Psychology and Addiction Research

Nobody really knows how many animals are used in psychology and addiction experiments. Research universities are reluctant to report animal use because of fears about how the information will be used. We do know that use of animals is substantial, 90 percent of the animals used are rodents and birds, five percent are nonhuman primates, addiction experiments are among the most painful and distressing in all of behavioral science, administration of drugs to animals occurs in the undergraduate psychology classroom, and the continued use of animals in psychology research and education is ‘justified’ on the basis of its claimed benefits for human beings.

Psychology research is aimed at trying to understand human behavior and how the human mind works. Questions are asked about structure of the brain and the nature of various emotional and cognitive states. Often, researchers are attempting to mimic distressful human disorders in animals, which means that animals suffer tremendously in these experiments.

Animals are made to suffer depression, despair, hopelessness, fear, and addiction, or their brains are manipulated to determine the effects on sensory systems, cognitive ability, or behavior. Common protocols involve electric shocks, brain damage, food deprivation, maternal separation, and forced swim tests. It remains unanswered how animals can be so like us as to be used as models of human psychology, yet so different as to be treated so inhumanely.

Maternal Deprivation Studies

Maternal deprivation studies are infamously associated with the researcher Harry Harlow, who in the late 1950s and 1960s conducted a series of experiments in which he separated infant monkeys from their mothers at birth to investigate the importance of maternal contact. The baby monkeys were reared in total isolation, with ‘surrogate’ mothers made of wire and cloth, or with ‘monster’ mothers made of wire and cloth constructed to physically harm the baby on command. Not surprisingly, these experiments caused profound psychopathology, distress, and terror in the baby monkeys and demonstrated the importance of maternal contact, results which could have been and have been obtained from human studies. Despite the horrific nature of these experiments and their lack of scientific merit, numerous maternal deprivation studies continue today.

Addiction Experiments

Nonhuman animals do not like alcohol and left alone do not seek it. Therefore, in order to study alcohol dependence and withdrawal in humans, animals who have a natural aversion to alcohol (e.g., baboons, rodents, dogs, cats, fish) are forced into addiction, genetically altered, or operantly conditioned to ‘prefer’ alcohol over other fluids. Animals are exposed to a test substance, for example, through forced inhalation, force feeding through tubes, infusion directly into the jugular vein or stomach, or by being made hungry by food deprivation and then trained to drink alcohol to obtain food.

Many different animal species are used in alcohol-addiction research because no single animal reflects all aspects of the human phenomena of alcohol dependence and withdrawal. Ethanol, the alcohol used in animal studies and the major ingredient of alcoholic beverages, exerts different effects in different species because of variations in absorption, distribution, storage, excretion, and biotransformation of the drug across species.

Noted clinical pharmacologist Vincent Dole stated in 1986 that “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.” Little has changed since that statement was made.

Problems with Psychology Research

Animals suffer greatly in these lines of research, and to make matters worse, there are serious scientific problems with such experiments. Simply put, animals make poor models for humans, and this is particularly true with regard to behavior and psychology.

Any student of psychology 101 knows, for example, that we cannot automatically generalize results of psychology experiments from one person to another, males to females, infants to elderly, Chinese to Americans, blacks to whites, poor to rich, Rhode Islanders to Californians, or even to the same individual at different stages of the lifespan. The problem is compounded when we want to generalize across species with different genetics and evolutionary histories, and particularly when the animal species used in psychology experiments are selected on nonscientific grounds (e.g., cost, reproductive capacity, ease of handling, size).

Rodents, a favorite species used in psychology drug experiments, sleep 14-15 hours a day, live an average of 2-3 years, produce 8-10 litters a year, are completely colorblind and physically unable to vomit, have a four-day menstrual cycle and sexually mature in four months, possess no tonsils or gallbladder but a liver that regenerates, walk on four legs (quadruped), and have a natural aversion to tobacco, alcohol, and cocaine.

Beyond the genetic and evolutionary differences that make human-to-animal analogies break down and become disanalogous, there are the inevitable psychosocial factors to consider. A person’s private experience of drug addiction, for example, happens in the context of his or her purposes, expectations, and intents and, basically, cannot be separated from his or her psychological well-being and biological health status, religious sentiments and philosophic beliefs, socioeconomic status and cultural environment, political realities, and linguistic community. Drug addiction must be seen in the light of all these factors and cannot be understood unless they are considered in this far greater context that falls completely outside the animal model altogether.


Much of psychology research that involves animals is deeply troubling. Despite decades of cruel and painful experiments, many psychologists criticize the field for producing little scientific benefit. Animals are experimentally manipulated in ways that would be ethically unacceptable in humans, yet this results in artificially-induced conditions that correspond only superficially to the naturally occurring human condition. In attempting to discover the inner workings of the human mind, psychology researchers ultimately lose sight of the inherent value of an animal’s own consciousness.


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