Volume 19: pp. 121-123

Comparative Cognition Research: Where Do We Go from Here?

Thomas R. Zentall

University of Kentucky

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Comparative cognition has many creative researchers who ask important questions but lack the funds to answer them. Funds are still available for neuroscience and drug research, but most funding institutions, especially in the United States, no longer fund behavioral research. Many researchers have begun doing field and zoo research. Researchers at smaller institutions can sometimes do research with secondhand equipment and without animal care charges. Our field may benefit if we try to make greater connections between ourselves and human researchers.

Keywordsbehavioral research funding, small college research, zoo research, field research

Author Note Thomas R. Zentall, Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0044.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Thomas R. Zentall at zentall@uky.edu

My concern for the future of comparative cognition research is not so much where the field should go (although I do have some ideas in my closing remarks)—our field is full of creative researchers who ask questions of animals using novel procedures that produce exciting results that inform us of the complexities of behavior—but how we are going to get there. I am old enough to remember when it was relatively easy to get small internal or external grants that were sufficient to conduct considerable behavioral research with animals. These days, however, those grants are much more difficult to obtain, or they are not sufficient to cover the cost of conducting carefully planned, controlled experiments.

The cost of commercially available research equipment has become prohibitively expensive, so for many new researchers they cannot be obtained. However, many of us have become sufficiently tech-savvy to build our own apparatus. Alternatively, secondhand equipment is sometimes available if one asks around.

A more serious problem is that most U.S. research universities have required that they take over the role of caring for animals, and importantly, that care is typically accompanied by expensive charges (called per diems) for their services. For this reason, it has become difficult to do research at a large PhD-granting university without having funds for those services. Because universities have a virtual monopoly on those services, the charges are usually not commensurate with the services they provide. For this reason, some of us at PhD-granting research universities have gotten out of the business of laboratory animal research. Others of us have cut down enough on the scope of our research that small internal grants allow us to continue doing research. Still others of us have self-funded our research, leading to what might be called a serious but very expensive hobby.

In the United States, large grants for research are still available through the National Institutes of Health, if one is interested in drug research or research on certain brain function that might have applied implications. For example, one can still get grants to study the effects of certain drugs on cognitive behavior or on the effect of brain injury on cognitive behavior. If one is not so inclined, one may be able to collaborate with colleagues who have the necessary neuroscience interest and background. Alternatively, it still may be possible to collaborate with developmental or cognitive psychologists who are asking questions that may have nonhuman animal analogs or implications.

The National Science Foundation has been another source of funding for comparative cognitive research. However, some years ago the National Science Foundation was reorganized, placing comparative psychology with either the Division of Environmental Biology or the Division of Cognitive and Behavioral Sciences. Since then, comparative cognition has become somewhat of an orphaned area, and to have a chance of getting funded, collaboration with behavioral ecologists or with cognitive psychologists has become almost a necessity.

There are other alternatives. If one does not house the animals at the university, one does not have to deal with per diems. For several years we have done research with dogs that were companion animals (pets). If you can find a couple of free rooms in which to temporarily keep the pets during the day and conduct research, pet owners are often happy to bring in their dogs each day in return for having them walked (a kind of doggie day care) and having them take part in a bit of experimental “enrichment.”

Of course, for many years researchers have done research on animals outside the laboratory. Although working with animals in nature may require considerable patience, this research can often be quite fulfilling and can be less expensive to conduct than laboratory research. I have found that behavioral ecologists have become more experimental in their approach to research, and the questions they ask are often quite compatible with the questions that we ask. For example, behavioral ecologists have found that different populations of black-capped chickadees appear to have adapted differently to the environment in which they live such that when confronted with a novel task, they react to it quite differently. When hungry chickadees are confronted with the task of removing a heavy washer covering a hole with food, Alaskan chickadees (which likely have had to deal with harsh winters that require novel means of foraging) solve the washer-moving task much faster than Kansan chickadees (which likely have had a more plentiful food supply in the state’s wheat fields; Roth et al., 2010). These differences in problem solving for different chickadee populations represent a fine opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration.

A comparative cognitive psychologist may be fortunate enough to live near a city that has a zoo. These institutions can provide excellent opportunities to conduct research. Although zoos sometimes have a reputation for not wanting to be bothered by researchers getting in the way of their caring for the animals, most zoos now promote their educational value, and collaboration with comparative psychological research is encouraged or at least moderately tolerated.

