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Advanced Topics in Psychology: Animal Psychology

Module of Emphasis - Psychology of Humans Towards Animals

Curricular materials created for the 2012 SAIL seminar:

Considering Animals in Washington, DC

This seminar course is designed for junior and senior Psychology majors (and interested/qualified Biology majors) as an elective capstone to the curriculum. Through readings, video (drama and documentary), and discussion students explore historical and current issues in the behavior and cognition of non-human animals. The course begins and ends with modules addressing the psychology (attitudes, behaviors, etc.) of humans towards animals across time and context. Students were expected to develop/apply critical thinking skills throughout the course by examining topics through various lens’/sides, engaging with primary literature, integrating and connecting topics to their understanding of psychology from other courses, and through critical examination of popular media.

Note: Content adapted from the curricular project.


Updated Mar 11, 2016

The course, overall, is a capstone course for majors (several advanced topics seminars are offered, majors must complete one) in which students learn about, in depth, an area of expertise/interest of the faculty member. In this course, students are expected to become familiar with, use, and critique the issues, theories and methods of comparative animal psychology. I also expect students to draw on their previous coursework (Psychology and otherwise) throughout the course.

The humans towards animals module was designed to initiate and/or deepen students' awareness and critical analysis of the historical and current issues surrounding our relationship with animals in a variety of contexts.

Students are expected to integrate concepts/theories/research findings/methodologies within and beyond the course (i.e., connect topics to one another, as well as to their previous learning in other Psychology courses). Although the course is necessarily focused on Psychology, students are also expected to draw on their liberal arts education to add to, compare/contrast, and generally expand their analysis and understanding of course topics. As such, the goals included critical analysis and integration.

As described above, students were expected to draw on their previous coursework and experiences to lend perspective to the analysis of course material. Readings for the Psychology of Humans Towards Animals module were drawn from a variety of disciplines, including but not at all limited to Psychology.

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals Expected of Students
  • Analysis of and critical thinking about popular media sources (Hollywood film; commercials, etc.) in terms of accuracy of content and impact on general public;
  • Further refinement of library research skills (to locate related material);
  • Critical thinking about arguments for and against theories, ideas, policies and practices relating to the human-animal connection;
  • Discussion skills (listening, reacting, questioning, articulating ideas).


Updated Mar 11, 2016

Course Introduction to Animal Psychology

To pique student's thinking about attitudes of humans towards animals, students engaged with some of the historical and contemporary writings about animals, as well as with two of the primary themes of the study of animals through the following topically oriented class meetings:

  • Historical approaches to Animal Psychology
  • The Development of Comparative/Animal Psychology
  • Current Approaches to the Study of Animal Psychology
  • Anthropomorphism and Anecdotes
  • The readings assigned for each class meeting are listed in the Resources section.

In preparation for class, students were asked to respond (in writing) to questions such as:

  • Describe one aspect of either reading that particularly struck you, surprised you, angered you, or that you found interesting in some way. You might find a particular passage, or if you'd rather react to a theme or broader idea, that's fine too.
  • Choose one passage, from any of the readings that you feel captures/demonstrates the most compelling argument for or against anthropomorphism. Copy that passage, including author and page number, and tell me why you selected this particular passage of all others.
  • Provide one discussion question to guide our conversation Thursday evening. Try to think of a question that can't be answered with a yes or no, but rather could stimulate some back and forth dialogue among us.
Course Conclusion

In the final four class meetings (I really wish we had spent more time here), we returned to the topic of human-animal relationships (i.e. human’s attitudes, ideas, behaviors, etc. towards animals across a variety of settings). The goal here was to touch on some of our own Psychology about animals. Students were asked to complete readings and draw on their own experiences as we discussed a variety of topics. The readings are listed in the Resources and Materials section below. The topics we addressed were:

  • The American mindset regarding the welfare of animals (a bit of history)
  • The Role of Zoos
  • Animals in Entertainment (see also Videos section below)
  • Case studies – hunting, dog fighting, chimpanzees in research
  • Pets (bonding as kids to our economic obsession)
  • Animals as food

Students (with a little bit of guidance) were able to make connections between these topics and other topics we had discussed in class, including in those beginning weeks. We came back a lot to anthropomorphism and the place of animals in our society.

