What is Comparative Psychology?

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  • Written By: Jacob Queen
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2016
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Comparative psychology is a field of study seeking to understand the behavior of animals. Researchers approach this field in many different ways, but to a large extent, they focus on comparing various species to see how they respond under similar experimental conditions. This so-called “comparative method” is the primary reason for the field’s name. It’s also very common for comparative psychologists to examine the ways in which humans and animals may differ behaviorally.

One of the main things that experts in comparative psychology study is animal intelligence. They often come up with various ways to challenge animals in areas like problem solving and memory. In many cases, they will put several different species through the same intelligence tests to see how they measure up to each other. These studies are also often very interested in how the animals compare to people in their ways of thinking and general intelligence.

Over time, this attempt to study animal smarts has proven a difficult task. Many animals seem to be unusually smart in certain areas while failing miserably in others. Some experts have decided that the common definitions for animal intelligence are too narrow because different species have brains that evolved for totally different purposes. An animal could potentially be a genius in the areas it needs for survival while totally missing the mark according to most human definitions of intelligence.


Another major area of study for those who practice comparative psychology is how animals behaviorally adapt to different environments. For example, experts may study behavioral similarities and differences between many different arctic, or rain forest species, looking for connections. This is often part of a broader study of evolution in general and how it affects psychology in people and animals.

Despite their interest in the differences between many varying species, comparative psychologists have often stuck to a fairly small number of animals for most experiments. For example, there was a long period where most studies of animal behavior were conducted on rodents. This was often more a matter of convenience than anything else. Lab rats are readily available and offered relatively cheap upkeep. The occasional tendency to focus on a narrow group of species has sometimes been criticized because it limits the use of the comparative method, which is considered important for reasons of scientific validation.

Many comparative psychology studies have focused on different kinds of apes because of their similarities to human beings. Experts often look for parallels between ape behavior and human behavior in an attempt to make judgments about behavioral evolution. This has generally made it possible for experts to identify the apes with the closest similarities to humans and led to a variety of different theories on the psychological evolution of humans in areas like social behavior and tool use.


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