Comparative Psychology and Ethology: differences and similarities

Comparative Psychology and Ethology: differences and similarities

Ethology is a branch of Psychobiology that is responsible for studying the behavior of animals of each species. This study is done both through experimentation and observation, the latter technique being the most widely used.

The functions of the ethologist are basically research and study of animal species, focused on their behavior in the environment.


  • 1 Origins of Ethology
  • 2 What is Comparative Psychology?
  • 3 Similarities and differences between Comparative Psychology and Ethology
  • 4 Methods of study in Ethology and Comparative Psychology

Origins of Ethology

The concept of Ethology It was first used by J. Mill (1843), who defined it as "an exact science about human nature." This term was used in biology and meant the one we understand today as Ecology. Subsequently, with the theory of "the evolution of the spices"In 1859 Charles Darwin was given a great boost to Ethology. This botanist was the first to investigate the behavior of plants. By 1907 and until 1940 the magazine" Zoological Record "had a section on Ethology, which dealt with about the study of behavior for each kind of animal. From Niko Timberg (1950) the concept of Ethology was accepted as a branch of Biology.

What is Comparative Psychology?

Comparative Psychology appeared in the fifties, which was defined as: any study of animal behavior, that is, as a psychology of all organisms except man.

Similarities and differences between Comparative Psychology and Ethology

From the appearance of Comparative Psychology, a series of conflicts between the two branches were generated, since there was no consensus on the tasks of each one. Comparative psychologists they had focused mainly on the study of the behavior, learning and mental life of animals. Its objective was to compare certain aspects of behavior between different animal species, while Ethology is the branch of biology and Experimental Psychology that studies the behavior of animals in their natural environments.

Finally, Hodós and Campbell (1969-1977) were able to draw individual characteristics between Ethology and Comparative Psychology.

  • The Comparative Psychology performs an anagen analysis of behavior, which takes as a starting point the study of behavioral similarities between species, moving away from the genetic point of view.
  • The ethologists on the other hand they interpret the data in the context of evolution, since they come from biology and zoology.

Today, Comparative Psychology and Ethology are practically the same and both belong to the Psychobiology.

Methods of study in Ethology and Comparative Psychology

The study of behavior can be done through various procedures, the most important are: systematic observation and experimentation. The basic difference between observation and experimentation is the provocation of the behavioral phenomena that you want to study.

The scientific observer records the behavior without manipulating the conditions in which it occurs, because what you want is to obtain information about the spontaneous behavior of the subjects under study in the least artificial conditions possible, in this way observational research is said to have an external validity, because the results can be generalized to the natural behavior of subjects under study.

The experimenter on the other hand, manipulates certain variables in order to know if by changing any of them, certain behaviors of individuals also change of the study. In this way, you will obtain results with internal validity, because manipulating the necessary variables in a convenient way will reduce the hypothesis about which factors affect the behavior.

Both in Comparative Psychology and in Ethology, observation is a fundamental method, in which the researcher can only discover new behaviors by investing time in the direct observation of the subjects he studies. This observation (which is based on discovering new behaviors), can sometimes be done in a casual way, but usually it must be complemented with a systematic observation phase, in which the purpose is the collection of objective data that will serve for the description of the behavior

When a systematic observation is made, we can be assured that the data we obtain is the result of natural behavior, but we do not know if the factors that we have registered as possible determinants of behavior (environmental variables, altrespecies ducts, etc.) are the main or the only ones that determine them. Thus our study will have a good external validity and instead will have a low internal validity.

By experimenting we have the possibility of controlling the factors that influence behavior and so we can be more sure that we know their conditions, but because we subject the study subjects to an artificial situation, we do not know what the behavior would be like if it were not manipulated by the scientist. In this way we achieve good internal validity but low external validity.

Currently there are very few psychology professionals who can dedicate these fields of study, since in many occasions special grants are needed to be able to afford animal research and there are very few private estates and companies that can or do want to do charge of the costs that this entails. Surely, in this case as in many others, supply far exceeds demand.


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