Comparative psychology, a subdiscipline of psychology, is the scientific study of the behavior and cognition of human and non-human animals, with emphasis on how behavior relates to phylogeny, ontogeny, and adaptation. Rooted in evolutionary principles, the field of comparative psychology seeks to answer a multitude of questions on a variety of species, with particular interest in how it relates to human behavior. While individual studies may not explicitly compare two or more species, the general focus is on comparing species, including humans, across one or more dimensions. Data contributed to the field from only one species are still valuable in that they may provide a point of comparison for future studies, or may help in developing general principles of animal psychology when pooled with studies of other species. Comparative psychology emerged in the late 1800s, as Charles Darwin’s evolutionary principles set a framework for asking questions about relationships between species and the similarities and differences in their behavior, and as Georges Cuvier’s comparative method in biology was being adopted in other scientific fields. Cuvier’s student, Pierre Flourens, an eminent researcher on the localized functions of different areas in the brain, published Psychologie Comparée in 1865, in which he proposed comparing humans and non-humans, and introduced the name of this new field of study. Shortly after, in 1882, Darwin’s student, George John Romanes, published Animal Intelligence, in which he described a mental hierarchy among animals from least complex to most advanced, thus setting the foundation for the comparative aspect of comparative psychology. There was a backlash against Romanes’ use of anthropomorphism (i.e., the attribution of humanlike qualities to animals) and also frustration over his collection of individual anecdotes rather than a controlled data set. This influenced C. Lloyd Morgan to suggest that animal behavior should not be interpreted in terms of complex psychological processes, when simpler explanations will suffice. Thus, comparative psychologists set about collecting data in controlled experiments to elicit and investigate particular behavior in animals and set a high standard for assuming higher-order, humanlike traits in species other than humans. Whereas the original goal of comparative psychology may have been to arrange species in some sort of hierarchy of intelligence, as Romanes began to do, contemporary psychologists now emphasize reference to differences in ecology, social structure, genetics, etc., in explaining differences in behavior.
Historically, “intelligent” has referred to behavior that researchers value, but the field is seeing a shift toward investigating the adaptive function of behavior: that is, behavior valuable to the study subjects. Due to the experimental aspect of comparative psychology, there has been a historical need to differentiate the field from ethology (the observation of natural animal behavior), though many overlaps in ideas, topics, and goals continue to exist. Additionally, there was a geographic split between the two fields, with ethologists based in Europe and comparative psychologists in the United States. Ethology began in the 1930s and was recognized internationally with biologists Nikolaas Tinbergen, Karl von Frisch, and Konrad Lorenz sharing a Nobel Prize in 1973 for their contributions to the field (von Frisch 1967, Lorenz 1981, Tinbergen 1963). Ethology focuses more on animals’ instinctual responses to stimuli through fixed action patterns, as well as developmental processes of imprinting, habituation, and associative learning. Behavioral development and comparative psychology, penned by a comparative psychologist, argued against the ethologists’ strict dichotomies of innate versus learned behaviors, and instead advocated for better research on behavioral development (Schneirla 1966). Behaviorism, a subfield of psychology spearheaded by Skinner 1938 is the study of trained responses in a laboratory setting, with interest in making predictions from directly observable behavior without reference to internal states, either physiological or mental, following Morgan’s canon. Behaviorism focused on operant (instrumental) and classical (Pavlovian) conditioning. Behaviorism emerged in the early 20th century and, although no longer the dominant view, has become more focused on emergent properties following a cognitive revolution mid-century. Comparative psychology is influenced by related disciplines such as behavioral ecology (the study of the evolutionary basis for behavior due to ecological pressures, following Tinbergen’s four questions on the adaptation, phylogeny, mechanism, and ontogeny of a behavior), animal cognition (studying the mental processes that control complex behavior), evolutionary psychology (studying whether psychological traits common among human cultures are evolved adaptations), and behavioral neuroscience (identifying the neural processes that underlie behavior). There are scholarly intersections among these fields, and currently there is a focus on a blending of ideas and methods, as is exemplified in the proliferation of “field experiments” (i.e., the use of a controlled experiment in a species’ natural environment that allows animals to interact with a device).
Flourens, P. 1865. Psychologie comparée. Paris: Garnier frères.
The author proposes comparing the brain and cognition of human and non-human animals.
Lorenz, K. Z. 1981. The foundations of ethology. New York: Springer Verlag.
Another classic text from ethology that offers a historical perspective of the field.
Morgan, C. L. 1903. An introduction to comparative psychology. Bristol, UK: W. Scott.
Morgan reacted to the contemporary anthropomorphic descriptions of animal behavior by suggesting that if a more simple explanation exists, it is more parsimonious to accept it in lieu of a more complex one.
Romanes, G. J. 1904. Animal intelligence. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.
Romanes details the cognitive achievements of various animals through anthropomorphized anecdotes. Although it was determined that his approach to the study of animal behavior was fraudulent, Romanes’s work inspired a more rigorous science to develop.
Schneirla, T. C. 1966. Behavioral development and comparative psychology. Quarterly Review of Biology, 283–302.
Schneirla argues that insufficient research has been dedicated to the ontogeny of behavioral differences and decries the damaging effect of the contemporary emphasis on instinct research on the study of development. He advances a developmental theory based on redefining and coupling the concepts of maturation and experience.
Skinner, B. F. 1938. The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. Oxford: Appleton-Century.
A classic text from the subfield of behaviorism, this book includes a decade of work describing the use of operant chambers to test reinforcement. Skinner defines the basic unit of behavior (the operant) and its measurement (rate). Whereas respondent behavior is caused by an observable stimulus, operant behavior is not.
Tinbergen, N. 1963. On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 20.4: 410–433.
Another classic text from ethology in which Tinbergen establishes his four questions to explain behavior: function/adaptation, phylogeny, mechanism/causation, ontogeny.
von Frisch, K. 1967. The dance language and orientation of bees. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
This classic text from ethology details the decades of experiments conducted on honeybees to learn more about their communication, sensory perception, and navigation through the environment.
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