Animals in Psychological Experiments

Animals in Psychological Experiments

Psychology is a study that is used to understand human behavior and how a person’s mind works. The study mostly works on observation and research and about 7-8% of psychological research involves the use of animals. Although a lot of different species of animals have been used in psychological research, 90% of the animals used have been rodents and birds. Only about 5% animals used are monkeys and primates. Using a large animal is rare in Psychological research.

A few of the most famous experiments are:

1. Hans the Horse: In the early 1900s, there was a horse nicknames Clever Hans. His trainer was Wilhelm Von Ofsten. The horse was capable of astonishing feats like simple arithmetic calculations, could tell time and communicate using hoof taps. Oscar Pfungst, a psychologist deducted through observation that Hans was reading tell tale clues from the questioner. Exactly like how our pet dog after a few years together starts anticipating our needs, Hans was trained to read cues but that does not undermine how he was capable of human like intelligence. Unfortunately, being such an intelligent Horse Hans was recruited into German war effort and was killed in action. Though horrible death or not Hans gave us the observation that in life while growing we start by observing and following social cues and reacting to them. To be considered an intelligent human being understanding and reacting like wise to social cues is important.
Pic: pavlov’s dog experiment

2. Pavlov’s Dogs: Though not a psychologist, Pavlov, a physiologist is worth mentioning. Accidental or not, Pavlov found out about the instinct present in any sentient being. Folks, PETA were not a group back then but those dogs needed a monitoring or should say Pavlov needed monitoring on how he experimented on dogs. It wasn’t straight up cruelty but those dogs were put a harness so that they do not move and disturb the small pipe that was inserted surgically in their cheeks to collect and measure the saliva. It can be concurred that, it gave us knowledge about classical conditioning but those dogs deserve our praise that they helped in such experiment. We don’t like when someone restrains us, how do you think the dogs, who are such energetic creatures must have felt. Despite some surgical experiments we learned about classical conditioning and how a person’s brain learns and reacts.

3. Tolman’s Rats: Have you ever thought how your brain stores the way to your home so that you can instinctively without any conscious thought walk back to your home when you find familiar ground no matter how tired you are? Tolman built a maze and used rats to analyze latent learning. This actually took the term lab rat quite seriously. No matter how much we learned, think of the life of the rats that were denied proper food. Yes, you can say that they might have not found food in wild too but you would be amazed to learn that rats are great scavengers and never go to bed on an empty stomach in their natural settings.

4. Skinner’s Mice: We have all heard of reinforcement both negative and positive but have you ever thought how the psychologist knew it will help effectively in learning. B.F. Skinner researched a lot on behavior. He designed a box in which a mice was kept. There was a lever in the box. It would give a food pellet after a certain sound but if there was no sound it delivered a shock when pressed. The rat would learn when to press so he wouldn’t be shocked. The rat learns to associate the sound with reward or punishment.

These were some of the important experiments but there are a numerous number of such experiments are present in the field of psychology. Some of the experiments involved electric shocks, drug injections, food depravation, maternal separation and manipulating brain functions to determine the effects on sensory and cognitive abilities as well as behavior (Kimmel, 2007). Now, an effort has been made to stop these unethical and cruel experiments but it cannot be ignored that if the animals were not tested these cruelties could have also been carried on humans and it would have been considered more unethical then before. Animal testing was a beta face where the idiosyncrasies were found so that it may not affect adversely on humans. It is needed because humans show a common ancestry with the most experimented species and because of similar results in structural and functional processes and it is possible to use various activities with them which would be highly impossible with humans such as something that we have learned from the beginning is not learned by the animals so when they do something it can be considered a development.

Not all experiments were so cruel and unethical though.

1. Washoe the Chimp: The first chimp to be taught sign language, Washoe was adopted by a married psychological team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner. The chimp learned to use over 250 different signs. This chimp had her obituary come out in New York Times. This chimp was treated like human and observed to show that society and environment plays an important in human leaning.

2. Chaser the Border collie: It was not just the apes but also dogs; Chaser was trained by psychologists Alliston Reid and John Pilley. Acc. to Pilley, play was a better learning tool then a hunger for food. The study found that animals are not just thoughtless organisms they also have the ability for independent thought and forming emotional bonds. Though because of the emotional bond between Pilley and his dog seems to be considered a potential for blurring his objectivity.

3. Thorndike’s Cat: The theory of operant conditioning within behaviourism was derived after experiments with cats. Thorndike made a puzzle box and put a cat in the box and encouraged it to escape the box with the motivation of finding food. After repeated trips in the box the cat found a lever which opened the escape door. Repeated trials helped the cat learn that the lever is the key then instead of finding escape to cat found the lever. It gave us the law of effect which states that behavior that is followed by favourable consequences is repeated and behavior followed by unfavourable consequences is likely to be not repeated. This experiment is different as cats cannot be treated badly or they won’t do anything even with the motivation of food.

4. Koko the Gorilla: Koko was taught sign language by psychologist Francine Patterson. Koko had a vocabulary at the same level of a 3 year old human. Different from other apes, Koko was also exposed to spoken English from an early age. The ape developed human like tendencies and also kept a pet cat and also named it. Koko also had an IQ between 70 and 90. It taught us about emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities which continues to shape the world. This proves that the apes can be evolved into humans through intense work and several generations’ worth of gorillas spawning from the intelligent and learned gorillas.

Researchers who undertake such studies are aware that the studies may involve certain harms minor or major. The community tries to mitigate some of the harms. APA has rules and frequent inspections to check that these animals are not being caused any unnecessary harm and are well cared for. It is to be noted that even procedures as simple as testing an animal on a cognitive task must be approved by Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees before the work can begin. Part of the approval process even requires that the scientist must provide proof that there is no less invasive way to so the task required. They also need to justify the number of animals used to insure that the smallest number possible is necessitated.

Animals, be it cats, dogs, apes or mice all of these pets have helped a lot in the contribution of psychological theories that we apply to this day to humans. Not by psychologists, but monument to honour the Laboratory Mouse i.e. all the animals used in research has been established in the city of Novosibirsk in Siberia, Russia. It may be just for the mice used there but it is a symbol for all the animals that have helped in the development and further progression in any field they have been used. It shows that sometimes sacrifice is needed for progress but these animals sacrificed themselves instead of the much more human lives that could have been lost. We think of Psychology as just a study that works with behavior and patters but we do not understand that if many theories and concepts were not researched the mental health of people may have deteriorated to a level where it would have been difficult to go on and many would have succumbed to the quietness and peace that comes with death.

All these animals and many more have helped in the development of new theories and observations. Though an argument can be made for both sides be it the unethical or the emotional bonding experiments at last it sums up to the fact that most of the psychological experiments have been based on observation and sometimes sacrifice is needed for the greater good.

About the Author

Gurshish Kaur

Ms Gurshish Kaur is a Counsellor.

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