.e. some species have evolved to acquire some behaviors quicker than other behaviors).[1]

Species studied

 the brain of a cat
the brain of a cat

A wide variety of species have been studied by comparative psychologists. However, a small number have dominated the scene. Ivan Pavlov's early work used dogs; although they have been the subject of occasional studies, since then they have not figured prominently. Increasing interest in the study of abnormal animal behavior has led to a return to the study of most kinds of domestic animal. Thorndike began his studies with cats, but American comparative psychologists quickly shifted to the more economical rat, which remained the almost invariable subject for the first half of the 20th century and continues to be used.

Skinner introduced the use of pigeons, and they continue to be important in some fields. There has always been interest in studying various species of primate; important contributions to social and developmental psychology were made by Harry F. Harlow's studies of maternal deprivation in rhesus monkeys. Cross-fostering studies have shown similarities between human infants and infant chimpanzees. Kellogg and Kellogg[8] (1933) aimed to look at heredity and environmental effects of young primates. They found that a cross-fostered chimpanzee named Gua was better at recognizing human smells and clothing and that the Kelloggs' infant (Donald) recognised humans better by their faces. The study ended 9 months after it had begun, after the infant began to imitate the noises of Gua.

Nonhuman primates have also been used to show the development of language in comparison with human development. For example, Gardner (1967) successfully taught the female chimpanzee Washoe 350 words in American Sign Language. Washoe subsequently passed on some of this teaching to her adopted offspring, Loulis. A criticism of Washoe's acquisition of sign language focused on the extent to which she actually understood what she was signing. Her signs may have just based on an association to get a reward, such as food or a toy. Other studies concluded that apes do not understand linguistic input, but may form an intended meaning of what is being communicated.[9][10][full citation needed] All great apes have been reported to have the capacity of allospecific symbolic production.

Interest in primate studies has increased with the rise in studies of animal cognition. Other animals thought to be intelligent have also been increasingly studied. Examples include various species of corvid, parrots—especially the African gray parrot—and dolphins. Alex (Avian Learning EXperiment) is a well known case study (1976–2007) which was developed by Pepperberg,[11] who found that the African gray parrot Alex did not only mimic vocalisations but understood the concepts of same and different between objects. The study of non-human mammals has also included the study of dogs. Due to their domestic nature and personalities, dogs have lived closely with humans, and parallels in communication and cognitive behaviours have therefore been recognised and further researched. Joly-Mascheroni and colleagues (2008) demonstrated that dogs may be able to catch human yawns and suggested a level of empathy in dogs, a point that is strongly debated. Pilley and Reid[12] found that a Border Collie named Chaser was able to successfully identify and retrieve 1022 distinct objects/toys.

Animal cognition

Main article: Animal cognition

Researchers who study animal cognition are interested in understanding the mental processes that control complex behavior, and much of their work parallels that of cognitive psychologists working with humans. For example, there is extensive research with animals on attention, categorization, concept formation, memory, spatial cognition, and time estimation. Much research in these and other areas is related directly or indirectly to behaviors important to survival in natural settings, such as navigation, tool use, and numerical competence. Thus, comparative psychology and animal cognition are heavily overlapping research categories.[13][14][15]

Disorders of animal behavior

Further information: Animal psychopathology

Veterinary surgeons recognize that the psychological state of a captive or domesticated animal must be taken into account if its behavior and health are to be understood and optimized.[citation needed]

Common causes of disordered behavior in captive or pet animals are lack of stimulation, inappropriate stimulation, or overstimulation. These conditions can lead to disorders, unpredictable and unwanted behavior, and sometimes even physical symptoms and diseases. For example, rats who are exposed to loud music for a long period will ultimately develop unwanted behaviors that have been compared with human psychosis, like biting their owners.[citation needed]

The way dogs behave when understimulated is widely believed to depend on the breed as well as on the individual animal's character. For example, huskies have been known to ruin gardens and houses if they are not allowed enough activity.[16] Dogs are also prone to psychological damage if they are subjected to violence. If they are treated very badly, they may become dangerous.[17]

The systematic study of disordered animal behavior draws on research in comparative psychology, including the early work on conditioning and instrumental learning, but also on ethological studies of natural behavior. However, at least in the case of familiar domestic animals, it also draws on the accumulated experience of those who have worked closely with the animals.[citation needed]

Human-animal relationships

Main article: Anthrozoology

The relationship between humans and animals has long been of interest to anthropologists as one pathway to an understanding the evolution of human behavior. Similarities between the behavior of humans and animals have sometimes been used in an attempt to understand the evolutionary significance of particular behaviors. Differences in the treatment of animals have been said to reflect a society's understanding of human nature and the place of humans and animals in the scheme of things. Domestication has been of particular interest. For example, it has been argued that, as animals became domesticated, humans treated them as property and began to see them as inferior or fundamentally different from humans.[18]

Ingold [19] remarks that in all societies children have to learn to differentiate and separate themselves from others. In this process, strangers may be seen as "not people," and like animals. Ingold quoted Sigmund Freud: "Children show no trace of arrogance which urges adult civilized men to draw a hard-and-fast line between their own nature and that of all other animals. Children have no scruples over allowing animals to rank as their full equals." With maturity however, humans find it hard to accept that they themselves are animals, so they categorize, separating humans from animals, and animals into wild animals and tame animals, and tame animals into house pets and livestock. Such divisions can be seen as similar to categories of humans: who is part of a human community and someone who isn't, that is, the outsider.

