Animal Psychology

Animal psychology, or animal behavior study, is the understanding of their behavior, instincts and social rituals in their natural habitat as well as in our unnatural human environment.

The foundation of animal psychology is understanding differences between instincts and learned behavior.

Animal Behavior

The types of behaviors exhibited are rich and various. Some are genetically determined, or instinctive, while others are learned behaviors.

Scientists call instinctive behavior a fixed action pattern. Fixed action patterns do not require learning or prior experience for their expression. They can, however, be very complex.  For example it has been noted that a cocoon-spinning spider performs over 6000 individual movements in a virtually identical fashion each time it prepares and closes its cocoon. And all of them behave the same way and they have never learned this ability.

Fixed action patterns cannot be identified solely because they are highly stereotypic and species-specific. For example, songs of bird species fit those criteria but are actually learned behaviors, not instinctive behaviors. Birds deprived of the experience of hearing the song do not produce the characteristic song pattern. Deprivation experiments in which animals are raised without parents,or contact with their own species, have typically been used to help distinguish a behavior that is a fixed action pattern from those which are learned.

Learned behaviors of animals can be classified in various ways:

1)  Associative Learning

2) Observational Learning or Modeling

3) Insight Learning

Associative Learning

In Associative Learning an animal learns to associate one stimulus with another. There are 2 forms of associative learning. The first is described as classical conditioning and was demonstrated by Pavlov in his famous dog experiments. First he stimulated dogs to salivate by rubbing meat powder on their lips. The meat powder odor stimulated salivation as a physiological process. He then “conditioned ” dogs by ringing a bell, or a tuning fork, at the same time as applying the meat powder. He then demonstrated that the animals had become conditioned to associate the sound of the bell with the meat powder and would salivate to the noise without food present.  A second form of associative learning  is called operant conditioning. In operant conditioning  an animal conducts a chance action e.g. pressing a lever and is rewarded with food. Rapidly the animal learns that the action leads to a food reward and will carry out the behavior repeatedly for food. This is the type of approach applied in most animal training.

Observational Learning or Modeling

Observational learning or modelling is when the animal learns a behavior through watching other animals conduct the behavior. For example,in a pack animal such as the wolf, hunting behaviors, fit this category.

Insight Learning

Insight learning is in a sense the  “highest form” of learning observed. It is the ability to problem solve or to perform a correct or appropriate behavior the first time the animal is exposed to a situation. For example a chimpanzee may stack boxes to obtain a food object hung out of its reach without ever having seen this solution to the problem before. However, it is not restricted to primates e.g. Ravens and other birds will also show insight learning.

Animal Cognition

Cognition is the ability to think. When applied in the context of animal behavior it refers to the ability of an animal to be aware of and make judgements about its environment. Are animals conscious of themselves and their place in the world? Do they feel pain, pleasure and sadness in the same way as humans? Professor Donald Griffin of Princeton has been a proponent of the concept of cognition. This views conscious thinking as an inherent and essential part of the behavior of many non-human animals. Conscious thinking has been demonstrated in non-human primates but it is a very difficult subject to study with scientific rigor. As it is written above very many complex behaviors are actually genetically determined or learned by simple associations that do not need cognition.

Interesting Facts about Animals

1) Can animals talk?

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.

2)  Compassion

When a dolphin is sick or injured, its cries of distress summon immediate aid from other dolphins, who try to support it to the surface so that it can breathe.

3)  Insecurity

A frightened dog puts it’s tail between it’s legs because it covers the scent glands in the anal area. Since the anal glands carry personal scents that identify individual dogs, the tail-between the-legs behavior is the canine equivalent of insecure humans hiding their faces.