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Human Learning and Non-Human Animal Studies Essay

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Updated: Jul 12th, 2021

Understanding human learning processes has become one of the core subjects of investigation for psychologists. One of the most debatable issues in this respect is whether animal-based research has any positive implications for interpreting people’s habits of acquiring knowledge. Some scholars argue that animals’ and people’s brains, as well as other organs, are too different to compare and draw conclusions about humans based on non-human studies. Meanwhile, others consider that animals and people have so much in common that it is safe to apply findings drawn from non-human animal studies when analysing humans’ learning activities. The evaluation of arguments both for and against the usefulness of animal-based research indicates that studies using non-human animals have made a considerable contribution to the understanding of learning in humans.

One of the major principles of learning is reinforcement, which was abundantly explored by scientists working with animals and experimenting with them. As a result of such studies, it has become possible to make viable conclusions about humans’ learning. The pioneers of such important studies were Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson, and Skinner (Toates 2012). While each of these scholars based their research on animals, their findings were extensively applied to human learning processes later, which made the contribution of these scientists rather comprehensive.

Behaviourism is the core principle of learning through reinforcement, and this principle was examined by several outstanding psychologists working in different countries. The most famous works on the connection between learning and behavioral changes were created by Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson, and Skinner (Toates 2012). These theories deserve a brief overview to demonstrate their significance to the question that is being investigated. The Russian researcher, Pavlov, focused on the analysis of reflexes –automated reactions to specific stimuli (Toates 2012). Taking dogs’ behaviour as an example, Pavlov proved that conditioned reflexes could be trained (Walker 1984). While Pavlov viewed reflex formation as a “passive and mechanical process,” Thorndike’s contribution was in emphasising the importance of animals’ active responses (Walker 1984, p. 6). Thorndike investigated whether animals could imitate an act they observed and “learn to perform that act” (cited in Galef 2015, p. 114). Watson’s study on behaviorism was based on the idea that animals’ pleasant or unpleasant experiences could stimulate the repetition of or abstention from some actions (Walker 1984). Hence, these three scientists analysed animals’ reflexes from different perspectives.

Finally, the most recent of the four behaviorist theories grounded in animal studies is Skinner’s one. Based on Watson’s research, Skinner’s ideas were associated with learning through rewards and punishments (Toates 2012). Each of the described approaches has a considerable positive effect on understanding learning in humans. It was Skinner who first stated that human behavior could be governed by past events (Toates 2012). Research indicates that many present-day scholars agree with this idea and view human behavior as a result of past actions or stimuli. For instance, there is a popular opinion that Skinner’s operant learning paradigm may be applied to the human learning process (Eelen 2018). Furthermore, scholars acknowledge that human learning is governed by both internal and external conditions (Illeris 2018). Since external factors are reported to influence people’s learning, it is viable to conclude that all the experiments that have been performed on animals played a positive role in such an analysis.

The theory of reinforcement occupies a significant place in modern studies of human learning processes. Scholars note that Pavlov’s conditioning is “a part of everyday learning” (Stewart 2013, p. 4). Thus, operant conditioning, which was initially proposed in animal studies, has found its way in investigations on humans’ learning behavior. This aspect has been manifested in various spheres of people’s lives. Mnih et al. (2015) note that the theory of reinforcement learning allows analyzing how learners can control their environments. Out of the most important dimensions about which behaviorism and reinforcement are discussed, language evolution and organizational development are given special attention. In their analysis of humans’ linguistic behavior, Kirby, Griffiths, and Smith (2014) note that one’s language properties are induced by others’ linguistic behavior. The repeated “induction and production of behavior” is, thus, capable of inducing a cultural evolution (Kirby, Griffiths & Smith 2014, p. 108). Hence, findings based on animal studies about the effect of external factors on one’s motivations to learning are applicable in this case.

In the sphere of business, where human interactions play a crucial part, behaviorism has also found a considerable reflection. In the competitive business environment, it is necessary to motivate employees and retain talent (Kurgat, Chebet & Rotich 2015). This would not be possible to achieve without the proper stimulation of workers. Hence, non-human animal studies have been of great use in this area of research, helping managers to encourage their employees properly.

While the evaluation’s stance is that non-human animal studies have played a beneficial role in the understanding of learning in humans, it is also necessary to mention the critique of this opinion. Gariépy et al. (2014) remark that it is not relevant to apply animal-based studies to people since the underlying neural mechanisms of many animal species have not been investigated sufficiently. Another argument against the defended position is that there may exist “enormous differences” between species, particularly, between human and animal ones (Walker 1984, p. 22). However, despite these criticisms, evidence indicating the positive effect of non-human animal studies on humans is more substantial and abundant.

The process of learning new things is associated with numerous conditions and principles. People learn through personal experiences, as well as by others’ examples and unique discoveries. Under any circumstances, the human learning process involves specific triggers that encourage studying new things and remembering them. Initially, the process of such behavioural effects on learning from experience was examined on the examples of animals. Evidence from different animal species that were analysed by various scientists gave way to a better understanding of humans’ learning process. The evaluation of scholarly sources allows concluding that despite critique, non-human animal studies have promoted the understanding of human learning considerably.

