Wise Advice for Overcoming Biases in Comparative Psychology

A must-read interview about a new book called, "How to Study Animal Minds."

Posted Jul 15, 2020

"In How to Study Animal Minds, I argue that we should presume animals of all species are conscious, and design experiments from that perspective. By altering our starting assumptions we can radically change scientific methods, practices, and research questions to make the science richer and more fecund." —Kristin Andrews

I recently read an excellent book—perfect for students, non-researchers, and researchers alike—called How to Study Animal Minds by Dr. Kristin Andrews, York Research Chair in Animal Minds and Professor of Philosophy at York University in Toronto.1,2 I'm pleased she could take the time to answer a few questions about the sage, candid, and challenging advice she offers on how to learn more about what makes animals tick, overcome reductionist biases, and honor the ethical implications of recognizing nonhuman animals (animals) as sentient, feeling beings. This is what Kristin had to say. 

Why did you write How to Study Animal Minds?

I wanted to write this book because right now, I think the biases in comparative psychology are a bit unbalanced. Scientists who work on animal behavior and cognition care about achieving objectivity. But the focus on objectivity—a notoriously ill-defined concept—is itself a bias, and one that keeps us from seeing some truths about other species. We need to check our biases, but it is a mistake to think that science can be free of them.

Cambridge University Press, with permission
Source: Cambridge University Press, with permission

The role of value in science is a classic topic in the philosophy of science, but to do it justice one has to know the science pretty well. I started thinking about this topic after many conversations with my scientist friends about the need to avoid “fuzzy thinking” about animals to do “real, hard-nosed science.” 

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

I’m a philosopher who has been working with scientists on animal cognition projects since before I went to graduate school. I learned so much just by being part of research teams; how some ideas get taken up and others shot down, how uncooperative research subjects can throw off study topics, how the relationships between researchers and the animal subjects could make all the difference in getting a result. 

In my earlier work on the connections between human and nonhuman social cognition, I relied on findings from animal cognition, developmental psychology, and social psychology. But more recently, I started worrying about the studies I was citing, especially in light of the replication crisis in psychology and the knowledge that there are relatively few studies published on nonhuman animal sociality. How to Study Animal Minds addresses those worries in light of my training in philosophy of science and the knowledge I gained in the lab and in the field studying animals—and researchers! 

Who is your intended audience? How does your book differ from many others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

How to Study Animal Minds was written for anyone interested in the science of animal minds, including academics, animal lovers, and animal trainers and caregivers. There are a lot of books out there that either focus on how special humans are compared to other animals, or how “smart” and human-like other animals are. It seems like there is a tension. My book helps to adjudicate between claims of human exceptionalism and psychological continuity by peeking behind the curtain and learning how the scientific claims are generated and justified. 

What are some of the topics you weave into the text and what are some of your major messages?

How to Study Animal Minds is a very short book, but I cover a lot of ground—animal consciousness, the importance of relationships with animal research subjects, biases and what to do with them, and even chimpanzee social cognition. But really it is a book that criticizes some current methodology in comparative psychology. By reviewing the major textbooks of comparative psychology, I found that students are taught not to think about their animal subjects as conscious beings with whom they can have relationships, and to avoid bias. But thinking about animals as unconscious data points is a bias! Imagine that developmental psychologists are taught not to treat infants like they are conscious, or not to play with children before they take them to the testing room. Their results would be rubbish! 

The textbooks promote three principles of comparative psychology: Morgan’s Canon, Anti-anthropomorphism, and Anti-anthropocentrism. Students are taught to follow Morgan’s Canon—assume that animal behavior is caused by the leanest mechanistic causal story possible given the data. They are taught to avoid anthropomorphism—seeing human properties in nonhuman animals. And they are taught to avoid anthropocentrism—seeing animals through a human lens and thinking what is important to us is important to them.

I argue that Morgan’s Canon and Anti-anthropomorphism are either vacuous or laden with a presumption of human exceptionalism. Furthermore, they can lead scientists not to ask questions that might be challenged as anthropomorphic, like the question “Do snakes have friends?”—the topic of a recent study by Morgan Skinner and Noam Miller. I defend Anti-anthropocentrism as a principle of comparative psychology; just as anthropologists have to check their cultural biases, comparative psychologists have to check their cultural and species biases.

