Historical trends in American comparative psychology

The author discusses post-WWII trends in the field of comparative psychology, including the increased participation of women and increased collaborative research

By Donald A. Dewsbury, PhD
The following is based on a paper presented at the APA Meeting, Washington, D.C., August, 2011.

For many years comparative psychologists and others have seemed obsessed with self-examination, reflection and critiques (e.g., Beach, 1950; Demarest, 1980; Hodos & Campbell,1969; Lockard, 1971; Schneirla, 1946; Whitman, 1899; Wilson, 1975). This, in turn, has produced a plethora of replies and followups. Perhaps this is a function of the marginalization of CP within psychology as a whole. Here I continue this trend with two quite different analyses. The first is an analysis of some trends in the Journal of Comparative Psychology (JCP) since its re-emergence in 1983; it is relatively short-term and quantitative. The second is a consideration of some broad trends in the field — long-term and qualitative.

In my history of psychology courses I discussed 15 post-WWII trends in psychology that I believe characterize the field. Here I address four of them: feminization, internationalization, collaboration and cognitivization. (I realize that not all are accepted words.)

I analyze data from the JCP, the premier journal in the field. It was founded from the "merger" of Psychobiology and the Journal of Animal Behavior in 1921, merged into the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology in 1947, and reestablished in 1983. I conducted two analyses: the first was on the content of issues as close to 10 years apart as possible: 1983, 1990, 2000 and 2010. Second, I considered the initial editorial boards appointed by the five editors of the journal during this period: Jerry Hirsch (1983), Gordon Gallup (1989), Charles Snowdon (1994), Meredith West (2001) and Gordon Burghardt (2005).

My first analysis concerned the representation of women in CP; the number in psychology as a whole has increased during the post-WWII period. In a few cases, it is difficult to determine gender from name. Nevertheless, shown in Table 1 are the percentages of female senior authors, as best I could determine, in the JCP for each of the four years. Clearly, as expected, the percentage has increased. As can be seen in Table 2, there has been a general, though more complex, increase in the representation of women on initial the editorial boards during this period.

Western psychology originated in Europe but is generally regarded as having been concentrated in North America during the 20th century. In recent years there has been a move toward internationalization with influences from places like Europe, Japan, and South America. This trend is also apparent within comparative psychology (CP), as can be seen in Tables 1 and 2. The nationalities of both the senior authors and the editorial boards have shown this effect.

In recent years there has been an increase in collaborative research, both within and among universities and countries. Consider, for example, the physical science papers appearing in Science magazine with long strings of coauthors. As can be seen in Table 1, even during the brief period since the re-emergence of the JCP, there has been a noticeable increase in the mean number of authors per article and a decrease in the number of single-author papers. Single-author papers may be an endangered species.

Cognitive psychology has been present, though not always prominent, in both psychology and CP (Dewsbury, 2000) for many years. In recent years, it has become quite prevalent in psychology as a whole. Although classification is somewhat difficult, by my estimates, the same is true for JCP (Table 3). I should noted that whereas some regard cognition broadly, including such processes as perception, memory, etc., here I treat it more narrowly as referring to tasks that seem to require "higher" processes — more complex than basic learning and memory processes.

In this section, then, it is clear that there have been some consistent publication trends in the JCP over a relatively short time span. Most of these are consistent with broader trends but it is interesting to consider them in relation to CP.

My second approach builds on a framework proposed in a recent encyclopedia article (Dewsbury, 2010) suggesting that the insight into the history of CP can be gained by contrasting six approaches to the field. These are:

  1. Zoological psychology — which is animal-centered, concerned mainly with naturally-occurring behavior, and lies at the interface of psychology and zoology.

  2. Behavioristic psychology — more process-oriented and aimed at such processes as learning and memory; skeptical of inferences about mind and other internal constructs.

  3. Physiological psychology — concerned with the physiological correlates of behavior.

  4. Developmental psychology — focused on changes that occur over the lifetimes of individual animals and the interaction of nature and nurture.

  5. Cognitive psychology — often broadly defined to include the mind's functions such as perception, attention, memory, imagery, and decision-making but here focused on phenomena that appear to require the postulation of "higher processes" than basic learning and memory.

  6. Mentalistic psychology — aimed at understanding mental life and conscious experience.

At least some of these six approaches have been with us through all or most of our history. I suggest that much of the history of CP can be understood as the dynamic ebb and flow of influence of these approaches. Here I explore just a few of these applications.

