Differences Between Comparative Psychology and Ethology

Comparative psychology and ethology try to explain animal behavior in a scientific and accurate way.
Differences Between Comparative Psychology and Ethology

Last update: 23 January, 2020

Just like any other biological characteristic, behavior is something that can be measured, and comparative psychology and ethology are two different ways of doing this.

What is comparative psychology?

Comparative psychology studies the similarities and differences in animal behavior. In particular, it focuses on solving different problems through learning.

What is ethology?

Ethology is the scientific study of animal behavior, in particular, using a definition of behavior as a set of observable activities that the animal performs in relation to its environment and its nervous system.

History of the study of animal behavior

Early studies on animal behavior were written descriptions, and we can find an early example in  Aristotle’s work, Historia Animalium.

During the Middle Ages, fantastic detail appeared in these descriptions. In fact, illustrations didn’t match reality and people described animals in magical terms as the result of legend and folklore.

Then, from the seventeenth century onwards, we start to find more elaborate works, including some about birdsong or how birds make their nests.

During the nineteenth century, with the theories of Lamarck and Darwin, evolution became a significant part of describing animal behavior. Many scientists started to make claims about animal intelligence and also to conduct behavioral experiments.

A mouse being studied in a lab.

During the twentieth century, experimental studies divided into two different schools of thought:

  • Behaviorism or the American school. This school of thought studies how animals solve problems by learning in an artificial environment, such as a laboratory. This, in turn, led to theories about positive and negative reinforcement.
  • Innatism or the European school. This focuses on the behavior of animals in their natural environment. The biologist Oscar Heinroth is a particularly important researcher and was the first to use the definition of ethology we know today.

How do you study behavior in ethology?

Being a science, researchers need to draw conclusions by measuring and analyzing data. In ethology, behavior is analyzed using Heinroth’s four key standards:

  1. The animal must be observed in its natural environment.
  2. There should be no interference from the observer.
  3. Behavioral traits must be broken down into discrete units called patterns.
  4. These patterns must be observable, quantifiable and differentiable.
A man observing wildlife as part of comparative psychology and ethology.

Each behavioral trait also has an explanation that should relate to the animal’s development, evolution, functionality, and biology. Zoologist Tinbergen defined the following approaches:

  • Ontogenetic: tries to explain at which point a certain behavioral trait appears in the animal’s development.
  • Causal: includes the neuronal, morphological, and physiological mechanisms that make the behavioral trait possible.
  • Phylogenetic: studies how a behavioral trait has evolved to the present day.
  • Functional: justifies why natural selection has favored that behavioral trait.

Differences between comparative psychology and ethology

Although historically the two are related, and their distinctions have been unclear, there are some small nuances that differ between them:

  • Ethology has its origins in Europe, while comparative psychology became popular in the United States.
  • Comparative psychology is part of psychology, while ethology is closer to the zoology.
  • Ethology places more emphasis on a species’ instinct and natural behavior while comparative psychology focuses on learning and the development of behavioral theories.
  • The methods used in comparative psychology focus on lab work and responses to different variables. Ethology, on the other hand, uses observation in the field without interference from the observer.

However, both sciences essentially aim to understand the same thing: how and why a behavioral trait occurs.

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