Is it ethical to use animals in psychological research?

31 01 2012

Harmful methods are used in some behavioural research, but this is fairly rare and definitely not achieved out of simple curiosity. An examination of articles published from 1979 to 1983 in journals of the American Psychological Association that report animal research indicated that none of the most extreme accusations  that animals were subjected to extreme brutality and death were justified (Coile & Miller, 1984). only 10 % of the studies used any shock treatment , and only 4 %used an unavoidable shock of >.001 ampere (which can be tolerated on the fingertips). Also, 80 % of the studies using shock treatment  or deprivation were financed by esteemed establishments that entail full justification of all trials and a report of purpose. Experiments performed out of mere curiosity are not funded.

Coile and Miller (1984) acknowledged that their study may not embody a perfect assessment of animal research, as they did not inspect non-APA journals and because cases of cruelty may have happened without being stated. Nevertheless, it is sure that as no accounts of abuse emerged in the major established psychology journals, cruel treatment of animals cannot be deemed a dominant trait of psychology. Furthermore, there are procedures that try to stop the cruel, negligent treatment of animals. The majority of research organisations and universities have ethics committees that assess proposals. Regulations and rules for the maintenance and handling of animals have been created by the Federal Animal Welfare Act , these rules are applied through examinations by federal and funding agencies.

The claim that psychological research on animals has not been of any benefit to humans is also unfounded. Such research has been accountable for key developments in human welfare (Miller, 1985). For example, the principles of learning established originally with animals have been used to improve  teaching and to deliver more innovative treatments of enuresis (bed-wetting), anorexia nervosa, and scoliosis. Animal research has developed methods to recuperate function in moderately paralyzed limbs and to treat high blood pressure and migraines . Research on early visual deficiencies in animals has revealed that lasting neurological changes happen, directing the medical community to highlight earlier detection and care of visual defects in babies.

Both arguments about the ethics of animals in research have been guilty of misrepresentation in their disputes on this issue. Cruelty most likely does occur, but is uncommon. Some research may be of dubious validity, however animal research has given rise to in many advantages, moreover, in most cases, no practical alternative exists (Gallup & Suarez, 1985).

Herzog (1988) showed that the verdicts being made regarding moral responsibilities to other species are often fickle and contradictory.  For example the ethical right of a rat is really subjective as to whether it is considered a lab animal, vermin, or pet. To kill the lab rat might be condemned, while to kill vermin or to use them as food for snakes is likely to create little objection. We require neither  a complete ban nor complete warrant, but a somewhat reasonable , educated, and objective assessment together with sensible ethics and the means to implement those standards.




19 responses

3 02 2012

I agree that the use of animal testing does benefit a lot of psychological research, but it appears that animal research does not get the recognition it deserves. One study found that there wasn’t much animal research mentioned explicitly in textbooks unless it was about conditioning or learning. (Domjan & Purdy, 1995)Some studies were even manipulatively written to sound like human studies! (Domjan & Purdy, 1995) This may explain why psychology student’s knowledge of animal testing in so poor, as found in Furnham and Heye’s 1992 research. This either devalues the importance of animals testing in psychological research or implies that the publisher thinks people will be angry reading an article involving animal research. Hiding the use of animal testing in research only enforces these suggestions and implications as opinions more. This is not good as this may lead to many things being undiscovered for a long time until opinions on animal testing may change. Therefore, researchers and publishers should be as honest as possible about their use of animal testing so that readers can understand how important it is and how much they benefit from animal testing in psychological research.

Domjan, Michael;Purdy, Jesse E. Animal research in psychology: More than meets the eye of the general psychology student. American Psychologist, Vol 50(7), Jul 1995, 496-503. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.50.7.496

Furnham & Heyes. (1992) Psychology students’ beliefs about animals and animal experimentation.

