Is animal research justified?

by Research Methods & Statistics

Although in the field of psychology the majority of experiments are conducted on a sample of humans, there are many reasons why psychologists seek to use non-human animals for purposes of research. For the past hundred years, non-human subjects have been used in behavioural research and have been a significant part of behavioural science and will remain such a crucial aspect of research in the future for a variety of reasons. Firstly, researchers choose to conduct research on animals as they are fascinating subjects and research carried out on animals may benefit the animal species. In other words, researchers who use non-human animals as research subjects do so in order to understand animals for their own sake. In this sense, surely animal research cannot be seen as cruel if animals are going to benefit.

Secondly, animals provide researchers with a greater control and objectivity in the research procedure. Many aspects of the behaviourist theory were initially established using animals, as researchers had high levels of control and objectivity. For example, Skinner developed the Skinner box to investigate operant conditioning. In this, animals performed a behavior such as pressing levers (rats) and pecking disks (pigeons) resulting in different consequences such as reinforcement or punishment. Skinner concluded that these consequences help shape human behavior (Skinner, 1947).1


Furthermore, Pavlov first discovered the concept of classical conditioning whilst experimenting on the salivation reflexes in dogs. In his experiment, Pavolv observed that dogs salivated as a response to stimuli associated with food such as a bowl as well as the unconditioned stimuli itself (food). This initiated the development of his famous experiment involving the pairing of a bell with the food to produce a salivation response to the bell alone (Pavlov, 1927).2 Without the use of animals in research then such important theories would have not been distinguished. In this instance, the use of animals in research has increased psychological understanding of human behaviour.

Researchers tend to use non-human animals in research when they cannot use human beings as subjects. Throughout the history of psychological research, animals have been repeatedly exposed to various conditions, procedures and events that would not be possible with humans. For example, consider the work of Harlow’s research (1959)3 into the theory of attachment, where by, monkeys and wire ‘mothers’ highlighted that comfort was a much more important factor affecting attachment than need for food; contradicting the learning theory of attachment and leading to the development of Bowlbys theory of attachment4. Again, the use of animals in research has led to the development of important theories which in turn has increased understanding of human behaviour and has resulted in several real world applications. For example, Bowlby’s theory led to children being placed in foster homes rather than institutions.

Finally, researchers use animals in research as findings can be generalised from non-humans to human beings. This is because human beings and non-human animals have enough similarities in their evolutionary past and physiology to justify drawing conclusions from experimentation involving one, to the other. Additionally, Miller (1985)5 has argued that the use of animals within psychological research has increased scientific understanding and knowledge on the treatment and therapies for a range of psychological disorders such as anxiety disorders and phobic disorders.

Of course, we cannot ignore the ethical issues associated with using animals in research. Many critics argue for moral justification; this refers to as whether science at any cost is justifiable. Moral justification is categorised into three arguments against using non-human animal subjects in research. These are; speciesism, sentient beings and animal rights.

  • Speciesism – Critics have argued that the discrimination on the basis of species is no different from gender, age or racial discrimination (Singer, 1990).6 Furthermore, it has been suggested that the use of animals in research is an example of speciesism (Ryder, 1973)7 which is similar to sexism and racism.
  • Animal rights – Regan (1984)8 argues that are no circumstances where research conducted on animals is acceptable stating that animals have the basic rights of being treated with respect and should not be used in research. However, this argument has been challenged with several different counter arguments. Firstly, research that produces a greater good for many people can be seen as justifiable and therefore ethically acceptable. Therefore, if research conducted on animals can alleviate pain and suffering in both human beings and non-human animals then this type of research is justifiable.

Sentient beings – Many believe that animals experience both pain and emotions. Evidence seems to suggest that animals do respond to pain however, this may be different to conscious awareness. It has been demonstrated that animals and other primates experience a process of self-awareness. For example, elephants have the ability to recognize themselves in front of a mirror and even use mirrors to explore hidden body parts of themselves (Plotnik et al, 2006)9. Also, chimpanzees, dolphins and killer whales have been found to demonstrate the cognitive ability of recognizing themselves in mirror reflections (Delfour & Marten, 2001; Gallup; 1970, Reiss & Marino, 2001).10 11 12

There are many existing constraints to ensure the well fare of animals in scientific research.

In order to ensure the safety of animals in research the British Psychology Society has published strict guidelines regarding the use of animals. Furthermore, UK legislation the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act (1986)13 strictly controls animal research. This states that animal research must only be conducted in licensed laboratories by licensed researchers on licensed research projects. Licenses allowing the use of animals are only granted in specific circumstances such as; if the research cannot be conducted on a human sample, a minimum number of animals are used, the results gained will be important and create many real world applications to justify the use of animals and animals discomfort will be kept to a minimum by appropriate use of painkillers. Russell and Birch (1959)14 proposed the three Rs in animal research.

  • Reduction – fewer animals used
  • Replacement – use alternative methods e.g. brain scans
  • Refinement – use techniques to reduce stress

Considering the strict control over animal research it does seem appropriate and justifiable to conduct research on animals if it is going to benefit both non-human animals and human beings.


Skinner, B. F. (1947). Superstition in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-72.

Miller, N. E. (1985). The value of behavioural research on animals. American Psychologist, 40, 423–440.

Singer, P. (1990). Animal liberation (2nd Edn). New York: Avon Books.

Regan, T. (1984). The case for animal rights. New York: Routledge.

Plotnik, J. M., de Waal, F. B. M. and Reiss, D. (2006). Self-recognition is Asian elephant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 103(45).

Delfour, F. and Marten, K. (2001). Mirror image processing in three marine mammal species: killer whales, false killer whales and California see lions. Behavioural Processes, 53(3), 181-90.

Gallup, G. G. Jr. (1970). Chimpanzees: self-recognition. Science, 167, 86-7.