Comparative Psychology and Animal Behavior

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Comparative psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the study of animal behavior. Modern research on animal behavior began with the work of Charles Darwin and Georges Romanes and the field has grown into a multidisciplinary subject. Today, biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, ecologists, geneticists and many others contribute to the study of animal behavior.

Comparative psychology often utilizes the comparative method to study animal behavior.

The comparative method involves comparing the similarities and differences among species to gain an understanding of evolutionary relationships. The comparative method can also be used to compare modern species of animals to ancient species.

A Brief History of Comparative Psychology

Pierre Flourens, a student of Charles Darwin and George Romanes, became the first to use the term in his book Comparative Psychology (Psychologie Comparée), which was published in 1864. In 1882, Romanes published his book Animal Intelligence in which he proposed a science and system of comparing animal and human behaviors. The development of comparative psychology was also influenced by learning psychologists including Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike and by the behaviorists including John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner.

Important People in the History of Comparative Psychology

  • Charles Darwin
  • George Romanes
  • C. Lloyd Morgan

Why Study Animal Behavior?

The Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology, the sixth division of the American Psychological Association, suggests that looking at the similarities and differences between human and animal behaviors can also be useful for gaining insights into developmental and evolutionary processes.

Another purpose of studying animal behavior is the hope that some of these observations may be generalized to human populations. Historically, animal studies have been used to suggest whether certain medications might be safe and appropriate for humans, whether certain surgical procedures might work in humans, and whether certain learning approaches might be useful in classrooms.

Consider the work of learning and behaviorist theorists. Ivan Pavlov’s conditioning studies with dogs demonstrated that animals could be trained to salivate at the sound of a bell. This work was then taken and applied to training situations with humans as well. B.F. Skinner’s research with rats and pigeons yielded valuable insights on the operant conditioning processes that could then be applied to situations with humans.

Comparative psychology has also famously been used to study developmental processes. In Konrad Lorenz's well-known imprinting experiments, he discovered that geese and ducks have a critical period of development in which they must attach to a parental figure, a process known as imprinting. Lorenze even found that he could get the birds to imprint on himself. If the animals missed this vital opportunity, they would not develop attachment later in life.

During the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a series of disturbing experiments on maternal deprivation. Infant rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers. In some variations of the experiments, the young monkeys would be reared by wire "mothers." One mother would be covered in cloth while the other provided nourishment. Harlow found that the monkeys would primarily seek the comfort of the cloth mother versus the nourishment of the wire mother.

In all instances of his experiments, Harlow found that this early maternal deprivation led to serious and irreversible emotional damage. These deprived monkeys became unable to integrate socially, unable to form attachments, and were severely emotionally disturbed.

Harlow's work has been used to suggest that human children also have a critical window in which to form attachments. When these attachments are not formed during the early years of childhood, psychologists suggest, long-term emotional damage can result.

Major Topics

  • Evolution
  • Heredity
  • Adaptation and learning
  • Mating and parenting behaviors
  • Primates

Comparative psychologists sometimes focus on individual behaviors of certain animal species including topics such as personal grooming, play, nesting, hoarding, eating, and movement behaviors. Other topics that comparative psychologists might study include reproductive behaviors, imprinting, social behaviors, learning, consciousness, communication, instincts, and motivations.

Who Should Study Comparative Psychology?

The study of animal behavior can lead to a deeper and broader understanding of human psychology. Research on animal behavior has led to numerous discoveries about human behavior, such as Ivan Pavlov's research on classical conditioning or Harry Harlow's work with rhesus monkeys. Students of biological sciences and social sciences can benefit from studying comparative psychology.


Greenbert, G. (20012). Comparative psychology and ethology: A short history. In N.M. Seele (Ed.). Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. New York: Springer.

Harlow, H. (1958) The Nature of Love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

Harlow, H. F. (1958). Biological and Biochemical Bases of Behavior. University of Wisconsin Press.

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