Students are also taught to avoid considering animal consciousness, because it is either too hard or unscientific. But, philosophers have shown that while we can’t prove that humans are conscious, we’re justified in presuming humans are conscious, just as we’re justified in presuming that there is an external world and that we’re not merely a brain in a vat. The premise that humans are conscious allows us to do good science and generates findings that are robustly predictive and support other facts that we believe are true. I think the same is true of presuming animal consciousness. By altering our starting assumptions, we can radically change scientific methods, practices, and research questions to make the science richer and more fecund. 

Of course, I expect some scientists to object that this approach is biased—not objective. I respond by showing how the quest for objectivity in comparative psychology introduces bias, because science cannot be done without a point of view. The goal shouldn’t be avoiding bias, but recognizing it, and checking it—then we can seek to balance the biases that exist. 

I illustrate these rather abstract points by looking at the debate between chimpanzee researchers who work in the field and those who work in the lab. If you didn’t know better, you might think these researchers were talking about two different species. The way some field researchers describe them, it sounds like chimpanzees have a rich technological culture including social norms and maybe even morality. The way some lab researchers describe them, it sounds like chimpanzees are at best not very talented young children. I look at the debate on chimpanzee social cognition between two teams of scientists working with chimpanzees, one from the forest, and one from the lab, and show how the attempts to reach objectivity have gotten in the way of doing the science. This story is a bit of a cautionary tale, but it helps to identify biases in the field and in the lab, and I suggest a set of best practices for collaborations between researchers using these different methods.

What are some of your current projects?

I’m currently working on a book on morality and social norms in animals. My strategy is to look at normative cognition, or ought-thought. At this point, I think ought-thought is pretty widespread in animal species because it involves evaluating things in the world, like nutrition sources. Insofar as organisms evolved socially, these practices of evaluation were likely social before they were individual, and hence have many of the hallmarks of social norms. 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?

In the popular press, we see a lot of results from science, but we don’t get a very good education about how to interpret those results. The pandemic news cycle is a good example—new studies all the time, with differing results, and people get frustrated because we want the truth. But this is how science works.  

Compared to epidemiology, there are very few comparative psychology studies, and media reports about the amazing things animals can (or cannot) do are often based on a single study. We need more scientists working on comparative cognition to generate the number of studies needed to make significant progress in the field. That means we need more universities to hire academics working in comparative psychology, and more students to take those classes! 

Some of the biggest issues of the 21st century are going to involve animal behavior and cognition. Viruses jump from animals to humans, climate change and growth in human populations result in ecosystem change, which effects animal behavior in ways that can continue to impact ecosystems and environments. Scientists who work in animal behavior and comparative psychology will have an important role to play, and our institutions need to invest and start training the next generation of researchers today.



1) The book's description reads, "Comparative psychology, the multidisciplinary study of animal behavior and psychology, confronts the challenge of how to study animals we find cute and easy to anthropomorphize, and animals we find odd and easy to objectify, without letting these biases negatively impact the science. In this Element, Kristin Andrews identifies and critically examines the principles of comparative psychology and shows how they can introduce other biases by objectifying animal subjects and encouraging scientists to remain detached. Andrews outlines the scientific benefits of treating animals as sentient research participants who come from their own social contexts and with whom we will be in relationship. With discussions of science's quest for objectivity, worries about romantic and killjoy theories, and debates about chimpanzee cognition between primatologists who work in the field and those in the lab, Andrews shows how scientists can address the different biases through greater integration of the subdisciplines of comparative psychology."

2) Dr. Andrews' research focuses on understanding different kinds of minds, and in particular looks at the similarities and differences in kinds of minds when it comes to sociality, culture, and morality. She's the author of several books, including THE ANIMAL MIND: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animal Cognition which shows how considering animal minds can impact classic and contemporary debates in philosophy on the nature of mind, consciousness, language, communication, thought, rationality, sociality, and morality. When she's not in the city she likes to paddleboard with her dog Riddle through the lakes of Ontario.