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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2020

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2020 | Volume 24 | Number 4

Everything I Know About People I Learned From a Cat: Comparative Psychology and the Study of Human Behavior Through Research on Nonhuman Species

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD
Western Oregon University

Hello, dear readers. I have a cat, but not because I prefer cats over other animals. Rather, I have a cat because my children wanted a furry pet, and I wanted the minimum amount of responsibility associated with having a furry pet. A cat fit our needs perfectly. Cats, in comparison to (let’s say) dogs, are low-maintenance. You don’t have to walk them, provide them with constant attention, or scoop their droppings from your back yard. Cats are content entertaining themselves, and I suspect that not only do they not need constant attention, they don’t want it. You can see this in their utterly indifferent furry faces.

So, I spend a lot my time observing the cat instead of interacting with him directly. This has been an enlightening experience, as through observation of this nonhuman being, I feel I understand a little more about humans. For example, Julio (that’s the cat’s name) is particularly attentive to and interactive with me when he wants something that he could not obtain without my assistance (e.g., food, water). Indeed, he is downright lovey when he needs food, rubbing against my leg, purring, and meowing ever so adorably. Once fed, however, he is back to ignoring my existence. This behavior is similar to that of some humans, in that they often engage, compliment, and/or otherwise positively interact with others when they need something. As they say, flattery will get you somewhere . . . and often does.

Aside from my anecdotal experience, the observation of nonhuman behavior as a method for understanding human behavior has a long history in psychology and related disciplines. For example, the research that led to the discovery of classical conditioning was conducted with dogs (ring a bell?). Much of what we know about operant conditioning comes from research with pigeons and rodents. The notion that child-caregiver attachments are developed through contact comfort emerged from research with rhesus monkeys. Indeed, the whole concept of attachment as applied to humans was popularized through research with geese. In short, to better understand people, we have often turned to investigations of the nonhuman world. And, it is this broad area of psychology, namely comparative psychology, that is the topic of this edition of Contemporary Psych.

Comparative Psychology: We’re More Alike Than You Think

Comparative psychology is a field focused on the study of similarities and differences in the behavior of organisms. There is some disagreement as to whether comparative psychology is a specific, identifiable discipline within psychology or, rather, a theoretical perspective for the understanding of interspecies behavior (see Chiandetti & Gerbino, 2015). There exists further disagreement as to whether comparative psychology necessarily involves the generalization of nonhuman behavior to humans. Regardless of these disagreements, it can be said that much of what we call comparative psychology involves studying nonhuman organisms as an approach to understanding humans.

Why would we do this? Well, because of our shared evolutionary history with many species, our similarities and differences can provide insight into a number interesting questions. For example, by comparing the characteristics, typical environments, social contexts, etc., of various species, we can get a sense of the possible function of a given behavior, how that behavior evolved within a species, what biological mechanisms might account for the behavior, as well as how that behavior develops with individuals. If it is established that different species display similar behaviors, we might then assume, for example, that behavior serves a similar function.

Consider this question: Why do human babies often throw a full-scale, cover-your-ears tantrum when separated from their primary caregivers? Now, consider this observation: Other nonhuman babies (let’s say goslings1) also protest when separated from their caregiver and attempt to maintain close proximity to said caregiver. Goslings engage in this behavior because they are helpless and vulnerable. Mother goose, in contrast, is a formidable opponent 2. Should a threat to the goslings’ well-being emerge (e.g., a hungry fox visiting the ole water hole), they are much more likely to survive if close to and protected by a mature goose. In other words, goslings maintain close physical proximity to their caregiver because it is safer, and throughout goose evolutionary history, those goslings that stayed close to their caregiver were much more likely to survive, pass on their genes, etc., etc. Like goslings, human babies are pretty helpless, but their adult caregiver counterparts are not (. . . most of them anyway). Therefore, it would seem quite plausible that your run-of-the mill, shudder-the-windows tantrum (the behavior in question) functions to ensure close proximity between the human child and parent.

A History of Staring (perhaps too closely) at Animals: Foundations and State of the Field

Although research on nonhuman species goes back several hundred years, the field of comparative psychology as we know it began with the work of Charles Darwin. In effect, Darwin’s model of evolution, natural selection, and the functional nature of behavior laid the theoretical groundwork and rationale for studying nonhumans as a method for understanding humans (Greenberg, 2012). His work inspired many other key figures in the history of comparative psychology and several related disciplines. For example, Douglas Alexander Spalding was widely recognized for his research on sensory development and imprinting (a concept similar to attachment) in birds. Sir John Lubbock is credited as being the first scientist to utilize mazes and puzzle devices to study animal learning. And, Konrad Lorenz is considered to be one of the founders of modern ethology, a related discipline focused on the study of animal behavior, whose work had a major impact on psychology, in particular the development of attachment theory. During the mid-20th century in the United States, comparative psychological approaches were used extensively by learning theorists (e.g., Thorndike, Watson, Skinner; Dewsbury, 1992), which is one reason why many psychology students naturally associate research with mice, pigeons, and so on with behaviorism.