The British predecessors of comparative psychology provide examples. To oversimplify, Charles Darwin was eclectic but might be most associated with zoological psychology; George John Romanes also had broad interests but is often stereotyped for a mentalistic approach; Douglas A. Spalding did remarkable developmental research; and C. Lloyd Morgan influenced the field especially in the direction of behaviorism.

Physiological studies have been present through most of this history. For example, John B. Watson attempted to correlate the development of learning ability to myelinization of the nervous system and Karl Lashley conducted many studies of the neural correlates of both learning and naturally occurring behavior. Physiological studies were some-what muted under behavioristic domination around mid-20th century, but flourished dramatically after WWII.

Mentalistic approaches have been frowned upon during much of our history. Margaret Floy Washburn's classic The Animal Mind (1908) and ethologist Donald Griffin's much later writings were high points of this tradition.

The developmental approach has also been present somewhat continuously. Highlights include the early studies of W. S. Small and Watson with rats, the 1920s nature-nurture debates of Zing-yang Kuo, Leonard Carmichael, and others, the ethology-CP controversy around the 1950s, the explosion of early-experience research during the 1960s, Harry Harlow's research on development in rhesus monkeys, and the founding of Developmental Psychobiology in 1968.

Several other approaches showed more dynamic shifts. Zoological psychology, a term applied to the whole field by some early comparative psychologists, was prominent in the early work of Linus Kline and Small at Clark University, Robert Yerkes in various programs, C. R. Carpenter, who led the cadre of primate field researchers, T. C. Schneirla's field studies of ants, and others. John F. Shepard, of the University of Michigan, was an early student of ants, led laboratory classes into the field, and was a teacher of both Schneirla and Norman Maier. Many students of CP in the 1960s were strongly influenced in the direction of the zoological approach by the accomplishments of the European ethologists (Dewsbury, 1995). The gist of the CP-ethology debates of the 1950s may have lain in a conflict between emphases on the zoological versus developmental approaches. I believe that zoological approaches have been present, though sometimes unrecognized, through most of the history of CP (Dewsbury, 1984). However, It seems as though they are fading with the ascension of other approaches, such as cognitive psychology, in recent years.

Behavioristic approaches are based on the proposition that all things animals do, including thinking, acting, and feeling, can be regarded as behaviors. They can be understood without reference to internal events or hypothetical constructs such as the mind. Building on the work of C. L. Morgan, Jacques Loeb, E. L. Thorndike, and others, this approach was developed and publicized by John B. Watson and became especially prominent during the 1920s and subsequent decades. It achieved special notoriety with the work of B. F. Skinner, leading to the field of behavior analysis. Prediction and control were taken as the goals of behavioral study, internal events, except in the dressing of "private events," were to be minimized, and psychology should be theory-free. Although the prevailing view is that this approach is dead, one need only attend a meeting of the Association for Behavioral Analysis International to see that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, to borrow loosely from Mark Twain.

Cognitive approaches, as defined above and in various forms, have been present for many years. They swept through psychology as a whole primarily during the 1960s and have been a dominant approach ever since. In CP, this approach has been apparent in the work of Wolfgang Köhler, Norman Maier, Edward C, Tolman, and others (e.g., Dewsbury, 2000). It must be noted that some of what is labeled "cognitive" today bears a striking resemblance to what was regarded as "animal learning" in the past. I believe that a pivotal event in this history was the appointment in 1989 of Gordon Gallup as editor of the JCP over other nominees who favored other of the approaches mentioned here. This was both a reflection of, and an influence on, the development of CP. Today, there are too many comparative cognitive scientists to name.

The material in this second part of my paper is just a brief sketch and should be familiar to most readers. I hope that viewing it in relation to these contrasting approaches is helpful in understanding this history.

Today, comparative psychology is, as it always has been, but a small part of psychology as a whole. It is highly inter-disciplinary and reflects all six of the approaches considered here. The cognitive approach appears to be dominant at this point in time. It will be interesting to see if this remains a fixture or the pattern of shifting influence of these six, and perhaps other, influences continues to vary.

Table 1:
Characteristics of Authors of Journal of Comparative Psychology Articles


% of Female Sr. Authors

% of Author AffiliationMean No. Co-authors% Single Author
Year U.S. and Canada Other  

Table 2:
Characteristics of Initial Editorial Boards for Editors of the Journal of Comparative Psychology

 % WomenNationality
Year U.S.CanadaOther

Table 3:
Research topics of articles in the Journal of Comparative Psychology

 Research Topic 
YearBasic Behavioral ProcessesLearning & MemoryCognition/Higher Processes


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