Can Comparative Psychology Help Us Understand Humans Better?
Animals sometimes act in ways that are interesting, and we as humans tend to study them in order to better understand certain phenomena. In many ways, understanding the behavior of animals can help us understand humans and the world better. Below, we’ll discuss animal psychology and how we can use it to make helpful comparisons to people and different environments.
What is animal psychology?
One of the goals of this science is to examine the differences, or even the lack thereof, among different animals, and from different angles, such as investigating how disparities are established and what is considered "normal" behavior for an animal.
Animal psychologists receive a psychology degree or master’s degree through specific degree programs. They are specifically trained to observe animal behavior, for example, how a dog responds to certain situations, including loss, happiness, or something they can't control that makes them upset. We can look at such behaviors and then question whether the trait persists across different breeds or species, or even through evolution. Animal psychology may help us determine which traits are conducive for survival and which ones are less viable. Understanding animal behavior may promote animal welfare and lead to new insights in human behavior.
Cognitive animal or comparative psychology
Cognitive animal psychology (CAP) focuses on the cognitive actions, or thought processes, of animals that aren't humans. Behaviors within this domain may include the ability of animals to pay attention, create and organize principles, and even learn and think in abstract ways. An animal sychologist can often carry out these investigations at a neurological level, and their findings often help us better understand the origins of animal behaviors.
Outcomes of CAP research often extend toward humans. There is a debate about whether cognitive animal psychology has some significance in the realm of philosophical knowledge. Findings often elicit the controversial question as to whether non-human animals can be considered “conscious.” If a non-human animal has a concept of itself, the definition of what it means to be a human may be called in to question. There is some research that points to the potential for a non-human species to engage in something called metacognition, which is essentially a sort of consciousness and higher level of awareness.
The debate as to whether non-humans have the ability to “think about their own thinking” is a core philosophical component of animal psychology. If more corroborating evidence is found to support greater consciousness levels in non-human animals, the distinctions between humans and non-human animals might become blurred.
How can comparative psychology help us understand ourselves?
Animal research may improve animal welfare and also provide insights into human behavior. At some point, you likely have seen a documentary about wild animals and their idiosyncrasies. Penguins marching over 100 km, bats using echolocation to search for prey in the nighttime, and birds of paradise engaging in elaborate mating rituals are just a few behaviors we may find intriguing and impressive. Other familiar examples of animal behavior include the following:
- Using problem-solving skills
- Manipulating tools
- Acting out emotions
- Taking care of younger animals
In many scenarios, it’s hard not to conceptualize animals as being smart, emotional, and even altruistic, like humans can be.
While it may be tempting to focus on our uniqueness as humans, just because humans possess a specific trait does not mean it is unique to the human race. For example, being vocal and learning through vocal cues often feels like a uniquely human trait because humans can use sounds that form letters and words to communicate. However, parrots, songbirds, dolphins, and seals use similar types of learning, so vocal learning is generally not considered unique to humans.
Such similarities allow us to look at evolution to understand how vocal learning, a trait we typically associate with humans, applies to other animals and how the overall trend applies to human evolution.
Other examples include songbirds and seals, which sing out songs to create mating calls to meet with other animals to copulate. Also, bees and pigs can act "pessimistically" when anticipating a bad situation. Humans do that as well, such as when they possess a negative mood. While what the animals experience is not specifically clear, the finding itself may provide insight as to why humans may respond to negative experiences in the same way that other animals do. Increasing caution after an experience goes wrong may have been an evolutionary adaptation that we inherited to survive.
Many people speculate that humans are unique, and we do have some unique traits. But research shows we have many similar characteristics to other animals. Thinking about those comparisons may compel us to look at ourselves more deeply and ask ourselves what we have in common with animals and what it is that makes us human. Animal psychology endeavors to dig deeper than investigations into how a dog responds to a bad situation, or even how bees and pigs act pessimistically; rather, it's about how humans can relate to these behaviors.
Reasons for inexplicable or confusing behaviors
Sometimes, we may notice humans acting differently than other humans act. While some of the reasons for these differences may be cultural or societal, other behaviors may raise concerns. For example, some humans have developed irrational fears of certain objects or situations, while others have difficulty overcoming addictions. Still others feel consumed with obsessive thoughts that they feel compelled to act upon. If you are experiencing certain thoughts or behaviors that feel concerning or alarming, you deserve to seek answers.
One option is to talk to a therapist, who may be able to help you understand what exactly makes you unique and help you learn to harness those unique traits. If you feel hesitant to see a therapist in office, you might try online therapy. There are many advantages to online therapy over in-person therapy; specifically, you can schedule an online appointment from the comfort of a preferred space, as you can connect with a therapist by phone, live chat, video chat, or in-app messaging.
