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Comparative Psychologist  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotComparative psychologists study how animals interact, hoping to find out more about human beings in the process. Although the field deals with much of the animal kingdom, the most intensive research has focused on the great apes, such as chimpanzees.

Years ago, researchers from around the world went to the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in Washington to watch chimpanzees "speak" in American sign language.

It was a follow-up project to the successful training program that taught chimp Washoe to use 132 words in ASL.

dotRoger Fouts, who was part of the original program, now runs the Washington chimpanzees' project, where four chimps -- including Washoe -- live. In his book, Next of Kin, Fouts says the fact that apes can learn to sign probably means that early human ancestors did the same.

Chances to find out more about how children acquire language skills as they grow up are endless, he argues, noting that his research has already been used to help children with autism and cerebral palsy.

dotIrene Pepperberg was initially inspired by studies on chimpanzees during the '70s. However, she thought that a focus on primates was too narrow and believed in the communicative capabilities of birds. She continues to study and train African gray parrots with great success.

The incredible feeling that comes from original discovery is still strong for Pepperberg. "It's fascinating when you design an experiment to see whether or not they can do something, and it turns out that they can. This creature's brain is the size of a walnut and yet he can do things comparable to that of a chimpanzee's."

At a Glance

Compare animal and human behavior

  • Computers have changed the way they do their work
  • Many divide their time between research and teaching
  • A master's degree is a must -- a PhD is recommended