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Animal Behavior

Insights on How Animal and Human Psychology Relate

Understanding animal psychology offers a lot for understanding human psychology.

I started this blog a little over a year ago as a way of exploring the intersection of animal behavior research and human psychology. Research on animal behavior provides a lot of insights for understanding behavior in general, regardless of whether the behavior comes from a human or nonhuman animal.

There are many similarities between all animal species in terms of behaviors and this blog is meant to provide information about those similarities. It is something I started after the publication of my book, Comparative Psychology for Clinical Psychologists and Therapists (Marston & Maple, 2016). “Comparative Psychology” is the term for the study of behavior across species and, like that book, this blog is meant to investigate what useful information the field holds for understanding why we do what we do.

There are a number of things that I have learned about the intersection of animal and human psychology while writing this blog. Some of this, I knew about a little when starting this blog and just found out more when writing material. Other learnings were brand new to me. But all of it was very interesting and provided more of an understanding behavior better. I thought that I would share some insights that I have gained about the field of comparative psychology over the past year or so.

Human Behavior Isn’t Necessarily Better Than Nonhuman Behavior

Human and nonhuman animals all are trying to make their way in the world. Behaviors are all geared towards improving an individual’s chances of survival and thriving. Different behaviors occur not because any one species is better than another. What differs is the environments and what each of us needs to survive and thrive.

Nonhuman animals behave differently than humans because that is what their situations demand. What works for humans would not necessarily work for animals. Humans do not understand everything better about what works, they just understand what works best for them in their particular situations. Determining what works is a matter of context, not a matter of what is “better” or “worse”.

Sometimes Being Able To Talk Isn't So Great

Humans primarily communicate through the use of verbal speech. Even though languages are different throughout the world, the emphasis of verbal communication is common worldwide. Animals communicate but do not rely on verbal speech. They are not able to use words or similar verbal means and rely on other approaches for communication.

As I brought up in an earlier blog post, verbal speech allows for communication about what is happening in different places and at different times. Animal communication emphasizes what is going on in the “here and now”. Even though having the ability to communicate about what is happening (or has happened) elsewhere can be very helpful, it is not always such a great thing. Focusing outside of the “here and now” can have problems because it leads people to expect that we can understand or control what happens elsewhere the same as what is happening in the present moment. Since the “here and now” is the only place where we have any direct control it is often beneficial to focus only on that. Animals do that naturally and humans could learn a lot from that approach.

Psychotherapy and counseling have roots in animal psychology.

Sigmund Freud famously did a lot of work on describing how understanding animal behavior could help us understand human psychology. His writings on psychoanalysis emphasized a good deal about what was known at the time about apes and other primates. Studies of apes contributed to his famous theory called the “Oedipal Complex” (Herman, 1938) and to his work on social psychology (Eissler, 1963). Even though much of his work has been debunked in recent decades he did provide considerable material that later psychotherapy authors and theories built on.

B.F. Skinner is famous for developing another very prominent branch of psychotherapy called “behavior therapy”. This later formed the base of what is called “cognitive-behavior therapy”. Skinner did a good deal of work with animals and, in fact, most of his theories were based primarily on his comparative psychology research. He did work with pigeons and rats that laid out the groundwork for understanding how behaviors work. This information then led to interventions for changing behaviors associated with psychological conditions (Skinner, 1988). His work with animals also created a related field, called “applied behavior analysis”, that is the most common therapeutic approach used to help individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism (Morris, Smith & Altus, 2005).

There is another author named Paul Gilbert who has done a lot in more recent years underscoring how research on animal development contributes to helpful therapy and counseling approaches. He started by looking at how animal research contributed to the development of “cognitive therapy” (Gilbert, 2002) and then has more recently developed his own therapy approach, much of it based on comparative psychology research, called “compassion focused therapy” (Gilbert, 2014).

What you have here is information showing that comparative psychology has contributed to the most prominent types of therapy and counseling. Comparative psychology research shows that animals rely on behaviors that are most likely to help them deal with the environments around them. When researchers look at the “context” in which behaviors occur they gain considerable insight into what purposes the behaviors serve. Taking a similar approach allows clinical psychologists and therapists to help clients find different ways of reaching the same outcomes with behaviors that are less problematic.

“Survival of he Fittest” is not what drives behaviors.

