Comparative Psychology: Definition and Meaning

Neuroscience, systematics, behavioral ecology, zoology, and genetics are just a few of the diverse topics that came together to form contemporary comparative psychology in the interdisciplinary areas of psychology. Comparative psychology integrates all facets of a living being, including anatomy and physiology, genetics, emotion, cognition, and sociality, in order to examine issues of functional adaptiveness, development, and evolution of behavior.

This broad discipline studies issues related to behavior, behavioral development, cognition, communication, emotion, learning, mating, memory, motivation, perception, social interactions, spatial orientation and navigation, parental behavior, and many other specific subjects. In order to answer diverse problems concerning evolution and common phylogeny, comparative psychology uses a particular style of inquiry in which multiple species are carefully examined.

What is Comparative Psychology?

The study of behavioral structure in all living things, such as microorganisms, plants, and people, is known as comparative psychology. The psychological differences between humans and other creatures are a topic of particular interest in the discipline. When researching animals, comparative psychology looks for qualitative as well as quantitative similarities and differences in the behavior of the studied species, including humans. It has important applications in fields including pharmaceuticals, ecology, and animal training.

In topics including the growth of individual behavior, motivation, the nature and techniques of learning, the effects of medications, and the localization of brain activity, research on lesser animals have provided insights into human psychology. This has been especially true since the late 19th and early 20th centuries when experimental comparative psychology began to emerge. Lesser animals can tell us a lot about people and are more accessible in terms of quantity and control during research than human subjects.

Comparative psychologists, on the other hand, have taken care to avoid anthropomorphizing animal behavior, which refers to assigning animals human traits and motivations when simpler explanations may account for their conduct. The Lloyd Morgan canon, to which this idea belongs to, is named after a British pioneer in comparative psychology. There has always been a strong propensity to bestow lesser animals with human abilities. In the course of recorded history, two opposing theories on how humans relate to lesser animals have emerged.

History of Comparative Psychology

It is claimed that psychology should be studied in terms of "pre-" and "post-Darwin," due to the significance of Charles Darwin's contributions to the development of comparative psychology. Darwin's theory gave rise to a number of ideas, one of which was that the characteristics that distinguish humans from other species—such as their superior mental, moral, and spiritual faculties—could be explained by evolutionary principles. The "anecdotal movement," founded by George Romanes, sought to show that animals had a "rudimentary human mentality" in reaction to the fierce opposition to Darwinism.

In the long and rich history of comparative psychology, several attempts have been made to impose a more structured methodology, in which equivalent investigations are carried out on animals of different species, and the outcomes are interpreted in terms of their distinct evolutionary or ecological backgrounds. In the 1970s, behavioral ecology provided a more reliable information basis on which real comparative psychology could be developed. However, the phrase "comparative psychology" will likely never totally disappear since it is ingrained in the titles of academic publications and learned societies, not to mention in the thoughts of psychologists with various specialties.

The relative intelligence of various animal species has been a recurring issue for comparative psychologists. In fact, early attempts at truly comparative psychology included assessing how effectively animals from various species could learn various tasks. These attempts failed because they lacked adequate sophistication, both in their understanding of the needs of various activities and in their choice of species for comparison.

Strengths of Comparative Psychology

  • In many respects, humans and other organisms are similar. For instance, we show territoriality, courtship practices, and a "pecking order." When threatened, we react violently and play while protecting our young. Humans and other animals, especially those with complex social structures, share a number of characteristics.

  • By studying other animals, one may sidestep many of the important ethical concerns connected with doing research on people. In order to study the effects of maternal deprivation by isolating babies from their mothers, for example, it would be hard to conduct trials on humans in isolation, as has been done with other animals.


  • In some aspects, humans and other animals are similar, but not in others. Humans are significantly more intelligent than other animals, for instance, and a lot more of our actions are the product of intentional decisions as opposed to urges or instincts. Humans are the only other mammal that has learned the language, making us distinct from all other creatures. We employ symbols instead of the signals that other animals use, and since we can speak, we can talk about both concrete and abstract ideas.

  • Many would argue that it is morally repugnant to use animals in research. At the very least with humans, consent is mutual. The animals used in some really horrible experiments didn't have that option. Critics contend that many of the results are unimportant and that the means did not support the objectives.


As was discussed here, it has been difficult to determine a precise definition of comparative psychology in part because it is one of the oldest subfields of psychology research. With the use of psychological theories, as well as knowledge of behavioral neuroscience, developmental biology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary concepts, comparative psychology combines these elements of behavior and investigates topics connected to them.

Updated on: 27-Apr-2023


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