What is Comparative Psychology? Definition, History, Examples, and Pros/Cons

What is Comparative Psychology?

Comparative psychology is a field of study that explores the similarities and differences in behavior among various living beings, ranging from bacteria to plants to humans. It specifically examines the psychological aspects of human beings in comparison to other animals.

By analyzing and comparing animal behavior, comparative psychology aims to understand the nature of human psychology and its relationship to other species. This discipline has significant applications in fields such as medicine, ecology, and animal training.

Through experimental research on animals, comparative psychology has shed light on topics such as individual behavior development, motivation, learning processes, effects of drugs, and brain function localization. Animals serve as valuable subjects for study due to their availability in large numbers and the ability to control experimental conditions more effectively than human subjects.

However, it is important for comparative psychologists to avoid anthropomorphizing animal behavior by attributing human attributes and motivations to them. Instead, simpler theories are used to explain animal behaviors. This approach, known as Lloyd Morgan’s canon, allows researchers to derive general principles of animal psychology that can be applied to humans as well.

Overall, comparative psychology is a scientific discipline that contributes to our understanding of behavior and cognition in both human and non-human animals. It leverages evolutionary principles and utilizes a comparative method to study animal behavior and draw insights into the broader field of psychology.

A Brief History of Comparative Psychology

The history of comparative psychology dates back to ancient times, with early writings focusing on animal communication, social behavior, and the effects of music on animals. However, it was in the 19th century that comparative psychology as a distinct field began to take shape.

Also Read: What is Behavioral Psychology? Definition, History, Types, Theories, and Pros/Cons

Pierre Flourens, a student of Charles Darwin and George Romanes, coined the term “comparative psychology” in his book published in 1864. Romanes, in his book “Animal Intelligence” published in 1882, proposed a systematic approach to comparing animal and human behaviors, further contributing to the development of the field.

The emergence of comparative psychology was also influenced by prominent figures in learning psychology, such as Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike, as well as behaviorists like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner. These researchers played significant roles in shaping the field and exploring topics such as classical and operant conditioning.

Charles Darwin’s work on evolution was another influential factor. His findings supported the idea that human intelligence and cognitive abilities have evolutionary origins. This idea spurred scientists to investigate how evolutionary theory contributed to human intelligence, leading to the examination of animal behavior and psychology as a means of understanding our own cognitive processes.

Throughout its history, comparative psychology has borrowed from and influenced other related fields, including ethology (the observation of natural animal behavior), behavioral ecology (the study of behavior in relation to ecological pressures), animal cognition (the study of mental processes controlling complex behavior), evolutionary psychology (the study of evolved psychological traits), and behavioral neuroscience (the study of neural processes underlying behavior).

The field has evolved to focus not only on the comparison of behaviors but also on understanding the adaptive function of behavior and the developmental processes involved. There is an increasing emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and the blending of ideas and methods from various fields, as seen in the use of controlled experiments in natural environments.

The history of comparative psychology reflects the continuous exploration of animal behavior and its relation to human psychology, driven by a desire to understand the origins and nature of human cognitive abilities through the comparative study of diverse species.

Also Read: What is Biopsychology? Definition, History, Branches, Examples, and Careers

Examples of Animals Studied in Comparative Psychology

Here are five animals that have been studied in the history of comparative psychology, along with the names of notable researchers and the approximate dates of their studies:

  1. Dogs (Canis familiaris):
    • Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936): Conducted studies on classical conditioning with dogs, exploring their learning processes and conditioned responses.
    • John B. Watson (1878-1958): Known for his experiments on conditioned emotional responses in dogs, demonstrating the influence of environmental factors on behavior.
  2. Rats (Rattus norvegicus):
    • Edward Thorndike (1874-1949): Conducted pioneering research on instrumental conditioning (also known as operant conditioning) using puzzle boxes and rats, investigating how animals learn through trial and error.
    • B.F. Skinner (1904-1990): Extended Thorndike’s work and developed the operant conditioning chamber (commonly known as the Skinner box) to study rats’ behavior and reinforcement schedules.
  3. Ducks and geese (Various species):
    • Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989): Studied imprinting in birds, particularly in ducks and geese, and explored the critical period for attachment during their early development.
  4. Infant rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta):
    • Harry Harlow (1905-1981): Conducted influential studies on the effects of maternal deprivation and social isolation in rhesus monkeys, shedding light on the importance of early social interactions for normal development.
  5. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes):
    • Jane Goodall (1934-present): Known for her extensive field research on chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, providing valuable insights into their behavior, social structure, and tool use.

These researchers and their studies with these animals have significantly contributed to our understanding of animal behavior and its relevance to human psychology.

Related: What is Evolutionary Psychology? Definition, History, Principles, Examples, and Criticisms

Strengths of Comparative Psychology

Comparative psychology provides valuable insights into human behavior by studying other species. It allows for controlled experimentation and observation, circumventing ethical constraints involved in studying humans directly.

By examining similarities and differences across species, researchers can identify evolutionary patterns and understand adaptive behaviors. Comparative psychology also explores developmental processes, observing how behaviors emerge and change over time in different species.

This approach offers a unique perspective on human behavior, uncovering general principles and the evolutionary origins of psychological processes. Overall, it contributes to a comprehensive understanding of human nature.

Criticisms of Comparative Psychology

Comparative psychology has faced criticism, particularly regarding the ethics of experimenting on animals. Critics argue that subjecting animals to suffering for the sake of research is morally objectionable, as animals lack the ability to provide informed consent.

Moreover, some question the value of the knowledge gained through such experiments, suggesting that the ends do not justify the means. These concerns raise important ethical considerations and have sparked debates about the necessity and validity of using animals in psychological research.

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However, it is worth noting that many regulations and ethical guidelines are in place to ensure the welfare of animals in research settings. One prominent critic of animal experimentation is Peter Singer, a philosopher known for his work on animal ethics and rights.


  • Flourens, P. 1865. Psychologie comparée. Paris: Garnier frères.
  • Lorenz, K. Z. 1981. The foundations of ethology. New York: Springer Verlag.
  • Harlow, H. F. & Zimmermann, R. R. (1958). The development of affective responsiveness in infant monkeys. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 102,501 -509.
  • Lorenz, K. (1935). Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels. Der Artgenosse als auslösendes Moment sozialer Verhaltensweisen. Journal für Ornithologie, 83, 137–215, 289–413.
  • Pavlov, I. P. (1897/1902). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.
  • Van Rosmalen L, Van der Horst FC, Van der Veer R. Of monkeys and men: Spitz and Harlow on the consequences of maternal deprivationAttach Hum Dev. 2012;14(4):425-437. doi:10.1080/14616734.2012.691658
  • Morgan, C. L. 1903. An introduction to comparative psychology. Bristol, UK: W. Scott.

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