The New York Times ran an article that showed the psychological benefits of animals,[20] more specifically of children with their pets. It's been proven that having a pet does in fact improve kids' social skills. In the article, Dr. Sue Doescher, a psychologist involved in the study, stated, "It made the children more cooperative and sharing." It was also shown that these kids were more confident with themselves and able to be more empathic with other children.

Furthermore, in an edition of Social Science and Medicine it was stated, "A random survey of 339 residents from Perth, Western Australia were selected from three suburbs and interviewed by telephone. Pet ownership was found to be positively associated with some forms of social contact and interaction, and with perceptions of neighborhood friendliness. After adjustment for demographic variables, pet owners scored higher on social capital and civic engagement scales."[21] Results like these let us know that owning a pet provides opportunities for neighborly interaction, among many other chances for socialization among people.

Topics of study

Notable comparative psychologists

Noted comparative psychologists, in this broad sense, include:

Many of these were active in fields other than animal psychology; this is characteristic of comparative psychologists.

Related fields

Fields of psychology and other disciplines that draw upon, or overlap with, comparative psychology include:


  1. ^ a b c d e Dewsbury, D. (1978). Comparative Animal Behavior. McGraw-Hill Book Company. New York, NY.
  2. ^ Papini, M.R. (2003). Comparative Psychology. In Handbook of Research Methods in Experimental Psychology. Ed. Stephen F. Davis. Blackwell. Malden, MA.
  3. ^ a b c d Dewsbury, D. (1984). Comparative Psychology in the Twentieth Century. Hutchinson Ross Publishing Company. Stroudsburg, PA.
  4. ^ Tinbergen, N. (1963). "On aims and methods of ethology". Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. 20: 410–33. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1963.tb01161.x. 
  5. ^ (Haque 2004, p. 376)
  6. ^ (Plott 2000, p. 461)
  7. ^ Wynne, C. D. L. (1978). Animal Cognition: The Mental Lives of Animals. Palgrave. New York, NY.
  8. ^ Kellogg, W.N. and L.A. Kellogg. (1933) The Ape and The Child: A Comparative Study of the Environmental Influence Upon Early Behavior. Hafner Publishing Co., New York and London.
  9. ^ Terrace (1979)
  10. ^ Savage-Rumbaugh (1987)
  11. ^ Pepperberg, I. M. 1991 A communicative approach to animal cognition: a study of conceptual abilities of an Africa grey parrot. In: Cognitive Ethology: the Minds of Other Animals (Ed. Carolyn A. Ristau), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale New Jersey; Hove and London England.
  12. ^ John W. Pilley; Alliston K. Reid (2011). "Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents" (PDF). Behavioural Processes. 86: 184–195. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2010.11.007. 
  13. ^ p. 2 , Menzel, R. & Fischer, J. (2010) Animal Thinking: Contemporary Issues in Comparative Cognition
  14. ^ Wasserman & Zentall (eds) (2006); Comparative Cognition
  15. ^ Shettleworth, Sara J. (2010); Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior (2nd Ed), Oxford Univ. Press.
  16. ^ Ian. "Interview - Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain". Preloved. Retrieved May 4, 2015. 
  17. ^ Dass, Dr. Amrita (October 23, 2008). "Pet Peeves". The Telegraph (Calcutta). Retrieved May 4, 2015. 
  18. ^ Mullin, Molly. "Animals and Anthropology." Society and Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies. 2002. Web. <>.
  19. ^ Ingold, Ted, ed. What Is an Animal? Routledge, 1994. 14–15.
  20. ^ Goleman, Daniel. "Health; Children and Their Pets: Unexpected Psychological Benefits." The New York Times. 1990. Web. <>.
  21. ^ Wood, Lisa, Billie Giles-Corti, and Max Bulsara. "The Pet Connection: Pets as a Conduit for Social Capital?" Social Science and Medicine 61. 2005. 1159–73. Print.


  • Haque, Amber (2004), "Psychology from Islamic Perspective: Contributions of Early Muslim Scholars and Challenges to Contemporary Muslim Psychologists", Journal of Religion and Health, 43 (4): 357–77, doi:10.1007/s10943-004-4302-z 
  • Plott, C. (2000), Global History of Philosophy: The Period of Scholasticism, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 81-208-0551-8 

Further reading

External links

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