All animals, human and nonhuman, are looking to survive. And many behaviors are directed towards that goal. But individual survival is not the only thing driving behaviors. If it was then behaviors would look a lot different than they do. Individual animals would only look to get food and reproduction opportunities for themselves. There would be no sort of “group psychology” when it comes to behavior because everyone would be looking out for what they need. Even parents would not be concerned about their children because they would only be looking for their own survival.

Behaviors can best be explained generally by saying that all animals are looking to “survive and thrive” in their environments. This is a phrase that can be difficult to define specifically but it does reflect the overall goals of behaviors. Individuals look not only for their own survival but also to help with survival of their species (or at least some part of their species). This is why individual animals are concerned about their offspring and family members. They also are often concerned about members of their immediate groupings. This is not the sort of thing that would happen if individual animals were only concerned about themselves.

It is also most often the case that animals are looking to gain ground and protect their survival, and the survival of others who are important to them, using the least amount of energy and resources possible. This does not reflect laziness but a general recognition that using the least amount of energy and resources will leave more for difficulties later on. Sometimes this means being the most efficient in what someone does and sometimes it can even mean “giving up” when it is clear that trying to win a battle will be too costly. Getting the most with the least amount of effort possible is a common approach across all animal species.

Behaviors are very similar across species.

Behaviors may look very different across different animal species. Humans, in particular, often look like their behaviors are very different from those shown by other animals. But the truth is that all behaviors, whether they come from human or nonhuman animals, follow very similar rules.

Reinforcement is a guiding principle for all behaviors. What behaviors lead to positive reinforcement are the behaviors that tend to be repeated. And what behaviors do not lead to desired outcomes are ones that are not repeated. This may sound simple but is actually very complex. One reason is that what is reinforcing for one individual may not be reinforcing for another individual. This is also complicated because how often something needs to occur in order to be reinforcing can be difficult to establish. Gambling, for example, can be a difficult behavior to extinguish for some people because people do win games periodically and know that a win could be “just around the corner” can make continued gambling very appealing for some people.

Rules of behaviors being the same for all species is one of the reasons why behaviors is the most important area of study for comparative psychology. There are often discussions of whether animals have “thoughts” or “emotions”. And those discussions can be very interesting and even important. But even if those things do exist for different species there is little doubt that they would look very different. Emotions, for example, would have to be different for nonhuman animals because verbal speech contributes a lot to how humans process emotions. Since nonhuman animals do not use verbal speech their experiences of anything similar to emotions would have to be much different than human animals.

But that is not the case for behaviors. Reinforcement rules are the same for types of behaviors and across all different animal species. And behaviors can be observed. Measuring and testing behaviors do not require the individual to report anything because others can see what is happening. This makes behaviors not only accessible but also makes the study of behaviors much more scientific.

Academics don't always have the answers.

Because my field of interest is the intersection of Comparative Psychology and Clinical Psychology, I have had a lot of interaction with a group called “Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology”. And, to be honest, I don’t like dealing with them very much. One of the main reasons is that they are made up almost exclusively of academics and show little interest in moving the understanding of comparative psychology outside the university. Their view of understanding human and animal psychology is a good example of the old saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Since all many of them know is the university they see this as the only place where studying behaviors across species can be appreciated.

To me, this is much too limiting a view. Understanding animal and human behaviors can help all professionals understand more about what contributes to psychological processes and how to bring about psychological and behavioral change. There needs to be more communication among all professionals about how best to understand all behaviors and what will best bring about the changes we all need. Keeping the discussion of comparative psychology “locked inside” the university doors is not the best way to do this.


Eissler, K. R. (1963). Freud and the Psychoanalysis of History. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 11(4), 675-703.

Gilbert, P. (2002). Evolutionary approaches to psychopathology and cognitive therapy. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 16(3), 263-294

Gilbert, P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(1), 6-41.

Hermann, I. (1938). Prototype of the Oedipus and Castration Complexes in Apes. The Psychoanalytic Review (1913-1957), 25, 99.

Marston, D. C., & Maple, T. L. (2016). Comparative psychology for clinical psychologists and therapists: What animal behavior can tell us about human psychology. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Morris, E. K., Smith, N. G., & Altus, D. E. (2005). BF Skinner’s contributions to applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 28(2), 99-131.

Skinner, B. F. (1988). The operant side of behavior therapy. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 19(3), 171-179.

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