Cognitive-Behavioral Research

The behavioral science of psychology focuses on understanding behavior and the mind in both human and nonhuman animals through research called cognitive-behavioral research. According to Psychology Today, “The study of animal behavior is a cornerstone of experimental psychology, shedding light on complex human emotions.”1 Thus, in psychology animals are commonly used as models for the human mind and behavior, particularly for human conditions involving psychiatric disorders and neurological diseases. In his review of animal models in psychology, Dr. Kenneth Shapiro stated, “… psychologists have attempted to develop an animal model for virtually every known problem in the human condition that has even a remotely psychological cast.”2

In the quest for information on human cognition, mental illness, memory disorders, drug addiction, and how the body’s sensory system and central nervous system work, animals are subjected to experiments on vision, hearing, pain perception, hunger, thirst, reproduction and fetal development, fear, stress, aggression, learned helplessness, maternal deprivation, cigarette use, drug and alcohol abuse and dependence, and environmental toxins, to name a few. In research relating to the central nervous system, animals are used to study “the process of recovery after neural damage; biological correlates of fear, anxiety, and other forms of stress; subjective and dependence-producing effects of psychotropic drugs [drugs for mood or thought disorders]; and mechanisms that control eating and other motivational processes.”3

To create an animal model of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism, autism, schizophrenia, anorexia, drug addiction, or spinal cord injury, a facsimile of the conditions of the disorder or disease is induced in an animal. This is accomplished by manipulation of the animal’s behavior and environment, invasive procedures to the brain and body, or genetic engineering. Animals are subjected to food, water, and sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation or overload, long-term physical restraint, social isolation, maternal separation, electric shocks, limb amputation, and brain damage and manipulation through the use of electrodes surgically implanted into the brain.

To study behaviors and experiences, psychology research typically requires animals to be conscious and aware, and as such may be considered the cruelest of animal experiments due to the high degree of pain and suffering involved. Animals can remain in distress for a long length of time, since they are often subjected to invasive procedures that they then must recover from in order for their behaviors and experiences to be studied in relation to the resulting “injury.”

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Although the range of species that have been used in various studies in psychology is broad, 90-95% of the animals used have been rodents and mice, principally rats, mice, and pigeons. Only about 5% of the animals are monkeys and other primates. Use of dogs and cats is rare.” Because rodents and birds are not covered under the Animal Welfare Act, they are not counted in government statistics; therefore, the exact number of animals used in psychology research is unknown. In addition, past experiments4 have shown that when cats, dogs, and nonhuman primates are used, they are subjected to a higher degree of invasive procedures and protocols compared to mice and rats, resulting in immense suffering and distress.

For example, cats have been used in research on visual deprivation, physiology of color vision, and sleep deprivation. Past NEAVS investigations of Boston University and Harvard University revealed federally funded studies, many lasting over five years, involving kittens and older cats given brain damage, surgical alterations, such as having their eyes sewn shut, esophageal inflammation, and the implantation of electrodes in their eyes, brain, and muscles. Researchers have used dogs for depression and learned helplessness; they were placed in a cage with electrified floor bars and made to suffer extreme, repeated, and inescapable electric shocks. This resulted in the dogs experiencing fear and hopeless depression of psychotic proportion. Nonhuman primates have been used to study aggression, visual, social, maternal and environmental deprivation, and drug addiction.

Commons areas of behavioral research

Drug abuse and addiction research

Animals are forced to become addicted to drugs (heroin, cocaine, marijuana, morphine, amphetamines, barbiturates, and tranquilizers), alcohol, and tobacco. Although most nonhuman animals have a natural aversion to alcohol or tobacco, they are made to ingest it and become dependent on it through forced inhalation or infusion, food or water deprivation, or are genetically altered to prefer it. Artificially creating addiction in animals has done little to ameliorate or reduce this country’s drug and alcohol addiction problems. Animals do not always respond to addictive substances like humans do, nor do they experience the same psychosocial pressures that play a major part in causing addiction in people. Pharmacologist Vincent Dole stated in 1986, “Some 60 years of offering alcohol to animals has produced no fundamental insights into the causes of this self-destructive behavior or even a convincing analogue of pathological drinking.”5

Despite the inappropriateness, animal use in this area of research has been going on for decades. Meanwhile, alcohol, tobacco, and drug prevention and rehabilitation programs that help humans remain under-funded, the cost for people seeking treatment continues to increase, and the number of people using alcohol and/or drugs remains unchanged or in some instances, is increasing. According to a 2009 national survey6, “Between 2002 and 2009, the number of persons with substance [and alcohol] dependence or abuse was stable (22 million in 2002 and 22.5 million in 2009)”. However, “the rate of current illicit drug use among persons aged 12 or older in 2009 (8.7 percent) was higher than the rate in 2008 (8 percent)” and of the over 20 million people needing treatment in 2009, only “2.6 million…received treatment at a specialty facility.”

