Animal research and your child's behavior.

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Nov. 12 2009 1:23 PM

Like a Rat

Animal research and your child's behavior.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Psychologists who work with children and families tend to avoid mentioning to parents that the treatments they use are often based on research done on animals. It's no secret that the widely used technique of the timeout was developed in studies on rats or that important early research leading to treatments for anxiety in humans was done on dogs, cats, and other species—but the subject doesn't come up a lot in conversation. We will confess to doing our bit to perpetuate this professional shyness about animal research by tiptoeing around it in our Slate pieces and in the book we wrote together. Why?

Talking about the underpinnings of psychology in animal research tends to make parents uneasy, even upset—not because they fear that the animals were mistreated but because of what they think it implies about their children. "You're saying my kid's like a rat? You're saying my kid's not complex and unique? What about this picture he drew of Spider-Man sobbing in a rainstorm?" When they're outraged, insulted, and indignant, people tend to be less receptive to whatever it is that those who upset them have to say, so there's a sound practical reason for psychologists not to provoke parents needlessly.

And it's understandable that parents do get upset. Some human-animal comparisons are less acceptable than others. It's not considered offensive for a wife to compare improving her husband's domestic chops to training killer whales at Sea World, and it's almost always OK to compare men to dogs—a characterization that many men seem to find flattering. It's also OK for parents to joke about their children being wild beasts. But when an accredited professional proposes such a comparison, defenses go up and tempers shorten.

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We don't like the idea that some of the same forces that guide the behavior of rats or monkeys also guide that of our children, part of a larger unwillingness to see our children as mere dumb animals herded this way or that by various influences—from advertising to hormones—other than their own parents' authority and values. Many parents are also committed to a certain model of moral complexity, be it Freudian or otherwise, that figures prominently in their definition of what it means to be human, and so they want to see their child's behavior as expressing suitably human complexity. When they're told that they can, say, control their child's tantrums by employing a simple program of attention and praise that works pretty much the same way that food rewards work with mice, it seems to demean the deep-seated trauma, sorrows, sinfulness, or angst that they believe "caused" the tantrum.

But, whatever the understandable reasons for popular uneasiness about the role of animal research in our understanding of the psychology of parenting, maybe it's a mistake to shy away from talking about it—or, more properly, from talking about nonhuman animal research, since engaging it head-on moves us toward recognizing that people are more like animals, and animals more like people, than we might naturally want to assume. And, more to the point, maybe talking forthrightly about animal research would help psychologists do a better job of explaining their field to the families they're trying to help—where treatments come from, how they work, and why they do or don't succeed.

What happens before (antecedents), during, and after (consequences) a behavior changes how we act. We know a lot about this aspect of human nature thanks to extensive research on rats, pigeons, and monkeys, as well as humans. The area of research known as operant conditioning, which goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, focused in its early stages on the basic processes of learning and performance. One of the most common ways to study how behaviors were influenced by consequences such as rewards was to evaluate what influenced animals to press levers in a laboratory cage. Increasingly elaborate studies were done to see what rewards—food pellets, drinking water—influenced performance. When lawful (scientifically reliable) relations between cause and effect were identified, they tended to be similar across the species that were studied. Different species learned faster, better, or differently from others, but the basic processes of reward and punishment operated in the same ways. If one were to graph a pigeon's, a rat's, and a monkey's responses to reinforcement (the application of a consequence for a behavior that increases the likelihood that the behavior will be performed in the future), the lines would look almost identical.

In the 1950s and '60s, this basic research was extended to humans, who were invited into the laboratory to press levers under various conditions, just as the animals had done. Humans displayed systematic stark and subtle responses to reward very similar to those of the other animals. So add a fourth near-identical line to the graph and label it "Human."

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