Many comparative cognitive psychologists will find themselves at 4-year liberal arts colleges where research opportunities are limited by heavy teaching, advising, and committee responsibilities. Still, these days these institutions may be some of the last strongholds of experimental comparative cognition research. Most colleges have a research participation course that students can take to work with a faculty member on an original research project. Most of these schools encourage students with an interest in graduate school to take such a class, as most graduate programs prefer prospective students to have had research experience. One may have limited time to teach such a course, but I have found that courses that give students research experience tend to attract highly motivated students who gain a lot from the experience and who are willing to devote many hours to original research. Importantly, small universities typically do not saddle researchers with animal care costs, and sometimes they provide animal researchers with personnel to care for animals. When I first started doing research, my students and I cared for our animals ourselves. All the students in the lab had their allotment of cages to clean each week. This process is no longer possible at large research universities but may still be possible at small colleges and universities.

Several years ago at the Tri-State Animal Learning and Behavior Conference, I saw an excellent example of the kind of research that can be conducted at a small college, at minimal cost. A faculty member in the college’s psychology department had learned that at one time both black and gray squirrels were in the area, but many years ago the black squirrels had disappeared. Apparently they had been hunted to extinction by humans. Recently, the black squirrels had been reintroduced, and they flourished. Why had the black squirrels, but not the gray squirrels, disappeared? She wondered whether the black squirrels has been less neophobic than the gray squirrels and were thus less afraid of humans and easier to hunt. To test her hypothesis, the students in her class set out a plate of seed with an action figure in the center, and the students took turns observing which squirrels ate from the plate. They found, consistent with her hypothesis, that proportionally more black squirrels than gray squirrels ate from the plate. Experiments such as this are relatively easy to conduct and serve as an excellent educational experience. Furthermore, small colleges often have funds that can be obtained to conduct novel research projects involving undergraduate students.

Although traditional comparative cognition research has been somewhat constrained by the cost of doing research, many opportunities continue to exist, especially at smaller schools, where quality research can still be conducted.

As I stated earlier, I hesitate to advise comparative cognition researchers in how they should advance our field, because research need not have a greater purpose than to learn something about the behavior of an organism. I am reminded of the quote by the famous physicist Richard Feynman: “Science is like sex,” he said, “occasionally something good comes of it, but that’s not why we do it.”

As I approach the end of my career, I have begun to consider how it all fits together. How should one justify our field of research to others who wonder what about the added value of the research for society. During the past several years, I have focused much of my research on animal analogs of several social psychological phenomena, thought by social psychologists to originate in human culture. For example, suboptimal choice research similar to unskilled gambling, cognitive dissonance in the form of the justification of effort (when added value is given to rewards that come after hard work), and the sunk cost fallacy (persistence on a task when abandonment would be more beneficial).

The potential value of these research lines is to show that these behaviors can be found in nonhuman organisms, and although they may be modulated in humans by cultural factors, their basic underlying origins appear to be biological (evolutionarily selected for). As such, they have likely evolved in support of survival and reproduction. Thus, in cases in which those behaviors may not be logical or functional when we see them in unnatural societal or laboratory conditions, research with animals may provide insights into how we might reduce these suboptimal behaviors when they prove to be detrimental. An example of such an approach may be the finding that suboptimal choice behavior, an analog of human gambling behavior, has been found to be reduced by exposing pigeons, for several hours a day, to an enriched environment (Pattison et al., 2013). To what extent is problem gambling maintained by the perceived absence of other stimulating activities? Would problem gamblers, too, benefit from being exposed to such alternative environments?

Exploring the cognitive behavior of nonhuman animals is a worthy goal. Their behavior is certainly underappreciated by the human cognitive community. But it is largely because we have not devoted sufficient energy to demonstrating the generality of what we study to the understanding of other animals, including humans. By so doing, if we can contribute to a better understanding of behavior thought to be culturally determined, we may be able to increase our impact on the more general field of psychology.


Pattison, K. F., Laude, J. R., & Zentall, T. R. (2013). Social enrichment affects suboptimal, risky, gambling-like choice by pigeons. Animal Cognition, 16, 429–434. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-012-0583-x

Roth, T. C., LaDage, L. D., & Pravosudov, V. V. (2010). Learning capabilities enhanced in harsh environments: A common garden approach. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1697), 3187–3193. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2010.0630