Broadly speaking, comparative psychology refers to the study of mental faculties and behavior of animals other than human beings. While developmental, cognitive and other forms of psychology focus primarily on humans, comparative psychology typically studies animals that are genetically related to humans. The general idea behind the field of comparative psychology is that there are underlying similarities between the mental processes and adaptive behaviors of all animals. It is this similarity that provides the merit for the work conducted in this field. For example, tests for experimental medicines and procedures are often conducted on animals before human beings. While this is simply one aspect of comparative psychology, it reflects the thinking behind the entire field.
Comparative psychology has a rich history that has borrowed from and influenced other related fields. The first studies of animal behavior can be traced back to the 9th and 11th centuries. These early writers focused on animal communication, social behavior and the effects that music has on some animals. Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, was also an important character in the development of comparative psychology. His findings and writings supported the idea that man’s higher intelligence and cognitive abilities may have evolutionary causes. This inspired a whole new area within the field of comparative psychology. Scientists wanted to discover more about how the theory of evolution contributed to man’s intelligence. Many believed that the answers would develop from the careful examination of animal behavior and psychology.
Countless different species of animals have been studied in the name of science. After all, the whole premise of comparative psychology involves the study of animals other than human beings. However, a few particular groups of animals have become favorites in the field of comparative psychology. Furthermore, certain groups prove more useful depending on the goals of the particular study. Domesticated animals have been a consistently popular group for scientists to study. Pavlov’s famous experiment involved the use of dogs. Cats have also been used by prominent scientists such as Edward Thorndike. Rats quickly became the most commonly used species because of their cost-effectiveness. When studying behavior most closely related to human beings, scientists will use our closest relatives. For example, chimpanzees have been used to study infant development and language acquisition. Other animals used in comparative psychology for their higher intelligence include dolphins and the African grey parrot.
A Quest for Cohesion
From the field’s inception, scientists have often created different methods and experiments for studying animal behavior and psychology. Many believed that creating more disciplined and consistent methods would make comparing different species much easier. Throughout this early development, many attempts have been made to create a cohesive and uniform approach within the field of comparative psychology. These attempts surrounded different species’ ability to learn tasks. However, these experiments weren’t well designed. Furthermore, the difference between the species studied posed a major obstacle. Each kind of animal required different rewards and methods for engagement which ultimately undermined the overall attempt for a more standard approach to the field.
While comparative psychology remains a wide-spread and dynamic field, the focus still remains on the study of animals other than human beings. While a more cohesive and disciplined approach failed to catch on, the greater freedom has allowed for scientists to make breath-taking discoveries. After all, each new discovery adds to the wealth of knowledge that the whole of psychology is uncovering for the world.
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