Animal Behavior

Understanding Animal Behavior

The study of animal behavior is a cornerstone of experimental psychology, shedding light on how animals interact with each other and their environments, and why they behave the way they do. By studying animal behavior, humans can learn more about their own behavior—a field known as comparative psychology.

Animal behavior research is particularly relevant to the study of human behavior when it comes to the preservation of a species, or how an animal’s behavior helps it survive. The behavior of animals in stressful or aggressive situations can be studied to help find solutions for humans in similar circumstances, or to provide insight for dealing with depression, anxiety, or similar mental health disorders. Animal behavior research also contributes to the study of genetics by helping to resolve questions of nature vs. nurture, or which behaviors are controlled by genes and which are products of our environment.

Animal-assisted therapy, in which dogs, horses, and other domestic animals help facilitate different forms of therapy, can be helpful for individuals who are socially isolated, living with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, or suffering from a mood disorder or post-traumatic stress. Interacting with animals has been found to increase human levels of oxytocin, a hormone that enhances social bonding. Animal behaviorists are also interested in the ways animals themselves may benefit from relationships with humans.

Animal Emotion and Cognition

Many researchers who study animal cognition agree that animals “think”—that is, they perceive and react to their environment, interact with one another, and experience different emotions like stress or fear. Whether they are “conscious” in the same way that humans are, however, has been widely debated in both the fields of ethology (the study of animal behavior) and psychology. It was once thought, for example, that language—a critical feature of human consciousness and self-awareness—was unique to humans. But recent evidence indicates that is unlikely to be the case, with studies finding that monkeys, dogs, whales, and others have their own lexicons and, in some cases, even appear to learn human speech. As the study of animal cognition continues to develop, it will likely offer more insight into the brains of non-humans and humans alike.

CONNECTED TOPICS

Cognition

The Human-Animal Relationship

Every creature on Earth comes from the same common ancestor. And even after evolutionary paths diverged, humans and animals have continued to live side by side. The human-animal relationship has been at times antagonistic, but it’s more often been codependent—particularly since humans began domesticating animals, starting with the dog, more than 14,000 years ago. Animals—whether they’re plowing fields, living in human homes, or serving as sources of nourishment—have played a key role in the development of human civilization over the millennia. Today, contact with the natural world may be on the decline for many, but humans' complex psychological relationship with animals endures.

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