In 2006, Americans paid in total $57.5 billion for mental health care services, which “places mental health care expenditures as the third most costly medical condition, behind heart conditions and trauma and tied with cancer.”7 The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states, “Much of what we understand [in the area of mental health problems and treatment] comes from research in the field of epidemiology; the scientific study of [naturally occurring] patterns of health and illness within a population. Research on psychiatric epidemiology shows that mental disorders common throughout the United States affect tens of millions of people each year. Only a fraction of those affected receive treatment.”8

Maternal deprivation studies

Supported largely by federal grants, most maternal deprivation studies were performed by the late Harry Harlow and his associates at the University of Wisconsin beginning in 1958. These “affection” experiments separated infant monkeys from their mothers at birth in an effort to determine what factors are responsible for infant bonding. The infants, reared by either cloth or wire surrogates, were exposed to stressors, including “mechanical monsters”—to see if they would flee to their surrogate mothers for protection. Harlow also separated infants from their mothers with plexiglass so infants could see but not touch them. These affection studies, which Harlow admitted, “terrorized” infant monkeys, involved the use of 100 animals and cost $2.4 million (an estimated $14 million in 2011 dollars),9 96 percent of which came from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding.10

Harlow moved on to maternal deprivation and separation experiments. In this research, he separated infant monkeys from their mothers at birth and placed them in partial or total isolation. Some infants spent the first 24 months of their lives in what was labeled “wells of despair”—steel enclosed chambers that admitted no light or contact with the outside world. After two years, Harlow described these monkeys as “totally destroyed.” Rhesus monkeys reared this way developed into non-functioning adults. Females, artificially impregnated because their natural instincts to socialize and mate were destroyed, gave birth to children whom they could not care for and ultimately abused. In one series of studies, Harlow gave the mother-deprived infants “surrogate” mothers made of terrycloth. Using various devices to frighten the infants, he showed they too would return to cling to the object that had provided them tactile comfort, in this case a terrycloth covered wire object with a wire face. He then created “monster” mothers who would emit spiked bars, who shook so violently the clinging infant’s teeth would rattle—nevertheless, the desperate infants would return to cling to the only thing they ever knew. Harlow’s own choice of words in his writing—“monster mothers,” “rape rack,” “well of despair”—gives us insight, not only into his own understanding of the sadistic aspect of his research, but into his lack of moral conscience or understanding of how others might—and would—condemn him.  These maternal deprivation studies caused over 1,300 animals (including 1,110 primates and 202 dogs) to endure severe emotional suffering and cost $20.7 million (an estimated $95 million in 2011 dollars)11 in federal tax dollars. A 1986 review of all maternal deprivation experiments concluded that up to that date, over 7,000 animals—mostly primates but also dogs, cats, and rodents—were subjected to this type of research, which totaled over $57 million. This is an estimated $118 million in 2011 dollars12 with almost all of it funded by the federal government, primarily through the NIH and the NIMH.13

Harlow’s associates and other researchers across the country continue to receive federal funding for maternal deprivation and separation studies as part of depression and anxiety research. Gene Sackett, at the University of Wisconsin, admitted that his “abnormal rearing” research has had theoretical value, but “few results which have been clinically applied to humans.”14

Diseases that affect behavior and emotion such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

