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Psychology Research: Psychological Research on Animals

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Scientists have long debated ethical issues in psychology research and animal experimentation.

Scientists have long debated ethical issues in psychology research and animal experimentation.

Psychological Research and Animals

Psychological research aims to understand human behavior and how the mind works. This involves studying non-human animals for research through observation as well as experiments.

Some of the experimental procedures involve electric shocks, drug injections, food deprivation, maternal separation, and manipulating brain functions to determine the effects on sensory and cognitive abilities as well as behavior (Kimmel, 2007). Non-human primates, cats, dogs, rabbits, rats and other rodents are most commonly used in psychological experiments, though animals are also used for teaching within psychology, as well as behavior therapy for treating phobias.

In the past, there have been a number of psychological experiments using animals to test various hypotheses. Psychologist, Dr. Harlow (1965) experimented on monkeys to show effects of social isolation; Skinner (1947) worked with pigeons to study superstition, while Pavlov (1980) used dogs to investigate operant conditioning. However, there is a lot of debate on the use of non-human animals in psychological research and many ethical issues both in favor and against it.


Limitations and Benefits of Psychological Research on Animals

Many people see animal testing as a cruel and inhumane practice. They argue that all life is sacred and animals go through a lot of distress during experiments in which they involuntarily take part. The test subjects are treated as objects rather than a living creature and are frequently abused, neglected and kept in improper cages. Moreover, psychological research is done merely out of curiosity, with no purpose, justification, or likelihood of useful results (Whitford, 1995).

Each year, 400 million animals are experimented on (U.K. Home office statistics, 2009) and the few breakthroughs that occur are often at the expense of the animals. In fact, Rollin (1981) called experimental psychology, the field most consistently guilty of mindless activity that results in great suffering.

A coalition of over 400 protectionist groups accused psychologist of giving intense shocks to animals, mutilating their limbs, killing them through food or water deprivation and driving animals insane from total isolation (Mobilization for Animals, 1984).

Experiments are often carried out on animals that are not closely related to humans physically and this may produce inaccurate and over inflated results. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) argues that laboratory conditions may themselves undermine the results, because of the stress the environment produces on animals.

Examining a 'patient' at the Queensland Agriculture and Stock Department's Animal Research Institute, 1962.

Examining a 'patient' at the Queensland Agriculture and Stock Department's Animal Research Institute, 1962.

The Value of Animal Research

However, the inability to produce accurate testing on anything but a living organism, makes it necessary for animals to be used for research and in many cases, no reasonable alternative exists (Gallup & Suarez, 1985). Animals are good surrogates because of their similarities to humans, have shorter life and reproductive spans so that several generations can be studied in a short time, and can be bred free from disease especially for testing purposes. (Psychology Wiki).

Also, animal research places humans in an evolutionary context and makes possible a comparative and biological perspective on human behavior. Psychologists realize that the brains of experimental animals are not miniature human brains but only serve as a model for it, assuming that basic principles of brain organization are common across mammalian species (Canadian Council on Animal Care, 1993)

Moreover, psychology is concerned with understanding and controlling psychopathology, such as depression, phobias, psychosomatic disorders, learning disabilities, obesity and addiction. Many of these problems cannot be studied satisfactorily in human patients because of the difficulty determining causal relationship between variables, and which leaves us only with correlations.

Animals thus provide an alternative by allowing a control of hereditary and experimental variables not easily possible with human beings. Since controlled experiments involve introducing one variable at a time, animals are easier to confine inside a laboratory, and one can have greater experimental control, active manipulation of variables and even exercise ethical discretion (Telner & Singhal, 1984).


Results From Behavioral Research on Animals

The accusation that behavioral research on animals has not resulted in any benefit to humans is not justified either since such research has been responsible for major advances in human well being (Miller, 1985). Our insight into psychological disorders, health issues, addiction and effects of stress and anxiety have been a direct result of animal testing, helping to develop new drugs and treatments for illnesses.

Sperry’s (1968) initial split brain studies on animals lead to better understanding of epilepsy, while electrodes placed inside animal brains have helped to understand biological basis of behavior in human beings e.g. how pleasure is produced by stimulating certain areas of hypothalamus in the brain (Wood & Wood, 1999). Animal research has helped to understand basic motivational processes like hunger, thirst, reproduction as well as vision, taste, hearing, perception and theories on the working of mind and body. It has helped develop techniques to recover lost function in partially paralyzed limbs and treat hypertension and headaches.

