It has long been known that the mental and behavioural life of non-human animals is much richer than might be assumed at first glance. Comparative psychology is an effort to understand the logics behind the way these life forms act, think and feel.

However, it is also an area of study that is not free from criticism both of its use of the comparative method and of 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 behaviour and mental life of animals in general, based on the idea that there are certain characteristics of these two fields that have evolved over time.

Thus, comparative psychology is not just a kind of research that simply compares the similarities and differences of different kinds of animals (including our own species here), but it assumes that behind these similarities and differences there is a story 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

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

In general, studies are focused on seeing at what point in evolutionary history certain psychological features appear and, from there, how they have evolved into the most “evolved” animal species in a certain feature.

In practice, this means that the species whose behaviour and mental processes are to be studied through indirect research with species related to it is almost always our own. However, many researchers believe that the aim of comparative psychology should not be an excuse to end up talking about the psychology of human beings, but that the mental life and behaviour of non-human animal species is of interest in itself .

Animal experimentation or observation?

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

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

  • It is cheaper and faster.
  • This avoids any unforeseen events.
  • It allows for much better isolation of variables.
  • Disregarding the influence of a species-specific natural environment makes it easier to draw conclusions that provide information on human behaviour.

Of course, this has made comparative psychology very much criticized by cases of animal abuse , such as that of Harry Harlow’s 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 most used comparative psychology to make discoveries.

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

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 by experimenting with cats.

Of course, Ivan Pavlov, who laid the foundations for the development of behaviorism 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 trend, did so by studying rats.

The possibilities of this branch of psychology

The wild appearance of the animals, the absence of human-like facial gestures and language make us tend to assume that everything about the psychology of these life forms is simple. Comparative psychology attributes a lot of importance to the way animals behave .

In any case, it is highly disputed whether it does so with the eyes of human beings or whether 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, such as 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 behavior patterns inherited for millennia through our evolutionary lineage.

Its limitations have to do with the use of the comparative method and with the fact that it is never very clear 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 of whether or not comparative psychology is useful.