Can Comparative Psychology Help Us Understand Humans Better?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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.

Getty/AnnaStills
Spending time with animals provides insight into human behavior

What is animal psychology?

Animal psychology is a field of psychology that studies the behaviors and cognitive processes of animals. This process involves epistemology, but it also can be a part of general psychology, along with evolutionary biology spanning many years. The work in this biology field and the corresponding findings can have great significance when it comes to understanding not just animal behavior, but also human behavior.

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?

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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.

Getty/Halfpoint Images
Spending time with animals provides insight into human behavior

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.

Takeaway

The study of animals’ thoughts and behavior has contributed much to the field of psychology, and humans continue to benefit from study outcomes that reveal links between animal and human behavior. Such research may influence the way we view certain human behaviors and distinguish between what is healthy and what is not. However, despite differences between humans, there is no abnormal behavior that renders a person unworthy of care and support. 

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.

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