While comparative psychology is one of the lesser-known specialties of psychology, it has had wide-ranging impacts on our understanding of human and animal behavior. Likewise, it can be a highly rewarding career that allows you to add to the body of research on human behavior.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through what it means to be a comparative psychologist. We’ll look at what you might study, where you might work, and the kind of salary you might expect. We’ll also discuss the educational requirements you will need to fulfill in order to work in this field.
What is Comparative Psychology?
Comparative psychology is a branch of the broader psychology field that involves the study of behavior and cognition of animals in order to determine evolutionary relationships between species, according to the American Psychological Association.
Much of the work in this field is an offshoot of such well-known theorists as Charles Darwin and Ivan Pavlov. Like Darwin and Pavlov, comparative psychologists examine the similarities and differences between animal species. Doing so helps to provide insight into human psychology. Concepts observed include heredity, adaptation, evolution and mating behaviors, among others.
The basis of comparative psychology is the notion that the laws that govern behavior are universal to all species. Therefore, in studying dogs, chimpanzees, squirrels, and other animals, comparative psychologists can draw conclusions about why humans behave the way they do.
If you think about the history of psychology, studies of other animals have been instrumental in developing a better understanding of human behavior. Pavlov’s work with dogs, for example, was groundbreaking in that it ushered in an era of understanding of the power of conditioning. Though Pavlov worked exclusively with dogs in his bell experiment, the results of that study were generalized to humans, and today, the process of classical conditioning is a hallmark of psychology.
As another example, B.F. Skinner, perhaps the most famous behavioral psychologist, utilized rats and pigeons in his studies of operant conditioning that, along with Pavlov’s work, established our understanding of how humans learn.
Comparative Psychology Studies
Harlow’s work in the 1950s used rhesus monkeys to study attachment. He found that when infant monkeys were separated from their mothers, the infants experienced significant emotional and social detriments. Likewise, Lorenz, who studied the process of imprinting in ducks and geese in the 1930s, discovered that ducklings have a window during which they must imprint and become attached to their mother. If that window was missed, the duckling would not have the ability to become attached when it was older.
These studies, like the others mentioned earlier, have had immense ramifications on the study of human behavior. Generalizing from what Harlow and Lorenz studied, psychologists have determined that there is an attachment period in human infants that, if missed, will lead to long-term psychosocial damage.
The obvious “problem,” if you want to call it that, is that studying non-human animals and comparing their behavior to humans has some limitations. After all, humans have a far more advanced level of intelligence than other animals, and as a result, the manner in which we behave is based in large part on our processes of cognition. We can think, analyze, and ponder something and then act, whereas other species simply don’t have the same ability.
Another issue with comparative studies is that some of the classic experiments, like Harlow’s, for example, are decried as having been utterly unethical. Today, inflicting that kind of social and emotional damage on an animal would not be permitted, therefore, similar studies have to rely on other methods of gleaning comparative knowledge.
Is Comparative Psychology Limiting?
There is an argument to be made that comparative psychology is limited in that humans are the only species with a sophisticated language. This limits our ability to some degree to determine why animals do what they do. They can’t express their thoughts to us, so we have to make inferences about their behavior that may or may not prove to be accurate.
At the same time, humans and other animals have much in common. For example, the imprinting studies discussed earlier were so helpful in understanding human behavior because we imprint on our caregivers much in the way other animals do.
Additionally, topics like social organization can be studied in animals and generalized to humans because humans and animals alike are, for better or worse, categorized by other humans and animals based on social standing.
And while some animal studies might be considered unethical, using animals in complex behavioral studies is certainly more acceptable than using humans. For example, if researchers wanted to examine the effects of social isolation, using an animal like a rat would be much more acceptable than separating a human from other humans for an extended period of time.
These types of experimental questions provide a guideline for the topics in which comparative psychologists are most interested. They include:
- Hereditary influences on behavior
- Environmental influences on behavior
- Social and physical development
With a better understanding of what comparative psychology is, let’s take a closer look at the field to see if it might be a good fit for you.
Job Duties of Comparative Psychologists
A comparative psychologist studies various aspects of animal groups such as sensory, social, recognition, communication, and cognition systems. These professionals may also study components found in animal behavior, like physiological, environmental, and psychological makeup.
In this position, you would likely conduct a great deal of research, contribute to scholarly journals, and seek funding through research grants to continue your contribution to the understanding of animal functions and how they contribute to learning more about human behavior and makeup. You might also teach at the college level in the field of comparative psychology.
Having said that, the specific duties you perform on the job will be dependent upon your focus. For example, if your area of expertise is on communication, the types of studies you conduct and the types of animals you work with might be much different than if your area of interest is in mating habits.