There are several areas of research that are an overlap for biomedical and cognitive behavioral research. Certain human disease processes have a neurological component that affects an individual’s cognitive, behavioral, social, and/or emotional processes. In these fields, individuals from the physical sciences (biology, neurology, genetics, etc.) and the behavioral sciences (psychology, neuropsychology, etc.) both engage in animal research, sometimes as co-investigators on the same protocol. These areas of research, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, attempt to create models of diseases found only in humans. The investigators attempt to inflict the disease process on nonhuman species, whether via brain or spinal cord damage, inoculation with suspect viral causes of the disease as in Multiple Sclerosis research (a physiological disease with severe cognitive-behavioral symptoms), or by some other method artificial to the actual disease process. The whole scientific basis for “creating an animal model” that mimics human symptoms has been challenged by scientists who argue that such techniques can tell us nothing about the disease, which when naturally occurring in humans leads to the same outward symptoms. For example, inflicting certain kinds of brain damage may mimic the tremors of a human with Parkinson’s but tells us nothing about the cause and progression of that same symptom in humans. As Shapiro states in his review, “While a dog or rat can be depressed, neither the causes nor even the course and form of the depression resemble in every respect those of depression in a human being.”15

A disturbing example of an unhelpful animal model comes from studies that attempt to create a model of human bulimia (an eating disorder characterized by restricting food intake, and binging and purging through induced vomiting.) Through a procedure called “sham feeding,” researchers surgically produce an abnormal connection or passageway, often from the stomach to the surface of the skin. They place a stainless steel tube or catheter into the passageway through which they pump in and draw out large quantities of food, not permitting absorption of any nutrients. This procedure used on numerous animals, particularly dogs, monkeys, rabbits, cats, and rats caused an extended period of pain and distress for the animal notwithstanding the surgery and recovery involved.16 This animal model offers nothing other than severe suffering and a mechanical representation of a disease, which in humans has strong psychosocial as well as bio-physiological components to it—neither of which researchers can recreate in a nonhuman animal.


The use of animals in the field of psychology is without any scientific defense despite what the field of psychology would have us believe. Perhaps one of the most literally and figuratively shocking examples of this is the “learned helplessness” research of  Martin Seligman, begun at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967 and rumored to have been deemed exceptionally cruel, even by other researchers at the time. Using dogs for this research was totally unnecessary. Sadly, soldiers from combat, victims of domestic abuse, and others were already available for researchers to study what happens to humans when met with recurring and inescapable trauma. An animal model of this condition was a waste of time and egregiously cruel to the dogs. The dogs collapsed whimpering, defecating, shaking—pathetically crouching while enduring the inescapable shock.

Tolerance of and reward for research which causes inordinate suffering is further illustrated  in neuropsychologist Edward Taub’s “deafferentation” (creating paralysis through severing of nerves) studies on monkeys, using shock to “motivate” the monkeys to use their paralyzed arm while their good arm was bandaged against their body. Human victims paralyzed from accidents are sadly numerous and many are willing to participate in new therapies to help them regain the use of their afflicted limb. Without the use of shock, humans bring to such therapies the high motivation to return to their previous levels of functioning. Taub, as the result of an undercover investigation, was found guilty of animal cruelty under state cruelty laws. However, because his research was federally funded, state laws did not apply and the court overturned the ruling on a legal technicality.

Seligman and Taub are poster-boys not only for the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on animals in invasive behavioral research, but also, and tragically, for how the profession of psychology refuses to instill true ethical standards, monitor itself, or set limitations on what its researchers can do to animals. Quite the opposite: it actually covers cruel deeds with professional acclaim and prestige. In 1998, the APA elected Seligman President “by the widest margin in its history.” In 2004, APA awarded Taub its Distinguished Scientific Award for the Applications of Psychology.

[1] Psychology Today. (n.d.). Animal Behavior.

[2] Shapiro, K. (1998). Animal Models of Human Psychology. Seattle, WA: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

[3] American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Research with Animals in Psychology.

[4] Shapiro, K. (1998). Animal Models of Human Psychology. Seattle, WA: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

[5] Medical Research Modernization Committee. (2006). A Critical Look at Animal Experimentation.

[6] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2010). Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-38A, HHS Publication No. SMA 10-4856Findings). Rockville, MD.

[7] National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Statistics.

[8] Ibid.

[9] CoinNews Media Group LLC. (n.d.). U.S. Inflation Calculator.

[10] Stephens, M. (1986). Maternal Deprivation Experiments in Psychology: A Critique of Animal Models.

[11] CoinNews Media Group LLC. (n.d.). U.S. Inflation Calculator.

[12] CoinNews Media Group LLC. (n.d.). U.S. Inflation Calculator.

[13] Stephens, M. (1986). Maternal Deprivation Experiments in Psychology: A Critique of Animal Models.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Shapiro, K. (1998). Animal Models of Human Psychology. Seattle, WA: Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

[16] Ibid.