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Describe some laboratory-based experiments with non-human animals. Explain what the results tell us about the animals' psychological processes.

Pavlov’s Dog experiment

Mostly researchers use animals for their experiments and researches. Humans have been highly benefited from such experiments. The use of animals in research have led to high success in medical field. With the involvement of animals in research, treatment of many diseases like diabetes, leukemia etc. have been developed. Non-human animals are highly used to understand human psychology, their behavior and emotions. Psychology helps to study and understand humans and as well as non-human animals mind, their thought process, emotions and learning process (Lea, 1981). Due to similarities between humans and animal’s anatomy, physiology and psychology animals are used as a model for research and studies. Experimenting on animals and observing and studying them helps to understand many complex behaviors and psychological disorders in human. There has been countless experiment on the animals where they were drugged, starved, electrocuted, frozen, dis membered, fatigued even killed with purpose to observe their behavior so that such experiments would have several findings which would be helpful for the mankind (Ferdowsian, 2011). For many researchers there is still a dilemma that if the animals are not like humans they should not b experiment, while if the animals are like us then in that case human won’t be used for experiment as that would be considered outrageous (Plous, 1996).

Here are few experiments where non-human animals were used for the experiment to understand psychological processes:

During 1890s Ivan Pavlov a Russian physiologist was studying salvation in dogs while they were being fed. He noticed that his dog would start salivating after seeing him even when he was without food. In 1902, Pavlov got an idea about dogs that there are few things that dogs do not have to learn. Whenever dog sees food they do not salivate. Salivation in dogs are their reflex action that is genetically determined in them, so they do not have to learn to learn to salivate. Salivation in dogs are unconditional response that does not require any learning.

In his experiment Pavlov studied the unconditional response of dogs by presenting them a bowl of food and then he measured the saliva secreted from them. He also observed that whenever dog sees anything (like his lab assistant) that was associated with food triggers the same respond as in case when dog sees food (McLeod S. , 2013).

From this Pavlov learned that his dogs have learned to relate food with his lab assistant who used to bring them food.  In terms of behaviorist initially was a neutral stimulus as it did not produce any response from the dogs. Later the neutral stimulus i.e., lab assistant was associated with the unconditional stimulus i.e. food results into the salvation (Jozefowiez, 2014).

Skinner’s theory on Operant

Pavlov then used a bell as a neutral stimulus. He rang that bell while giving food to those dogs while giving food. He repeated procedure for some days. He found that dog had started salivating after listening to the sound of bell even without any food which was as expected.

In this case Pavlov observed that now the dogs have learned to associate the bell with food which was a new learned behavior. As dog had learned a new behavior which was a conditioned response. Therefore, the neutral stimulus had now changed to a conditioned stimulus. It was discovered by Pavlov that for associations to happen both the stimuli has to kept together in same time (Jarius, 2015). Hence, he named it law of temporal contiguity. Similarly, the time interval between the food (unconditioned stimuli) and bell (conditioned stimuli) is large then learning will not happen. 1890-1930, Pavlov and his research on classical conditioning was widely accepted. It is classic because it was the first laws of conditioning or learning. This theory was further developed by John Watson.

Result: It was discovered that if some neutral stimuli is paired with unconditional stimuli then it turns into some conditioned stimuli producing the same response as in case of unconditional stimuli. This experiment concludes that a neutral stimulus i.e. the bell won’t produce any reaction like salvation. To introduce a neutral stimulus, it has to be associate with unconditional stimulus i.e. food in this case. Once the neutral stimulus is familiar then the animal reacts in the same manner as if it is an unconditional stimulus.

B.F Skinner theory is based on the conditioning of operant for which he conducted different experiments on animals. For this experiment he used a box called as “Skinner Box” to study behavior of rats (McLeod, 2015).

He first took a hungry rat and placed it inside the box. Initially the rat inside the box was inactive, but after spending some time inside box it started to adapt to the box environment. The rat started to explore the box and found a lever inside it and after pressing the lever food was delivered in the box.

After it had the food and its hunger was filled it again started to check out the whole box. It pressed the lever again when it was hungry for the second time. This process was continued for third, forth and fifth time and after a while the rat was more accurate in pressing the lever the moment it felt urge to eat. Hence the conditioning was successful (Staddon, 2002).

Harlow’s experiment on monkey

So, the action of pressing the lever in the experiment is operant behavior and the result of getting food in return is a reward. Hence this experiment is also known as instrumental conditioning learning as here the response is instrumental in obtaining the reward(food). This experiment also explains the positive reinforcement. Here whenever the rat presses the lever food was served. So, it was a positive reinforcement. B.F. Skinner conducted a second experiment on the rat to explain about negative reinforcement. This time too, he placed the rat in the chamber but instead of food he replaced it with unpleasing electric current. So once the rat experienced the discomfort it moved around the box and unknowingly pressed the lever. This produced the electric current and the rat after few times learned the same. This made the rat smart enough and refrained from pressing the lever (Vargas, 2015). Hence the electric current is negative reinforcement in this case. In this case also the act of pressing the lever is operant and escaping from the currents or stopping of the flow of current is its reward.

The two experiments explained the concept of operant conditioning. the main thing in this experiment is observing the operant behavior and the result obtained in that particular scenario (Gordan, 2014). From this experiment it can be concluded that the rat behaved different with positive and negative reinforcement. With positive reinforcement the rat approached the lever to get food and similarly once the scenario was changed the rat adapted accordingly went away to avoid electric shock

This experiment is based on the study the relation between infant and mother. Harry Harlow conducted this experiment on new born infant (Seay, 2016). This idea came to his mind while he was working on the Wisconsin testing apparatus to research the mental behavior of primates which covered learning, memory and cognition. As he was progressing with his test, he found out the monkey was gradually learning strategies. To further understand this behavior, Harlow studied on the infants by separating them away from their biological mother. This further inspired him to replace biological mother with surrogate mothers to study them as a replacement for the love and care that could easily live with a surrogate mother because at that age there is no attachment with their real mother. (Harlow’s Monkey Experiment – The Bond between Infants and Mothers, 2014). Also, he wants to study the attachment is whether based on pure love or needs or other factors.