As another example, your primary task as a comparative psychologist might be to conduct naturalistic observations. This occurs when researchers record and analyze the behavior of animals in their natural environment as opposed to putting animals through laboratory experiments. So, again, your particular area of interest in research will influence what you do and where you do your work.
Regardless of whether you conduct research in a lab or in a natural setting, there are some general research duties that will certainly be part of your job.
For starters, comparative psychologists must be able to design and construct their research activities. This includes devising ways of recording, storing, analyzing, and reporting on the data they collect.
Furthermore, comparative psychologists spend a large amount of time trying to understand the animal behaviors they have witnessed and how those behaviors may (or may not) inform us about why humans behave in the manner they do.
Additionally, comparative psychologists have rather mundane job duties, like taking notes, running statistical measures on data, and writing research reports and journal articles. Many comparative psychologists must also hire and train research assistants, write grants to fund their research, and spend time peer-reviewing papers for publication in academic journals.
Work Settings for Comparative Psychology
One of the advantages of becoming a comparative psychologist is that this work can be conducted in a wide range of environments.
Many comparative psychologists work in research labs. Think of people with white lab coats that conduct experiments under highly controlled conditions. And while this is likely the most common type of work environment for this type of work, it certainly isn’t the only one.
Some comparative psychologists study animals in zoos, aquariums, and nature preserves. Others, as noted above, study animals in their natural habitat, whether that’s in the Rocky Mountains, the Sahara Desert, or somewhere in between.
Yet other comparative psychologists work in the education sector as college professors. In addition to serving as a faculty member with a classload to teach, comparative psychologists that work in academia must often conduct research and be published in academic journals as well.
The job settings are really quite broad as long as you are able to access research materials in order to study the etymology, behavior, and cognition of animal groups. So, whether you prefer to work in a lab, out in the field, or somewhere in between, comparative psychology offers you many different options.
Educational Paths for Comparative Psychology
If you want to become a comparative psychologist, you’ll need to earn a terminal degree, which in this case is a Ph.D. We’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, you have to start your education, which would be with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, biology, or perhaps both (or a major in one and a minor in the other). With a bachelor’s degree – which usually takes about four years to complete if you attend school full-time), you might qualify for a position as a laboratory or research assistant. In that role, you might assist with collecting data, running statistical analyses, or caring for the animals involved in the experiment.
However, if you want to conduct research yourself, you’ll need to get at least a master’s degree. Even then, your research opportunities might be limited.
A master’s degree will provide you the opportunity to conduct advanced research under the watchful eye of your professors. Not only that, but the classroom work you do in a master’s program will be much more advanced and in-depth than what you do at the bachelor’s level.
While some schools have master’s programs in comparative psychology, you can pursue master’s degrees in related fields, like evolutionary psychology or biological psychology. Whatever path you choose, a master’s degree will likely take anywhere from two to four years to complete after you finish your bachelor’s degree. During that time, you’ll take graduate courses (like statistics, research design, animal behavior, psychobiology, and human behavior), conduct research, and might even take part in practicum or internship experiences that put you in a real-world research setting under the leadership of an experienced comparative psychologist.
It’s important to note that each program in comparative psychology is a little different. The coursework might vary somewhat from one school to the next, as might the practicum and internship opportunities.
In many cases, the most job opportunities in this field will be had if you get a Ph.D. in comparative psychology or a related field.
Typically, a doctoral program will take four to five years after the completion of a master’s program. This means that you could be in school for upwards of a decade if you choose to get a Ph.D. And while that is certainly a long time, the knowledge and experience you will gain in that time will equip you to be a highly effective comparative psychologist.
Most Ph.D. programs involve some classroom work, but there is also a lot of independent research to be done. You will most likely have to write a dissertation, which you must then defend to a faculty panel in order to complete the requirements for graduation.
The dissertation alone will take years to complete. It will include vast amounts of research, data analysis, and writing. Fortunately, you’ll have faculty advisors to help you along the way to ensure that your research is being conducted in a manner that advances your skills and abilities.
Upon graduation, it’s a good idea to join professional networking groups. One such well-known organization in the field is the American Psychological Association’s Division 6, which focuses on behavioral neuroscience and comparative psychology. Joining groups like this can also help you advance your pursuit of a job by helping you make connections with individuals and organizations that are hiring workers with training in this field.
Comparative Psychology and You
This is a rather unknown field to the general public, but it provides society with a great deal of information regarding human function through the study of animal interaction, behavior, and evolution.
And while comparative psychologists don’t work in a “typical” psychology setting – that is, in an office conducting one-on-one, couples, or group counseling – it still provides you with the opportunity to engage in life-changing work that brings you a lot of job satisfaction.
If you have an analytical mind, enjoy research, and discovering new information, a career path as a comparative psychologist just may be a good fit for you. Use the information in this primer to help guide you in further research to decide if comparative psychology is the right fit for you.
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Updated September 2021