Psychology - Experiments using animals: practical issues

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Strengths of animal experiments

There are several reasons, beside ethical ones, for using animals in studies. These include:

  • they are similar to humans
  • they are simpler than humans
  • their environment can be controlled
  • they can be used in deprivation experiments
  • they are interesting and can benefit
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Humans and animals are similar

Humans and animals share evolutionary history so they are similar. We are much more similar to some species than others. Animals such as monkeys are more like humans than dogs or cats are, because monkeys are primates. Dogs and cats are more like humans than blackbirds are, because dogs and cats are mammals.

Animals that are like us have brains more like ours. This is important because our brains control the way we think and learn. For example, animals and humans both learn through classical conditioning and social learning.

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Animals are simpler then humans

The behaviour of animals is often simpler than human behaviour. This means they can help us to understand why humans react the way they do, as the behaviour of animals is easier to explain.

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Using controls

In laboratory experiments, we want to control variables. Think about controlling variables in an experiment on classical conditioning. The researcher might control:

  • where the participant is
  • how much they can move around
  • the food they can eat

People are not very likely to volunteer for an experiment like that so it would be done on animals. Other controls that can be used with animals that can't be used with people include access to:

  • social companions
  • sexual partners
  • light and dark

Controlling these factors improves the experiment as the researcher can be more sure that changes in the dependent variable have been caused by changes in the independent variable. This means that sometimes it is better to use animals than people.

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Do you like going without things? How do you feel if you can't watch the television, use your phone or find something to eat? Probably not very happy! People are unwilling to volunteer for experiments that involve deprivation. Instead, animals are generally used.

Depriving animals of food or social companions is often important in experiments on learning. Sometimes experiments involve deprivation of care by parents, sleep or the chance to dream. This is possible on animals but would be unethical to perform on humans as it is potentially very harmful.

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Animals are interesting and can benefit

One other practical reason to study animals is to find out about animals! It is interesting to know about the behaviour of animals, regardless of whether it is useful for understanding people. Think about research into whale or bird song. We like to know what animals do.

Research into animal behaviour can also help animals. By finding out about play or feeding behaviour we can develop ways to stop animals in zoos getting bored. For example, burying food or hanging it from branches keeps animals busy, as they would be in the wild.

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Weaknesses of animal experiments

One weakness of animal experiments is that:

  • animals are different from humans.
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Humans and animals are different

Although humans and animals are similar in some ways, there are also important differences. Humans have bigger brains and they are more complex. We are able to do things that animals can't, such as using language. We can also learn in more complex ways. Animals and humans do learn in similar ways, but humans have extra ways to learn.

People can learn through a process called insight. This is where we have a problem that we can't solve immediately. After a while, the answer comes to us. It seems as though our brains have been using the information to work out the answer. This is very unusual in animals.

This means findings from experiments on animals may not always apply to humans. For example, an animal may not be able to solve a problem in an experiment that a human could solve easily. 

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