This experiment covered both aspects:

  • If a surrogate mother can replace the biological mother.
  • Whether the bond between the infant and mother is totally based on the needs.

Afterwards he placed infants with surrogate mothers. One of them was made up of wire mesh while other was made of wood covered with a soft cloth. The size of surrogate mothers was same but the wire mesh was rough and did not had any soft covering while the terry cloth had soft covering and was cuddlier.

In this experiment the infant monkeys were placed with both the surrogates so they had an option to go either towards mesh wire or to terry cloth. One of the surrogate i.e. mesh wire mother was able to provide nourishment while terry cloth was just for cuddling.

While in the second experiment the infants were placed separately one with mesh and other with terry cloth they did not option to decide where to go.

Afterwards it was found that even though mesh wire mother provided nourishment to the infants the still spent time with terry cloth mother by being affectionate and cuddling most of the time (Suomi, 2008). This proved that the attachment between infant and mother is not entirely based on physiological needs. While the second experiment had different results, the infant consumed the milk in same amount from the mesh wired mother from both the groups. But the infants who was kept terry cloth mother showed attachment which is normal when tested in fearful environment. The movement they were frightened they went close to the terry mother until they were calm.

On contrary the infants with mesh wire were opposite they behaved strangely with same stimulus by rolling here and there, jumping away from the wire mesh mother instead of approaching them for affection. (Marga, 2010)

Martin Seligman with his colleagues were doing research in 1965 on classical conditioning where an animal or human is associated with one stimulus or another.

In this case, Seligman used to ring a bell and afterwards give light electric current to a dog. This was repeated and after a time the dog reacted even by hearing the bell as if he was being given electric shock (Seligman, 2017).

He then changed the scenario and placed the dog in a crate which was dived with a low fence so that dog can easily jump to the other side. The floor of the one side was electrocuted with a light shock while other side was normal. He then kept the dog on the electrified part and expected the dog to jump to the other side. The dog instead lay down to the electrified side showing helplessness and there was nothing they could do to save themselves. This condition was described as learned helplessness or not attempting to save self from a negative situation because of the past lesson which taught that you are helpless (Willie, 2016).

Once Seligman concluded that the dog did not try to jump the fence to avoid the shock, he then changed the dog. He placed a dog which had not been through classical conditioning in the same condition. The dog who never experienced such shocks before readily jumped over the other side to avoid the shock.

This further led to conclusion that the dog which did not jump had learned helplessness from the previous experiment.

This experiment shows that the animals never attempts to get out of the negative situation if they have learnt from the past that they are helpless. Similarly, if the dog has not experienced any such negative situation in the past they tend to escape from the situation.


In this paper, we learned about different theories in which animals were used as a model animal to study psychology. These experiments were useful in understanding the subject behavior, their thought process & how they can be conditioned by introducing to new stimulus. Pavlov's & Seligman's explained the concept on classical conditioning whereas operant conditioning in Skinner's & surrogate mother theory in Harlow's theory on infants & mother relation. From Pavlov's & Seligman's experiments it is apparent that, if an animal is conditioned whether by classical or operant, there is a change in behavior of that subject. Whereas in Harlow's experiment it is explained that an infant’s attachment with the surrogate mother is not only based on physiological needs but on emotions as well. Lastly, Seligman explained that animals never attempts to get out from negative situation if they have learned from the past that they are helpless.

Ferdowsian. (2011, September 7). Ethical and Scientific Considerations Regarding Animal Testing and Research. Retrieved from Plos one:

Gordan. (2014). A Review of B. F. Skinner’s ‘Reinforcement Theory of Motivation. International Journal Of Research In Education Methology.

Harlow’s Monkey Experiment – The Bond between Infants and Mothers. (2014, June 3). Retrieved from The Psychology Notes Headquarters:

Jarius, W. (2015). And Pavlov still rings a bell: summarising the evidence for the use of a bell in Pavlov’s iconic experiments on classical conditioning. J Neurol.

Jozefowiez, J. (2014). The Many Faces of Pavlovian Conditioning. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 528-532.

Lea. (1981). Animal experiments in economic psychology. Journal of Economic Psychology, 245-271.

Marga. (2010). The evolution of Harry Harlow: from the nature to the nurture of love. Sage journals.

McLeod. (2015). Skinner - Operant Conditioning. SimplyPsycology. Retrieved from Psychestudy.

McLeod, S. (2013). Pavlov's Dog. SimplyPsycology.

Plous. (1996). Attitudes Toward the Use of Animals in Psychological Research and Education: Results From a National Survey of Psychology Majors. SAGE Journals.

Seay, B. H. (2016). Maternal behavior of socially deprived Rhesus monkeys. American Psycological Association.

Seligman. (2017). LEARNED HELPLESSNESS. Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology.

Staddon, C. (2002). Operant Conditioning. PMC.

Suomi, F. (2008). Rigorous Experiments on Monkey Love: An Account of Harry F. Harlow’s Role in the History of Attachment Theory. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 354-369.

Vargas. (2015). B. F. Skinner’s theory of behavior. European Journal of Behavior analysis, 2-38.

Willie, M. (2016). Seligman Helplessness Experiment. Journal of Abnormal Psycologgy

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