Animal Research in Psychology: Why do Psychologists Study Animals, and is it Ethical to Experiment on Animals?

This article is an essay about animal research in psychology. It particularly answers the questions “why do psychologists study animals, and is it ethical to experiment on animals?”

Animal Research in Psychology: Why do Psychologists Study Animals, and is it Ethical to Experiment on Animals?


Throughout its short history of recognition as a legitimate experimental field of study (in 1879 when Wundt founded the first laboratory dedicated to psych research) and subsequent diversification into specialized areas, psychology has utilized and in some cases depended upon the use of non-human animals in research. For just as long, this practice has been contested.

Views on the subject of animals in research are polar opposites and the debate appears to hinge upon two issues, first, does the scientific use of animals lead to valid, useful, and relevant results, and secondly, is it permissible for one species to cause pain, suffering, and death to another to achieve aims that primarily benefit the former species? Answering these two questions is fraught with difficulty, not least by virtue of the many different variables that require consideration.

Ethics of Animal Research in Psychology

To answer in the negative as to the utility or practicality of outcomes should leave the matter there, and the use of animals in research discounted, however, as in all scientific research, conclusions can not be drawn from a single instance, and successes in some experiments, while there may be failures in others, is not conclusive evidence.

Further, the validity and usefulness of results may be subjective; it is not unusual for scientific studies to be challenged years later on, nor methodology found to be flawed. To answer the first proposition in the positive brings us crashing to the hurdle of the second, much-debated issue of whether animals are conscious, moral beings to whom rights should be accorded. Even the question of whether the animal model is an appropriate comparator with humans requires the involvement of animals in the research.

The word research carries with it a somewhat negative connotation and conjures images of secretive men in white coats with unfamiliar surgical implements and ulterior motives. Many people may be surprised by how much research is conducted outside of the laboratory and by whom, so one of the barriers to understanding the role of animals in research is a dated perception based loosely on poor historical practices or B-grade horror films. Research involving animals is varied in both its nature and purpose, in the types of animals involved, and in the effect that it has on them. Some psychological research could be described as having a negligible impact on the animal, for example, observation studies in natural settings.

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Other experiments may actively engage animals in all manner of degrees, and although it is the most extreme of these (such as those involving mistreatment or torture) which raise the ire of those in opposition to the use of animals in research, detractors rarely draw the distinction with those experiments that are of specific benefit to animals or the preservation of the species, this includes advances in the field of veterinary science. Also escaping consideration is the fact that psychological research using animals has been instrumental in the training and study of medical assistance and companion animals, and in the development of pet therapy, all of immense benefit to humans. Humans seem to be selective in their outrage.

Pros of Using Animals in Research

Researchers argue that behavioural studies using animals can provide an insight into the behavioural processes of humans and other species (Herzog). It can be argued that psychology, as a science of behaviour and mental processes, includes, by necessity, the study of animals to help researchers better understand how animals, both human and non-human, develop and function.

The practice of using animals in research has allowed for significant advances across the fields which make up the science and has been central to the development of psychological theories. Without animals, comparative psychology is unviable, and researchers’ understanding of cognitive processes, evolution, social and mental development, and the ability to treat psychological dysfunction is severely compromised. The devil, however, is in the detail.

Cons of Using Animals in Research

The use of animals in psychological research has come under increasing scrutiny over the last 50 years. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Harlow was conducting controversial isolation experiments with monkeys that involved the total isolation of the animals for up to 24 months. Not surprisingly the animals emerged emotionally disturbed from the experience (Harlow).

This reignited the ethical debate regarding animals in research among scientists and academics and illuminated the fact that there was a sliding scale of belief or justification for the practice. (Bowd). The anti-vivisectionist movement which grew up around professionals like Singer, Benson, and Clark in the mid-1970s had a huge impact on the medical and scientific communities, accusing researchers of cruel treatment of animals while delivering few practical applications (Bowd).

The singer was especially critical of behavioural research stating simply either the animal is not like us, in which case there is no reason for performing the experiment; or else the animal is like us, in which case we ought not to perform an experiment on the animal which would be considered outrageous if performed on one of us. (p. 52, Singer)

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Experiments involving the infliction of pain or suffering on animals were receiving particular attention and M.A. Fox, who was a defender of experimentation, defined criteria emphasizing the benefit to scientific knowledge, limiting the negative effects on the animal, and exploring other equally effective alternatives to the use of animals. (Bowd) Still, there were others who, not satisfied with this concession, further constrained this criterion.

Bowd () contends that whether a procedure is “inherently objectionable” depends upon an analysis of the needs and nature of each species, in essence, Rollins’ rights principle ( Rollins 1985 in Bowd). Emerging from this however, was a general consensus that research, where the benefit to humans was outweighed by the cost of animal suffering (a utilitarian approach), was unnecessary and should be deplored.

Legislations Against the Use of Animals in Research

Whether by sheer coincidence or in response to public concerns (and bad publicity) stirred up by the anti-experimentation lobby, professional associations with an interest in research began to release their own codes of ethical conduct and dedicated guidelines regarding the use of animals (American Psychological Association, 1981; British Psychological Society, 1986; Canadian Psychological Association, 1986). In most jurisdictions, this is now supported by legislation and or Government issued codes of practice.

In Australia, it has been left to the individual states and territories to regulate and oversee the use of animals in research, there being an absence of Commonwealth legislation. This is achieved through the instrument the Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes (‘the Code’), developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The Code utilizes what is termed the 3 Rs approach: replacement (with other methods), reduction (in numbers), and refinement (of techniques). Several general principles which govern the use of animals in education and research have been adopted in many countries as the benchmark procedures aimed at minimizing the use of animals in research. These developments may reflect an attempt to reign in the debate and to put it back into the science domain where it belongs.

The sustainability of animal research is reliant on the preservation of scientific integrity and due deference to ethical concerns, and in this respect, the Code and legislation strike a reasonable balance. Regulation attempts to monitor and define the way research is conducted and achieves this end by the assessment of each individual aspect of the proposed experiment. The systematic scrutinization of factors such as species and number of animals involved, methodology and types of procedures proposed, general care and accommodation of animals, and so on, coupled with the exploration of alternative means of carrying out the research aims to safeguard against the traditional criticisms of animal research.

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Animal Research In PsychologyIssues of pain and distress It is no doubt inevitable that there will still be experimentation in which the animal is subjected to some discomfort or even pain, however, the Code provides some guarantee that this would only occur where such research is essential, of wide application and benefit to humans, no other viable alternative to the procedure has been identified, and such pain or discomfort would be minimized as much as was possible.


Animal research, as a valuable tool in the science of psychology, cannot be discounted. The current situation with respect to methods, technology, and oversight is markedly different from that preceding the 1970s and concerted efforts have been made to limit the negative impact of research on test subjects. It is in this atmosphere that the viability and suitability of the continued use of animals in research can be more forcefully argued.

Animal research has contributed to efforts to sustain both humans and animals as a species. It has been responsible for enhancing humanity’s knowledge about brain function, emotion, learning and language, and led to the development of biochemical and behavioural therapies. The impact of this knowledge resonates today.

Animal Research In PsychologyThe advancement of understanding should not be punished by the sins of the past, therefore providing the proposed research meets the benchmarks set by the Code and legislation, there is no reason why it ought not to proceed. Evidence may well emerge many years later to alter that view, but it is most likely to come only as a result of animal involvement in research. The current evidence suggests that with due consideration to the benefits accruing to all animals, dispensing with animals in research is incommensurate to the perceptible risks associated with their use today.

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Animal Research In Psychology


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