4 02 2012

I agree that several theories have initially come from behaviour observed in animals, such as Skinner’s observation of operant conditioning of rats (1956). However, it is hard to directly compare animal research to humans in order to fully analyse its usefulness. For example, Gosling (2001) collected research from hundreds of studies regarding personality in various species of animals. From this research it was evident that traits could be distinguished in animals, just like in humans. However, as we do not speak the same language of animals it could be suggested that researchers may not have actually been measuring personality traits at all, and if they were it would be to a different degree to what can be measured with humans. A study that Gosling looked at by Wilson et al. (1993), compared the shyness of a fish to how quickly they adapt in captivity. However, the construct of shyness was measured in terms of their diet and stomach content, so is this really measuring shyness or not? This example demonstrates how a lack of self-report from non-humans can hugely impact on inferences and can make it difficult to use as a basis for human research.
Research by Shapiro (1997) found that 40-60% of psychologists believed that research involving cruelty to animals is often unjustified. So is it really worth it? By corroborating research with Plous, Shapiro found that over 90% of mental health workers never or rarely use research based on animals, and that 60% of psychologists specialising in eating disorders did not realise that there was animal research on eating disorders so therefore weren’t using it. So if the research is not being acknowledged or used then the potential cruelty to animals to conduct the research is not justified, and in my opinion does not adequately benefit the field of psychology.



Shapiro, and Plous:

4 02 2012
7 02 2012

As a lover of animals, I have never fully agreed with the use of testing on them. However, this blog was very informative and seemed to show an importance of no harm coming to the animal being tested on. Considering psychology is the study of humans, it would be silly to assume all research can be tested on animals as it could not be generalised to humans, though possibly applied to a certain extent. However, due to ethical implications we cannot possibly research everything we want to know on humans because of how some of this research may be carried out. So, I suppose though I don’t agree with the use of animals within research (not just including psychology), I find it hard to argue that sometimes it cannot be excused, though I do believe harm shouldn’t come to the animal in question, just as much as ethics states the human participant should not come to any harm.

8 02 2012

It’s nice to someone taking the other side of the fence on an argument like that. Normally people will out-right say that animal experimentation is wrong, but you’ve used sound logic and reasoning to defend something that is often completely out of context. Take for example the study conducted by Hossman and Zimmerman, (1974) an example of horrific injustice to animals. Monkeys were left without blood flow to their brains for an hour before being resuscitated to see the effects it had on the brain. Again a horrible experiment, however the results from this experiment can be transferred to humans and this could potentially save lives. I guess it’s like the lesser of two evils. Most experiments are no where close to these sort of ethical extremes, and it’s sad that experiments like this disrupt thousands of potential findings. Sometimes the tough calls need to be made, even if the majority won’t like the decision.

8 02 2012

I found your blog very informative and it presented good for and against arguments. I found a more up to date but less scientific presentation of the argument for using animals in research.
The artical, from the Telegraph in 2008, explained that where possible alternatives to animals are used, for example, isolated tissue examination. Using animals in research for testing is a last resort, however we are biologically similar to many species such as rats and mice and therefore it is sometimes neccessary to use them.
Animals are very important in the development of treatments for serious cancers such as breast and bowel. For example, the treatment for breast cancer was founded after research conducted with mice.
The reporter goes on to make a valid point. That scientists and researchers are not animal haters, they are compassionate driven individuals who are determined to better the worl of medicine for generations to come.

8 02 2012
10 02 2012

I think you made some very interesting points about what is a very controversial issue here. Many studies throughout the history of psychology have been focused around the use of animals (Pavlov used dogs: 1889, Skinner used rats and pidgeons: 1959, and Bowlby used baby monkeys: 1958).

Whilst it could be argued that these studies could be considered to be using animals unfairly, it must be noted that their results lead the way for further research into many aspects of human behaviour.

I must correct you on your point about people feeding a rat to a snake as this is illegal in the UK. As a rat has a central nervous system this would cause pain and suffereing and is therefore outlawed in the UK. (!) However your point still stands that people will indeed give little thought to killing a rat if they had an infestation, and yet would probably object to their use in experiments. However this could be due to the fact that a rat would be killed quickly by way of poison as apposed to the percieved sufferering in laboritories.

