Key issues in comparative psychology

In the field's infancy, comparative psychologists needed to choose their ultimate goal. Should they study animal behavior for its own sake? Or should the overriding goal always be to shed light on human behavior? Early comparative psychologists quickly took sides on this issue, and some even kept one foot in both camps. For example, in the late 1890s, Kline designed a laboratory course at Clark University where the students studied animal instincts and habits, regardless of any relevance to humans. At the same time, however, Kline studied other animal behaviors from a decidedly human point of view. For example, he studied "the migratory impulse vs. love of home" in both humans and nonhuman animals.

Yerkes came down on the side of using animal research to reach insights into human psychology. This approach has sometimes come under attack, however. Some critics have argued that it blinds scientists to the true nature of other species, encouraging them to see animals merely as convenient stand-ins for humans. Others have argued that it may obscure the true essence of humanity, since it makes it harder to see which behaviors humans really do share with other animals and which are uniquely or primarily human.

Another critical issue in the early days of comparative psychology was deciding which species to study. Early comparative psychologists tended to study a wide range of animals. For example, Kline's course covered amebae, earthworms, slugs, fish, chicks, rats, and cats. By the 1920s, however, laboratory rats had become by far the most popular subjects. Fairly or not, comparative psychology earned a reputation as rat psychology. This reputation has proved hard to shake, despite the efforts of psychologists, including Yerkes, who extended their research to other species.

Yet another issue that needed to be settled was whether comparative psychology would be conducted in a laboratory or in the field. Laboratory studies had the advantage of offering greater control, although it was hard to say how the artificial setting might affect the results. Field studies offered a glimpse at more natural behavior, but the uncontrolled circumstances made it hard to sort out causes and effects. Laboratory research has largely won out in psychology. The laboratory studies of comparative psychologists have been complemented over the years, however, by the field observations of zoologists.

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