Resources and Materials

Historical Approaches to Animal Psychology

Darwin, C. (1897). The Decent of Man. Retrieved from: [pp 104-106; 185-199].

Kalof, L., &; Fitzgerald, A. (Eds.). (2007). The Animals Reader. [Chapters 1 (Aristotle), and 9 (Descartes)]. New York: Berg.

Newmeyer, S. T. (2010). Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook. [Ch 7. Plutarch]. New York: Routledge.

The Development of Comparative/Animal Psychology

Beach, F. A. (1950). The snark was a boojum. American Psychologist, 5, 115-124.

Dewsbury, D. A. (2000). Issues in comparative psychology at the dawn of the 20th century. American Psychologist, 55 (7), 750-753. DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.55.7.750

Current Approaches to the Study of Animal Psychology

Shettleworth, S.J. (2009). The evolution of comparative cognition: is the snark still a boojum? Behavioral Processes, 80(3), 210-7. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2008.09.001.

Boesch, C. (2007). What makes us human (Homo sapiens)? The challenge of cognitive cross-species comparisons. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 121(3), 227-240.

Anthropomorphism and Anecdotes

de Waal, F. B. M. (1997). Are we in anthropo-denial? Discover, 18(7), 50-53.

Mitchell, R. W. (1997). Anthropomorphism and anecdotes: a guide for the perplexed. In R. W. Mitchell, N. S. Thompson, & H. L. Miles, Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals (pp. 407-427). New York: State University of New York Press.

Wynne, C. D. L. (2007). What are animals? Why anthropomorphism is still not a scientific approach to behavior. Comparative Cognition and Behavior Reviews, 2, 125-135.

The American mindset regarding the welfare of animals (a bit of history)

Dawkins, M. S. (1985). The scientific basis for assessing suffering in animals. In P. Singer (Ed.), In Defense of Animals (pp. 27-40). New York: Basil Blackwell.

Lubinski, J. (2004). Introduction to animal rights (2nd Ed.). Retrieved from:

Birke, L. (2007). Into the laboratory. In L. Kalof & A. Fitzgerald (Eds.), The Animals Reader (pp. 323-335). New York: Berg. The Animal Welfare Center:

American Anti-Vivisection Society: Humane Society of the United States:

The Role of Zoos

Jamieson, D. (1985). Against zoos. In P. Singer (Ed.), In Defense of Animals (pp. 108-117). New York: Basil Blackwell.

Reading, R. P., & Miller, B. J. (2007). Attitudes and attitude change among zoo visitors. In A. Zimmerman, M. Hatchwell, L. A. Dickie, & C. West, Zoos in the 21st Century: Catalysts for Conservation? (pp. 63-89). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Animals in Entertainment (see also Videos section above)

Schroepfer, K.K., Rosati, A.G., Chartrand, T., & Hare, B. (2011). Use of "entertainment" chimpanzees in commercials distorts public perception regarding their conservation status. PLoS ONE 6(10): e26048. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026048

Case studies - dog fighting, chimpanzees in research

Dog fighting - NPR story -

Evans, R., Gauthier, D. K., & Forsyth, C. J. (1998). Dogfighting: symbolic expression and validation of masculinity. Sex Roles, 39(11/12), 825-838. Chimpanzee research -


Knight, S., & Herzog, H. (2009). All creatures great and small: new perspectives on psychology and human-animal interactions. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 451-461.

Melson, G. F. (2001). Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pampered Pets (an ABC newscast) -

Lead Partner
Kristin Bonnie
Assistant Professor of Psychology, Beloit College
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