What is Comparative Psychology

The study of the similarities, commonalities, and differences in behavior across various species of animals is known as comparative psychology. This field of study has given rise to revelatory insights into human behavior and development.

Studying animal behavior and applying the knowledge gained from such observations to further observe and understand human behavior is not a new method of research. Charles Darwin, Douglas Spalding, Edward Thorndike, Ivan Pavlov, Konrad Lorenz, and of course, Harry Harlow, are among those well known in the field of comparative psychology and have all in some way advanced our understanding of human behavior.

Konrad Lorenz, for instance, and his groundbreaking experiments with newly hatched greylag geese imprinting onto the first large object that they see inspired the idea of studying this imprinting phenomenon in other species, including that of human infants, which led to discoveries in attachment between human mother and child. This research, along with the work of Harry Harlow and his study of rhesus monkeys, was pivotal to the research of John Barlow and Mary Ainsworth in defining and observing attachment in human infants.

Animals, for the most part, having shorter life spans than humans, are easier to study over a period of years, and thus the developmental process of newly born to that of a mature adult is easier to observe, thereby enabling research of a certain theme to be expedited.

Where in most cases it would be unethical to experiment on humans to the extent needed in order to thoroughly research a hypothesis, animals can be confined and observed in laboratory settings, that is to say, in a strictly controlled environment, where certain stimuli is provided in order to isolate proximate causation, and any other characteristics being studied. Animals frequently used in research laboratories are rats, pigeons, monkeys, and other animals deemed to have a level of higher intelligence.

Through this study of a variety of different species and what causes certain animal behaviors, we are able to develop a broader understanding of the relationship between the environment and how behaviors are formed.

This then begs the question: To what degree can conclusions drawn from studies of animals apply to humans?

Comparative psychologists are careful to refrain from attributing human characteristics of higher moral reasoning to animals, thereby drawing false conclusions based on comparative study.

To explain further, studies of animal behavior and reactions can be applied to human psychology through isolating and identifying proximate and ultimate causation. (In ethology, proximate causation is the explanation of an animal’s behavior as a result of specific stimuli. Ultimate causation is the explanation of animal behavior as the result of hereditary or genetic predisposition.)

Tinbergen’s four questions also help us to evaluate animal behavior and to interpret and analyze our findings across varieties of species. Named after Nikolaas Tinbergen who developed this idea, the four questions cover adaptation, evolution, causation, and development, which provides us with an understanding of the reason behind various behaviors that are displayed in animals.

To conclude, there are certain biological functions within every living being that unites all living organisms. The study of our commonalities brings us greater understanding of why we behave the way we do.