10 02 2012

Really good blog, so well written with plenty of evidence! Although I agree that animal research has contributed to our knowledge today, I believe animal research is seeing a decline and will become a thing of the past as ethics are now extremely important. There are so many anti-animal testing organisations that suggest animal testing is pointless as you cannot generalise from animals to humans. To some extent their are rules in place to protect animals but what about the Helsinki issue of to test on humans there must be no lasting damage? Yet we can give lasting damage to animals because when testing a new drug, we can’t be sure of the consequences? Unlike humans, animals cannot give their consent and are unable to withdraw once they’ve had enough or are in pain. Dr John Parkinson lists some inhumane procedures carried out on animals – if you wish to read them the link is provided at the end of this comment. To conclude if carried out without the regulations put into place, I think animal testing can be horrific and sometimes unnecessary. However, when used to benefit society and human life, when done humanely without unnecessarily harming the animal it is acceptable.,_Cruel,_Unecessary_and_Harmful_to_Human_Health.

10 02 2012
10 02 2012

Think you made some great points but another side to the argument can be found in the horrible studies of monkey drug trials where they were trained to inject themselves with drugs, which was completely unnecessary and obv extrememly cruel that we used our power to harm animals.

10 02 2012

A great, well-reasoned blog. When it comes to psychology, the study of human behaviour, I believe that’s unfounded to claim that animal research doesn’t contribute to our knowledge on the subject. When it comes down to it, there’s a lot that we can learn about our selves by studying animals. Our basic brain structure and reflexive and innate behaviours are easily comparable, and, in my opinion, results garnered from one can be used confidently to make generalizations about the other. Obviously higher cognition and the like are a huge exception to this, but don’t hinder the fact that underlying processes can still be studied.

10 02 2012
Michael Perrins

i agree with the notion that the testing on animals can be seen as unethical, when they come to harm. Yet a lot of animal experiments are focused on that of behaviour and in the case of Skinner (1948), the rat did come under a small amount of unpleasantness, yet it was nothing fatal, or dangerous. Yet the animals are not aware of their right to withdraw, which is a key piece of information that participants in studies should be aware of. There is a case recently in america where there are some that are arguing that animals are not given the option of being in captivity or not , so that could be seen as unethical as well.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). ‘Superstition’ in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.

10 02 2012
13 02 2012
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16 02 2012
MEG :)

I really appreciate the balanced view that you took on this topic. As for many animal ethics seems to be a sensitive topic. I think that it is a real shame that a few unethical studies give psychology such a bad name. Especially as much of the animal testing that people oppose comes under medical research, not psychological. I agree that there is a huge amount that we can learn from animals, about them and ourselves. Particularly with primates who are definitely in some ways comparable and therefore finding can be generalised cautiously. It seems a waste in naturally occurring situations to not see how we could improve something for them, and in the process see if this can be applied and benefit us. Research has found that many chimpanzees can solve problems quicker than a human can blink, and where human children fail to think logically to solve simple tasks, young chimpanzees do not seem to struggle! There is clearly a lot left to learn. As long as we keep on top of the wonderful ethical guidelines there is no need to abolish the use of animals.

16 02 2012
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22 02 2012

Found your blog to be informative and a well balanced. Firstly, I agree with you that it’s ridiculous to ignore the positive effects of using animals in research. Before even mentioning how valuable its been to the world of psychology the difference that using animals in research have had on medicine is incredible.
Ivan Pavlov (1927) developed the concept of classic conditioning using dogs as his participants. Here he made ground braking research on learning theories, and his findings on classic conditioning are still seen as being influential till this day. Pavlov is an example of a researcher of using animals in research ethically and giving great insight into learning behavior.
However Harlow (1960) used monkeys in his experiment to discover the detachment theory. This experiment is still seen as one of the most unethical and immoral use of animals in research. The monkeys suffered from extreme psychological damage and become ‘psychotic’. Although, some still believe that his research gave us influential information on detachment the theory.
Therefore the use of animals in experiments should be kept reasonable. The benefits should always outweigh the costs.

Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex.

22 02 2012

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