What is Comparative Psychology?

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Students considering specialization for careers in psychology may ask, “What is Comparative Psychology?” The answer to the question seems complex, but it is actually quite simple. This research-based specialization concentrates on finding the causes of non-human animal behavior and how the behavior relates to the welfare of the species.

The Science looks at Behavior through Four Questions.

The first question is how common the behavior is across the species. In other words, is it repeated in most members of a species? The second question is whether the behavior contributes to the species. This usually refers to procreation and the continuation of the group. These two queries, taken together, address the “Proximate Causation.” That term means the direct cause of something. For instance, an animal might die because it chokes on its food. The third question students of animal behavior seek to answer is about what factors in the environment or in their physiology or even in other behaviors, are necessary for the behavior to occur. The last question in the research method is answered by the factors (learning, maturation, social experiences) that allow the behavior to be developed. These last two questions refer to the “Ultimate Causation” of the event. In the example of the animal that chokes to death, the ultimate cause of the choking might be that the animal is old and has lost his teeth, so he cannot chew food. Proximate Causation and Ultimate Causation help scientists reason out animal behaviors that have changed over the course of history.

Why do we Study Non-Human Behavior?

One of the first proponents of this branch of psychology was Charles Darwin, according to Psychology About.com.  He studied the behavior of many species to develop a theory about how species have adapted and diversified biologically. The science of Comparative Psychology, however, also includes the disciplines of anthropology, ecology, genetics and other fields that serve as lenses through which we may view non-human behavior. The comparative method of study gives us insight into the ways species, including humans, relate to one another, and helps us predict the outcomes of changes in atmosphere, food presence and other events such as global warming on life. Comparative Psychology also gives us clues about how we may affect the behavior of other species through our actions. Ivan Pavlov, for example, found out that some behaviors do not need direct stimuli to occur. Thought processes are sufficient.

What are some examples of types of Discoveries Comparative Psychologists have Made?

Science Daily featured an interesting study recently. Scientists found out that animals change their voice signals as the environment around them changes. They discovered that during the mating cycle, when the trees boomed with the sound of male frogs attempting to attract mates, some animals changed their calls slightly to be distinguished from the rest of the melee. Baby birds do the same thing when they want to stand out in their crowd of siblings to be the one who gets fed first. Studying adaptive behaviors in non-humans puts a new light on human action and thought.

These psychologists count research subjects as their “clients.” Their practices aren’t in clinics or offices . Still, students who become Comparative Psychologists position themselves to make giant contributions to our understanding of our world.

Related Resource: The Psychology of Dogs

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