The principles of learning established with animals have been used to improve classroom instruction and provide advanced treatments of bed-wetting, anorexia and scoliosis of the spine (Whitford, 1995). Research on early visual deprivation in animals has helped in the earlier detection and treatment of visual defects in human infants.


Animal studies on dogs and chimpanzees have also given us an insight into their own behavior, especially the presence of a theory of mind among animals (Povinelli and Eddy, 1996; Köhler, 1925). However, this also emphasizes the fact that animals are capable of feeling emotions and pain, which makes it unethical to put them through distress during experimentation.


Abusive Treatment Not Central to Psychology

A survey of the articles in journals of American Psychological Association, indicates that none of the most extreme accusations against animal research are verified (Coile & Miller, 1984). It is seen that only 10 percent of the studies used any electric shock, and only 3.9 percent used inescapable shock of greater than .001 ampere.

Also, 80 percent of the studies using shock or deprivation were funded by respected organizations requiring thorough justification of all procedures, while experiments performed out of mere curiosity were not funded.

Thus, even though instances of cruelty may have occurred without being reported, no cases of abuse appeared in the major psychology journals. Abusive treatment of animals cannot thus be considered a central characteristic of psychology (Coile & Miller, 1984).

Ethical Guidelines for Psychological Research

It is important to note that the use of animals in research is heavily controlled by the British Psychological Society (BPS) and it’s Standing Advisory Committee on the Welfare of Animals in Psychology (SACWAP) by means of strict ethical guidelines to prevent cruelty and irresponsible treatment of animals.

These rules are enforced through inspections by federal and funding agencies and failure to abide by the guidelines constitutes a breach of the code of conduct applicable to all chartered psychologists (Lea, 2000). Most countries have similar guidelines, and institutions and universities with ethics committees that evaluate all research proposals.

The Society endorses the principles of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement: i.e. animals should only be used when there are no alternatives to their use; number of animals used in procedures causing pain or distress reduced to minimum and the severity of such procedures minimized.

The Society in particular states that in all psychological use of animals, the benefits to humans should clearly outweigh the costs to the animals involved i.e. when reporting research in scientific journals or otherwise, researchers must be prepared to identify any costs to the animals involved and justify them in terms of the scientific benefit of the work. Alternatives, such as video records from previous work or computer simulations are highly encouraged (Smyth, 1978).


Extreme care must be taken in the capture, care, housing, usage and disposition of the animal. Psychologists should choose a species that is scientifically and ethically suitable for the intended use and is least likely to suffer while still attaining the scientific objective.

Huntingford (1984) and Elwood (1991) suggest that wherever possible, field studies of natural encounters should be used in preference to staged encounters.

Investigators studying free-living animals should take precautions to minimize interference and disruption of eco-systems of which the animals are a part. Capture, marking, radio tagging and collection of physiological data may have long-term consequences, which should be taken into account.

Regular post-operative monitoring of the animal's condition is essential, and if at any time an animal is found suffering severe pain that cannot be alleviated, it must be killed as painlessly as possible using an approved technique. The aim is to foster an attitude of responsibility towards animals used in psychological procedures (British Psychological Society, 2000).



Both arguments against and for animal testing have their basis. It seems unethical to use animals for experimentation but if we stopped completely there would be a large amount of human lives lost. Animal testing can be seen as a means to a greater ends; the question is which species (animals or man) seems expendable or is more ethical to test on.

Besides, so much has been learned due to animal testing that the consequences of using them for experiments far out weighs the notion to stop using them. As Herzog (1988) states, the decisions concerning humanity’s moral obligations to other species are often inconsistent and illogical i.e. killing lab animals is criticized, whereas killing mice as pests produces little protest.

Neither complete prohibition of animal testing nor complete license is the solution; what’s needed instead is an informed, objective evaluation along with reasonable standards and the means to enforce those standards (Whitford, 1995). Psychologist must be sensitive to the ethical issues surrounding their work, question first whether each investigation necessitates use of animals and if so, proceed in ways that lead to humane treatment of animals, avoiding invasive and painful procedures wherever possible. (Kimmel, 2007)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.