Animal Study


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Collecting, classification. This kind of approach is exemplified by the work of Charles Darwin, and provided the data he used as the basis for his theory of evolution. It basically involves travelling to different locations, collecting as many examples/instances as possible of different species (plants, animals, insects). The next step is to try to find ways of logically grouping the resulting samples in some kind of systematic classification. Animal Studies (incorporates 'studies of non-humans', ethology, comparative studies of animal behaviour, field observation). An obvious first question here might be 'why are studies of animal behaviour being presented in a course to do with human psychology'? The basic argument is that, with care, studies of animals can provide insight into at least some aspects of human behaviour and experience. As the discussion in the perspective evolutionary psychology argued, our evolutionary background hasn't just resulted in the particular form of our bodies, but our behaviour and experience as well (or at least some aspects of them). Comparative psychology. This approach involves comparing humans with other species, looking for common factors, for example mating patterns or aggression. Much comparative psychology has involved laboratory studies of creatures such as rats and pigeons, looking in particular at the learning of behaviours.

Ethology This approach, in contrast with comparative psychology, avoids laboratory work, as it aims to study animals in their natural environment, based on field observation, carefully observing different aspects and sequences of behaviour. Ethologists place particular emphasis on an extensive observational phase, before attempts are made to analyse the data. For example, studies of non-verbal communication in animals have provided insights into human gestures and expressive movements. Ethologists would, of course, acknowledge that many human gestures are culturally-specific, and probably not directly related to our evolutionary/biological heritage. Nonetheless, they would point to certain aspects of human expressions which seem to arise in most or all human societies, and which seem to have relatively clear links with animal behaviours. Ethical issues in animal research (and psychology in general)

With research on animals, we come to the very important topic of the ethics involved – the possible mistreatment of animals that can occur with those approaches which involve painful and/or damaging intervention in the animal's natural life.The strongest argument in favour of animal research involving pain is the potential value of the research, much of which would never be allowed to be done on humans. An example might be Seligman's work on learned helplessness, which involved repeated electric shocks to dogs (one dog died as a result of the experiments). Are the resulting insights (e.g. into institutionalisation, and how to counter it) valuable enough to outweigh the possible distress to animals? To place this in context, it might be argued that the current carnivorous practices of the majority of the human race result in much greater suffering, and on a vastly greater scale, than carefully-regulated animal research. (The average battery chicken would probably cluck with joy at the thought of living in a nice, cushy animal research laboratory). However, many psychologists now feel very uneasy about humanity's easy assumption of the right to inflict suffering on other species, simply because they are less evolved than us (there might be a complaint or two if an advanced race of aliens used the same argument towards us).

It is interesting to see how viewpoints on this have changed over time – in the 19th century, it was thought by some scientists that animals couldn't feel pain, that their cries and other responses (to stimuli which would invoke pain in humans) were not correlated with actual feeling. This is hardly an argument that would be used today though it is perhaps instructive to reflect that it was only at the end of the 20th century that many medical practitioners were persuaded that human infants feel pain. It remains to be seen whether future generations will view our current attitudes to animal research in the ways we now look back at those 19th century scientists.

Psychology as a whole is constantly reflecting on and evolving its ethical practices – current practice is clearly explained in the BPS ethical guidelines Ethical issues are more important to psychological research than most other sciences, because its primary research is on humans themselves, as opposed to electrons, molecules, plants etc. Ethical considerations therefore occupy a prime place with any of the research methods discussed in DSE 212, and you are encouraged to pay careful attention to this aspect with the research you will conduct yourself as part of the course.