Some of the foundational studies in the field were neither ethical by today’s standards nor replicable. But we can do better.
The goal of animal behavior research is to observe animals as they respond to stimuli (whether naturally occurring or experimentally provided) and draw conclusions based on their actions. These actions can be conscious choices or automatic responses, as in the famous studies by foundational Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. As interest in animal behavior has grown, the cheerful tale of Pavlov’s dogs drooling upon hearing a bell has become one of the best known anecdotes about the field, featuring in thousands of jokes, cartoons, and memes.
A sanitised version of these animal behaviour experiments are well known, but the gruesome details of the actual work would be shocking and distressing to most people. This piece in The Scientist take a look at these details, and reflects that were they to be conducted now they are unlikely to be approved by an Animal Ethics Committee. It is unlikely that even the strongest proponents of animal research would consider this work to be acceptable. As this piece observes, we now know that animals that endure cruelty and serious pain do not react or behave naturally, thus invalidating the whole point of the research.
He was not alone in undertaking experiments that would be refused approval by most ethics boards today. Some of the greatest figures of psychology or animal behavior often used methods that by modern standards were unethical. For example, as we describe in a recent paper, well known and often cited works by Harry Harlow on attachment and Martin Seligman on learned helplessness are rarely interrogated, and many scholars citing their work do not even realize that these scientists’ investigations involved animal suffering. For example, to reach the conclusion that infant rhesus macaques chose to cling to a soft terry-cloth-covered model as a surrogate mother and safe haven, rather than to a bare wire “mother” that gave milk, Harlow and colleagues subjected infant monkeys to social isolation from birth and repeatedly exposed them to fear-inducing stimuli such as mechanical wind-up toys. Seligman and colleagues devised experiments in which dogs were subjected to painful, inescapable electric shocks delivered to their feet. They found that the experience of not being able to escape such a stimulus resulted in an animal that was helpless and subsequently failed to move away from unpleasant stimuli, even if free to do so.