Does Animal Psychology Help Us Understand Humans Better?

Updated January 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Animals act in ways that are very interesting, and we as humans tend to study them a lot in order to better understand certain phenomena.  In many ways, understanding the behavior of animals can help us understand humans and the world better. Ahead, we will discuss animal psychology and how we can use it to make helpful comparisons to different people and environments.

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. The findings usually have great significance when it comes to an understanding not just animal behavior, but also human behavior as well.

The goal of animal psychology 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 psychology may observe, for example, how a dog responds to certain situations, including loss, happiness, or something they can't control which makes them upset. We can look at such behaviors and then question whether the trait will persist across different breeds or species animals, or even through evolution. Animal psychology can help us determine which traits are less viable and which ones are conducive for survival.

Cognitive Animal Psychology

Cognitive animal psychology focuses on the cognitive actions – or thought processes -- of animals which 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. We can accomplish these investigations at a neurological level, and our findings often help us better understand the origins of animal behaviors.

Outcomes of cognitive animal psychology research often extend towards humans. There is also the debate that cognitive animal psychology may have some significance in the realm of philosophical knowledge. Findings often elicit the controversial question as to whether or not non-human animals can beconsidered “conscious.”  If a non-human animal has a concept of itself, the definition of what it means to be a human can become invalid. 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 on this of whether or not non-humans have the ability to “think about their own thinking” is a core philosophical component of animal psychology. If there was more corroborating evidence to support consciousness levels in non-human animals, the distinctions between humans and non-human animals would become blurred.

How Can Animal Psychology Help Us Understand Ourselves?

At some point, you have likely been captivated by 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:

  • Solving major problems

  • 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. For example, people think that chimpanzees are similar to humans because they're close in relation, and we usually focus on why we are different. After all, humans and monkeys are quite different, and we have created our lineage, which makes us human.

It is important to remember that 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 means often feels like a uniquely human trait, because only humans can use sounds that form letters and words to communicate. However, other animals do have similar types of learning, such as parrots, songbirds, dolphins, and seals, so vocal learning is actually not 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.

Songbirds and seals sing out songs to create mating calls to meet with other animals to copulate. 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 provides 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 adaption that we inherited to help us survive.

We often speculate that humans are unique, but the truth is that we have many similar characteristics to other animals. Thinking about those comparisons may compel us to look at ourselves more deeply: to ask ourselves, what is it, exactly, 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.

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 are 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, and still others feel consumed with obsessive thoughts which they then feel compelled to act upon. If you are experiencing certain thoughts or behaviors that feel concerning or alarming, you deserve to seek answers.

One options is to talk to a therapist, who can help you to understand what exactly makes you unique, and help you learn to harness those unique traits. 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, and a time convenient for your schedule. 

Online therapy has proven to be an effective treatment method for various mental health conditions and their related symptoms. Talking to a counselor can improve your self-esteem, if you feel like you are “different” than other humans. Various methods like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – in which a psychotherapist supports clients in recognizing how distorted thinking patterns cause problems in one’s life and then using more effective problem-solving skills to cope with challenges – can be administered online. In an analysis of nine controlled trials of online CBT involving over 800 participants, researchers found online CBT to be an effective and viable alternative to face-to-face treatment. Participants experienced reductions in negative symptoms related to depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, to name a few commonly diagnosed mental health conditions.


The study of animals’ thoughts and behavior is an exciting field, and humans continue to benefit from study outcomes that reveal links between animal and human behavior. The important thing to keep in mind is that there is no “abnormal” behavior that renders a person unworthy of care and support. In completing the initial questionnaire on BetterHelp’s website, you can take the first step in seeking support for thoughts or behaviors that are disrupting your life or relationships.

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