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Research With Animals

15 February, 2016 - 12:07

Because animals make up an important part of the natural world, and because some research cannot be conducted using humans, animals are also participants in psychological research. Most psychological research using animals is now conducted with rats, mice, and birds, and the use of other animals in research is declining (Thomas & Blackman, 1992). As with ethical decisions involving human participants, a set of basic principles has been developed that helps researchers make informed decisions about such research; a summary is shown below.

APA Guidelines on Humane Care and Use of Animals in Research

The following are some of the most important ethical principles from the American Psychological Association’s guidelines on research with animals.

  • Psychologists acquire, care for, use, and dispose of animals in compliance with current federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and with professional standards.
  • Psychologists trained in research methods and experienced in the care of laboratory animals supervise all procedures involving animals and are responsible for ensuring appropriate consideration of their comfort, health, and humane treatment.
  • Psychologists ensure that all individuals under their supervision who are using animals have received instruction in research methods and in the care, maintenance, and handling of the species being used, to the extent appropriate to their role.
  • Psychologists make reasonable efforts to minimize the discomfort, infection, illness, and pain of animal subjects.
  • Psychologists use a procedure subjecting animals to pain, stress, or privation only when an alternative procedure is unavailable and the goal is justified by its prospective scientific, educational, or applied value.
  • Psychologists perform surgical procedures under appropriate anesthesia and follow techniques to avoid infection and minimize pain during and after surgery.
  • When it is appropriate that an animal’s life be terminated, psychologists proceed rapidly, with an effort to minimize pain and in accordance with accepted procedures. (American Psychological Association, 2002)

Because the use of animals in research involves a personal value, people naturally disagree about this practice. Although many people accept the value of such research (Plous, 1996), a minority of people, including animal-rights activists, believes that it is ethically wrong to conduct research on animals. This argument is based on the assumption that because animals are living creatures just as humans are, no harm should ever be done to them.

Most scientists, however, reject this view. They argue that such beliefs ignore the potential benefits that have and continue to come from research with animals. For instance, drugs that can reduce the incidence of cancer or AIDS may first be tested on animals, and surgery that can save human lives may first be practiced on animals. Research on animals has also led to a better understanding of the physiological causes of depression, phobias, and stress, among other illnesses. In contrast to animal-rights activists, then, scientists believe that because there are many benefits that accrue from animal research, such research can and should continue as long as the humane treatment of the animals used in the research is guaranteed.


  • Psychologists use the scientific method to generate, accumulate, and report scientific knowledge.
  • Basic research, which answers questions about behavior, and applied research, which finds solutions to everyday problems, inform each other and work together to advance science.
  • Research reports describing scientific studies are published in scientific journals so that other scientists and laypersons may review the empirical findings.
  • Organizing principles, including laws, theories and research hypotheses, give structure and uniformity to scientific methods.
  • Concerns for conducting ethical research are paramount. Researchers assure that participants are given free choice to participate and that their privacy is protected. Informed consent and debriefing help provide humane treatment of participants.
  • A cost-benefit analysis is used to determine what research should and should not be allowed to proceed.


  1. Give an example from personal experience of how you or someone you know have benefited from the results of scientific research.
  2. Find and discuss a research project that in your opinion has ethical concerns. Explain why you find these concerns to be troubling.
  3. Indicate your personal feelings about the use of animals in research. When should and should not animals be used? What principles have you used to come to these conclusions?