The Method Section


The project involved an experimental between-participants design, which presupposed the enrolment of two groups of participants: a control and an experimental one. Each of the groups was offered a slide show with a series of images. For the experimental group, the DE100 IPTV logo was associated with a positive image, which involved demonstrating a group of happy and cheerful students celebrating their graduation. The anticipated result was that participants would relate the image of happy people to positive emotions. By pairing the picture with the DE100 IPTV logo, the researcher expected that participants would associate the logo with positive feelings. The dependent variable was the demonstration of the logo, and the independent variable was the reaction to the logo (positive or negative). In both groups, pictures were shown in a four-minute slide presentation. Each group saw 20 pairs of photos with three-second intervals between them showing a black screen.


There were 40 people engaged in the experiment: 20 in the control group, and 20 – in the experimental one. 19 of the respondents were male, and 21 were female. In the control group, there were 12 males and 18 females whereas, in the experimental group, there were 7 males and 13 females. The median age of the participants was 34,3 years old. The median age of the control group constituted 32,6 years old, and that of the experimental group was 36 years old. All the participants were recruited from the pool of the researcher’s acquaintances, friends, and family members.


Slide shows prepared for the two groups had the same duration but contained different pairs of images. In the experimental group’s slide show, the DE100 IPTV logo was paired with a positive picture of happy students celebrating their graduation. Fictitious logos were paired with photos of neutral objects, such as pens, keys, or screwdrivers. Meanwhile, in the control group’s slide show, the DE100 IPTV logo was associated with neutral images. Fictitious logos in this slide show were paired either with the happy image or with neutral tones. The stimuli in both slide shows involved several fictitious logos, the DE100 IPTV logo, neutral images, and the happy image. Each pair of pictures was separated from the next one by a black screen demonstrated for a few seconds, which allowed participants to rest from seeing the previous pair of images. The materials used to record participants’ responses included pens and paper.


First of all, each participant was asked to sign the informed consent form. Respondents received no payment for their participation, and no psychology students were engaged in the study. All relevant ethical procedures were followed: each participant was informed about the process and method of the study. Then, the procedure was explained to participants without saying who would be in the experimental group and who would be in the control one. The next step was asking the respondents to watch the slide shows. Further, their opinion of the DE100 IPTV logo was inquired, and each respondent’s answer was carefully recorded. The next phase was reading the debrief to participants after the experiment. The debrief form was different for experimental and control conditions.

Each participant was allowed to ask questions and withdraw their consent at any point up until their results were combined with those of other respondents. Finally, results were analyzed, and conclusions of the research were made. 16 out of 20 people in the experimental group liked the logo. Hence, the hypothesis of the experiment, which was that more respondents in the experimental group would like the DE100 IPTV logo compared to those in the control group, was confirmed.

Reference List

Eelen, P 2018, ‘Behaviour therapy and behaviour modification background and development’, Psychologica Belgica, vol. 58, no. 1, pp. 184-195.

Galef, BG 2015, ‘Laboratory studies of imitation/ field studies of tradition: towards a synthesis in animal social learning’, Behavioural Processes, vol. 112, pp. 114-119.

Gariépy, J-F, Watson, KK, Du, E, Xie, DL, Erb, J, Amasino, D & Platt, ML 2014, ‘Social learning in humans and other animals’, Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol. 8, pp. 152-163.

Illeris, K 2018, ‘A comprehensive understanding of human learning’, in K Illeris (ed), Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists… in their own words, 2nd edn, Routledge, Abingdon, pp. 1-14.

Kirby, S, Griffiths, T & Smith, K 2014, ‘Iterated learning and the evolution of language’, Current Opinion in Neurobiology, vol. 28, pp. 108-114.

Kurgat, A, Chebet, WT & Rotich, JK 2015, ‘Behaviour modification and organizational development: revisiting the theories of learning’, European Journal of Psychological Research, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 34-42.

Mnih, V, Kavukcuoglu, K, Silver, D, Rusu, AA, Veness, J, Bellemare, MG, Graves, A, Riedmiller, M, Fidjeland, AK, Ostrovski, G, Petersen, S, Beattie, C, Sadik, A, Antonoglou, I, King, H, Kumaran, D, Wierstra, D, Legg, S & Hassabis, D 2015, ‘Human-level control through deep reinforcement learning’, Nature, vol. 518, pp. 529-533.

Stewart, M 2013, ‘Understanding learning: theories and critique’, in L Hunt & D Chalmers (eds), University teaching in focus: a learning-centred approach, Routledge, Abingdon, pp. 3-20.

Toates, F 2012, ‘Changing behaviour’, in N Brace & J Byford (eds), Investigating psychology: key concepts, key studies, key approaches, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 153-189.

Walker, S 1984, Learning theory and behaviour modification, Methuen & Co, London.

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