Notably, comparative psychology does not have clear disciplinary boundaries, and research on a broad range of topics from several distinct areas of inquiry use a comparative approach. This is one reason why comparative psychology is thought of as a perspective for understanding behavior rather than a distinct discipline. Additionally, comparative psychologists use a number of different species for their models (e.g., apes, birds, dolphins) and several methods for studying nonhuman behavior. So, this is a marvelously diverse area in which one can explore a number of different topics. This diversity, however, does have one potential drawback. Because comparative approaches can be used in already established disciplines, there are remarkably few academic programs dedicated specifically to comparative psychology (Abramson, 2015). Yet, there exist a number of learned societies and academic journals dedicated to supporting and disseminating research in this area. For example, Division 6 of the American Psychological Association (APA) is dedicated to behavioral neuroscience and comparative psychology, with one of their journals (Journal of Comparative Psychology) being top in the field. Other notable groups include the Comparative Cognition Society, and the International Society for Comparative Psychology.

For Those Who Like Psychology . . . But Also Really Like Dolphins: Training and Careers

Comparative psychology is a primarily academic discipline, so careers tend to be heavily weighted toward the research side of things. As such, the route to becoming a comparative psychologist is a familiar one. In general, students will need to obtain an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field such as biology, zoology, or neuroscience. Following this, a graduate program that focuses on comparative methods is essential. As noted above, there exists a dearth of graduate programs specifically identified as being focused on comparative psychology, with a few notable exceptions being at Oklahoma State University, Western Washington University, and the City University of New York. With that said, many faculty conduct comparative psychological research within other programs, and those looking for graduate training in this area should therefore focus on finding mentors, rather than programs, when exploring graduate options. Following graduate training, newly minted PhDs can look forward to what I assume will be a rewarding career (for those who like animals, anyway) in academia, at research institutions, in zoos, and other similar places of employment.

Don’t Be an Armchair Comparative Psychologist: Summary

I spend a lot of time watching my cat and developing hairbrained theories about human nature based on my observations. I enjoy this immensely, but it should be noted that I am not a comparative psychologist, and the validity of my theories are therefore questionable. You can, if you are so inclined, do better. Pursue training in comparative psychology. Develop a depth of knowledge regarding animal behavior. Use this information to better understand people. Then get a cat. Many of the most fundamental questions regarding the nature of being human might be answered by your furry feline friend . . . if so, keep me posted.

1 I am referring to baby geese here, not several Ryan Goslings. You can be forgiven for the mistake, had you made it, given that both baby geese and Ryan Gosling are adorable.

2 I am referring here to the mature female goose that birthed our hypothetical goslings, not the fictional author of many well-known fairy tales and nursery rhymes. This mistake, had you made it, is less forgivable . . . given that it is pretty clear that we are talking about geese now.

Additional Resources and Further Reading

Call, J. E., Burghardt, G. M., Pepperberg, I. M., Snowdon, C. T., & Zentall, T. E. (2017). APA handbook of comparative psychology: Perception, learning, and cognition. American Psychological Association.

Comparative Cognition Society. Webpage:

Division 6 of the American Psychological Association, Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology. Webpage:

International Society for Comparative Psychology. Webpage:


Abramson, C. I. (2015). A crisis in comparative psychology: Where have all the undergraduates gone? Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1500.

Chiandetti, C., & Gerbino, W. (2015). Comparative psychology: A perspective rather than a discipline. Commentary: A crisis in comparative psychology: Where have all the undergraduates gone? Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1828.

Dewsbury, D. A. (1992). Comparative psychology and ethology: A reassessment. American Psychologist, 47, 208–215.

Greenberg, G. (2012). Comparative psychology and ethology. In N. M. Seele (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the sciences of learning (pp. 658–661). New York, NY: Springer.

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Western Oregon University where he teaches courses in research methods, advanced research methods, and positive psychology. He is passionate about undergraduate education in psychology and has served Psi Chi members in several ways over the last few years, including as a faculty advisor, Psi Chi Western Region Steering Committee Member, Grants Chair, and most recently, as the Western Regional Vice-President of Psi Chi. His research interests focus on hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to well-being, folk conceptions of happiness, and the relationship between nature and human well-being. His recent work examines how exposure to immersive simulations of natural environments impact concurrent emotional state and, more broadly, how regular contact with natural environments may be one route by which individuals achieve optimal feeling and functioning. He has published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the Journal of Happiness Studies, Personality and Individual Differences, and Ecopsychology, among other publications. He completed his undergraduate training at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and holds a PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Wyoming.

Copyright 2020 (Vol. 24, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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