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Psychological research, obedience and ethics
Psychological research, obedience and ethics

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Introduction

Psychology is often thought to be just about human beings. However, there are important areas of psychological research that involve non-human animals.

Research with non-human animals poses two important questions:

  • How relevant are studies of non-human animals to human psychology? Aren’t human beings unique and different from other animals?
  • Is it acceptable to carry out experiments on non-human animals in the interests of science?

The tasks in this online activity give you the opportunity to consider these questions for yourself and clarify your own opinions and understanding of the issues they raise. The activity will help you to recognise why psychologists carry out research with non-human animals and identify the ethical issues involved in such research.

Figure 8

Why carry out research with animals?

You have been introduced to a number of ethics principles that apply to research on human participants. But why might psychologists want to do research with animals other than humans?

Here are some reasons. Select ‘Reveal comment’ to read a more detailed explanation:

Reason 1

To find out about the evolution of psychological functions.

Discussion

By studying how different species adapt their behaviour to their environments, and trying to identify innate factors in adaptation, it is hoped that the interactions of genes, environments and learning can be understood better, thus shedding light on how evolution may have shaped human psychological processes.

Reason 2

To better understand psychological principles that apply across different species.

Discussion

If similar processes are found in a range of species, this helps researchers to describe and (they hope) explain the basic principles of behaviour and other processes, such as attachment and learning.

Reason 3

To do experiments that would be unethical with humans.

Discussion

Arguably, as you will learn later in this activity, it can be seen as less problematic to use non-human animals in experiments that involve potentially harmful conditions such as deprivation, pain or confinement, or for example, to explore the effects of punishment.

Reason 4

To better understand what is special about humans.

Discussion

A substantial amount of research with non-human animals is carried out to identify psychological functions such as language and empathy, which other animals may not possess. Attempts to teach language to chimpanzees, for example, have met with only limited success, clarifying the specialised language abilities of humans.