The Psychology of Animals

On the problems of studying animal behavior with limited human parameters…

Contrary to what most people think, animals do manifest interesting psychological traits. Considering available data and the fact that animal psychology is still in its developing phase, it would be premature to provide a blueprint for the animal ‘mind’, although many researchers have attempted to do that and there has been some success in the understanding of the animal mind through study of behavior and learning in animals. Of course, behaviorists would consider it absolutely unnecessary to talk of an animal ‘mind’ as according to them, learning and responses in animals could be explained completely with behavioral changes and association of different stimuli. Many psychologists believe animals simply show instinctual responses and their behavior does not have intentionality.

This means that animals simply follow a stimulus response pattern and instinctively show a trial and error behavioral pattern of actions rather than using their conscious mind to behave in a certain way. This is what Konrad Lorenz, a pioneering ethologist considered as ‘fixed action patterns’ or FAPs and it is believed that a few FAPs are caused by certain standard stimuli across the animal kingdom. Obviously if the mind is to the brain as the soul is to the body, the concept of mind itself would be problematic but although we cannot deny the human mind, we can in a way explain animal behavior without referring to the mind directly. How far would this position be appropriate?

In recent years animal mind has become a topic of great interest. Are animals able to think and feel? Are animals intelligent? Can they apply insight to solve certain problems? Anyone with a pet at home will respond positively to these questions. Of course animals seem to understand our moods, they know what exactly is coming after possibly having read our facial/bodily expressions, and in many cases animals are able to solve problems, almost with insight. If a caged bird is able to move out of a cage on pressing a lever will that be considered an insightful or trial and error behavior? Animals are not able to talk in our human language and we do not understand animal language so there is a gap in communication and this may be a primary reason for which we are incapable of knowing whether animals have ’emotional experiences’ and use insight to solve problems or whether everything to them is nothing but trail and error.

The problem with us humans is that we judge other animals with our only tool – language. We talk about emotions, insight and feelings in a particular way and it is impossible to gauge animal mind unless we also understand animal language and although we understand some animal gestures, we cannot probe deep into the mind of other species. But just because we are limited in our knowledge and understanding of animals, it will be too dismissive and unwise to consider that animals only use trial and error methods to respond to the world. It is of course largely accepted across biology and psychology that in Darwinian terms, the human brain being the most evolved is capable of more complex emotional patterns, insights, expectations etc than the lower animals and the more evolved brain would also naturally imply a higher ability for complex mental functions. Other animals are only capable of mental functions that require lesser brain capabilities.

There is a famous study by David and Ann Premack who suggested that it is possible to teach human language to nonhuman apes. They worked with chimpanzees and a famous bonobo Kanzi to suggest that certain animals can also learn human language and can also spontaneously produce and recognize words. Some language learning has also been seen in birds like parrots but although parrots show rote learning by trial and error, chimpanzees and bonobos may just show some rudimentary form of intelligent behavior in their manipulation of language. Across the animal kingdom we have come across many cases and examples, when animals sulk or get depressed when they lose a mate or a young one, just like us humans. Animals also show very organized and complex mating behavior, highly developed learning behavior and even their social life seem to be based on survival strategies.

Learning Behavior: Learning in animals has been primarily explained by behaviorists who considered that animal learning could be explained with the principles of conditioning or association. Thus a dog learns to salivate when he sees his owner coming out of the kitchen with a particular plate because this is a pattern that has been repeated over time and the dog has associated the owner and the dish with the satisfaction of his hunger for food. But is it just a reflexive behavior and is the dog completely devoid of actual insight about the situation? Some comparative psychologists would think that just like us, dogs also have emotions such as happiness and expectations of something and evolutionary psychologists will consider the difference as dependent on the brain.

Social Behavior: Certain insects such as bees show highly complex social behavior, even more complex than some of the higher animals. But from an evolutionary viewpoint the higher animals will have more mental capabilities than bees, then how do bees show such complexity in behavioral social responses? Bees tend to have specialized neurons for complex tasks although it is suggested that the need to survive develops complexity in social behavior in case of bees, ants and other insects that prefer colonies or grouping and tend to have their own rules to survive or avoid attacks from other animals.

Mating behavior: Throughout the animal kingdom, the mating behavior of animals is highly complex. From secreting pheromones to changing body colors, animals can resort to desperate means to attract a potential mate. Some animals are even known to die just to mate and just like humans animals use their sensory cues through smell and sight to identify and attract a mate. We humans also largely rely on our sense organs to decide who we want as a mate yet we also use some insight and understanding to finally stabilize our mating process. In animals however, the entire copulation process apparently seem to be biologically controlled with actual bodily changes and this may or may not indicate the presence of a mind. But, when animals suffer from distress after losing a mate, it is a clear indication that we need to rethink our understanding of animal mating behavior based purely on biological programming.

Animals seem to show nearly all kinds of behavior that humans are capable of and have complex social, mating, and learning behavior and they show emotions of distress (after losing a close one), joy (on getting affection or a meal), altruism (the need to help other animals by warning of danger) and show many such complex patterns of action to maintain survival of their species. One thing they don’t seem to share with us is our unique human language and thus they are not able to say exactly what or how they feel. It could be suggested that certain animals have certain well developed regions of the brain that allow them to be good at certain behaviors and not good at certain others. In most cases, animals identify earthquakes and natural disasters far better and hours or days before we do.

Reptiles such as snakes have highly developed sense of vibrations, for example, bats and even certain birds and insects have a highly developed sense of radiation, dogs have a better sense of smell and sound than humans, chimps have shown higher adaptive behavior than humans (according to a study by Jianzhi Zhang) and humans have highly developed language area in the brain with better cognitive skills. With our brain being capable of doing several complex tasks, human beings are considered as the most evolved in the animal kingdom, yet we have to remember that human brain may not be evolved in all areas equally and certain other animals may have better abilities in performing certain tasks that we humans would ever be capable of. So, this is not a question of who is better but who is better at what. Considering this, is it correct to think that humans are the most superior or most evolved among all other animals? This is a question that ethologists, evolutionary biologists, comparative psychologists, behavioral ecologists, sociobiologists, zoologists and animal physiologists will have to answer.