Limitations and Ethical Concerns

However, there are drawbacks to using animals as experimental subjects. Most important are the clear biological and psychological differences between humans and nonhuman animals; results one gets in a study using nonhuman animals simply may not apply to humans. In addition, animal subjects cannot communicate directly with the researchers; they are unable to express their feelings, motivations, thoughts, and reasons for their behavior. If a psychologist must use an animal instead of a human subject for ethical or practical reasons, the scientist will want to choose an animal that is similar to humans in the particular behavior being studied. Three factors can create similarity between animal and human behavior; each of these three must be considered.

For the same reasons that animals are useful in studying psychological processes, however, people have questioned the moral justification for such use. As it is now realized that vertebrate animals can feel physical pain, and that many of them have thoughts and emotions as well, animal experimentation has become politically controversial.

Psychologists generally support the use of animals in research. The American Psychological Association (APA) identifies animal research as an important contributor to psychological knowledge. The majority of individual psychologists would tend to agree. In 1996, S. Plous surveyed nearly four thousand psychologists and found that fully 80 percent either approved or strongly approved of the use of animals in psychological research. Nearly 70 percent believed that animal research was necessary for progress in the field of psychology. However, support dropped dramatically for invasive procedures involving pain or death. Undergraduate students majoring in psychology produced largely similar findings. Support was less strong among newer psychologists than older and was also less strong in women than in men.

Some psychologists would like to see animal experimentation in psychology discontinued. An animal rights organization called Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PSYETA), established in 1981, is highly critical of the use of animals as subjects in psychological research and has strongly advocated improving the well-being of those animals that currently are used through publication of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. PSYETA is also a strong advocate for the developing field of human-animal studies, in which the relationship between humans and animals is explored. Companion animals (pets) can have a significant impact on psychological and physical health and can be used as a therapeutic tool with, for example, elderly people in nursing homes and emotionally disturbed youths. In this field of study, animals are not the subjects of the experiment; rather it is the relationship between humans and animals that is the topic of interest.

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