Online therapy has proven to be an effective treatment method for various mental health conditions and their related symptoms. Many evidence-based therapy methods can be practiced online, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in which a psychotherapist supports clients in recognizing how distorted thinking patterns are related to feelings and behaviors.
In one analysis of controlled trials of online CBT, researchers found online CBT to be an effective and viable alternative to face-to-face treatment. Participants experienced reductions in symptoms related to depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
If you’re experiencing questions or concerns about mental health or human psychology, you don’t have to face them alone. With an online therapy service like BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has experience in whatever specific concerns you’re facing. Take the first step toward getting answers to your questions and reach out to BetterHelp today.
Frequently asked questions
What does an animal psychologist do?
An animal psychologist studies animal behavior. They may specialize in zoology or study the difference between animal behavior in captivity and in the wild. An animal psychologist may help us understand why animals behave the way they do and provide insights about what we can learn from animal behavior.
Is comparative or animal psychology a major?
Yes. If you want to learn more about how animals think, you can pursue a degree in this field. This course of study may sometimes be listed as “animal behavior” or “animal behavioral studies.” You can pursue a degree in animal behavior at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels, although this degree program may not be offered by all universities.
Where do animal psychologists work?
An animal psychologist can use their degree in a wide variety of careers, so their daily responsibilities can vary greatly depending on their career choice. An animal psychologist can work with animal welfare organizations or use their skills to create healthy and safe environments for animals in zoos, laboratories, and reservation sites. They might also work in an academic context as a teacher or researcher.
Why do we study animals in psychology?
Researchers are attracted to the study of animal behavior for a variety of reasons. Some animal behaviorists are interested in learning more about animal feeding behavior while others are attracted to the study of animal cognition, animal care, and how animals interact. This broad field can help us learn more about how animals think and why they behave in the ways that they do. Some animal psychologists study animal behavior because they are deeply interested in animal rights. Also, many researchers believe that studying animal behavior can help us develop a better understanding of human psychology.
What are animal behaviors?
Animal behavior is the way that animals interact with one another and their environments. Animal behavior can result from an animal’s biology and environment. The study of animal behavior is similar to ethology, which is the study of animals in their natural habitats. As is the case with people, animals exhibit a wide variety of behaviors that can vary depending on the individual. However, certain behaviors may be innate and universal to a certain species. For example, dogs have a certain range of behaviors that are unique to dogs and would not be seen in cats or birds.
How are animals used in psychology?
Psychology has a history of using animals in experimental studies that have been painful and cruel. However, the improvements of modern psychology have eliminated many painful studies and led to the use of animals as subjects in cruelty-free studies that have the potential to provide valuable psychological insight.
Some famous examples of studies involving animals include Skinner’s rats and Pavlov’s dogs. These famous animal studies led to insight into the subfield of behaviorism.
What is extrapolation in psychology?
The American Psychological Association defines extrapolation as “the process of estimating or predicting unknown score values on the basis of the known scores obtained from a given sample. For example, a researcher might estimate how well students will do on an achievement test on the basis of their current performance, or estimate how well a similar group of students might perform on the same achievement test.”
Who are the fathers of psychology?
Although many researchers have made significant advancements that contributed to the development of modern psychology, there are a few key individuals that are often regarded as the fathers of psychology. Two 19th-century researchers, Wilhelm Wundt and William James, are generally credited as being the original fathers of psychology. Wundt was a German scientist and the first person to be identified as a psychologist. He was also the first person to create a laboratory for psychological research. James taught one of Harvard’s first courses in psychology and created the first experimental psychology laboratory in the United States.
How do we study animal behavior?
There are three basic methods for studying animal behavior: the observational, experimental, and comparative methods of study. Observational study involves simply observing animal subjects without altering their environment in any way. Experimental methods are what we typically see in the context of laboratory experiments or other famous studies in which researchers manipulate an animal’s behavior to study the results. Comparative methodology involves comparing an animal’s current behavior and environment to those of its ancestors in order to learn more about a species’ history of evolution and behavior.
What are the four types of behavior?
Psychologists currently recognize four main types of human behavior. These are the types of behavior that are influenced by our personalities, interests, attitudes, and emotions. Even when we’re not consciously aware of it, our behavior can be heavily influenced by our relationships with each of these four key factors.
How do we behave with animals?
Understanding how humans behave with animals can provide psychologists with insight about a person’s behavior, values, morality, and mental state. For example, most people respond positively to animals, and many people enjoy owning pets for this reason. According to the 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 67% of U.S. households (about 85 million families) own a pet. Studies show that owning a pet has a number of positive benefits for a person’s physical and mental health. Also, animal-assisted therapy can be an effective form of therapy for people with anxiety, depression, and autism spectrum disorders.
- Previous Article
- Next Article