Rat Psychology: R.I.P.

During the 20th Century, American psychologists did a remarkable number of experiments on rats. Given the assumption that all animals learned in similar ways, it seemed logical to focus attention on a species that could be studied easily in the laboratory. The albino Norway rat or Rattus norvegicus had many advantages as a laboratory animal. It was clean, and it was easy to breed and keep in captivity. Specialized breeding laboratories produced rats with a known genetic history. If researchers needed to study litter-mates (rats born from the same parents) laboratories could provide them. The rat was easily tamed, easily handled, and it was smart: a good learner. In many ways it was an ideal research animal for psychologists.

What are some advantages of the Norway rat, as a research animal?

To show you how extreme this trend became, consider that Clark Hull presented his theory of motivation (see Chapter 9) not just as a theory for psychology, but as a theory for "all social sciences." Yet it was based on experiments with one species: the Norway rat.

How did Hull's book show an extreme development in the field of psychology?

Frank Beach (1955) criticized the experimental psychologists of his day for focusing on such a small number of species and for putting so much emphasis on the rat. Beach's article in The American Psychologistincluded a cartoon showing a giant rat as a Pied Piper, leading experimental psychologists astray, just as the Pied Piper led rats (and children) away from the city of Hamlin.

What point did Beach make with a cartoon of the rat as Pied Piper?

R. G. Cook (1993) did a survey and found that late 20th Century American comparative psychologists still tended to study three groups: rats, pigeons, and college students. Monkey research had become less common due to a variety of factors including animal rights concerns.

What is happening to rat psychology?

In the 21st Century, some American psychologists still study rats and pigeons, and their students still learn about operant conditioning by handling live animals, but the "rat lab" experience described in Chapter 5 (p.228) is less common. Many students experience only a virtual rat on a computer, if they receive this type of training at all. For most of today's college students, the old stereotype of American experimental psychologists as white-lab-coated figure running rats through mazes is a thing of the past.


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