Humans are obviously unique in the animal kingdom — and we might be unique in the entire universe. We can communicate through structured language, build and use all manner of sophisticated tools and thus develop complex societies to overcome overwhelming environmental odds. Yet, when it comes to atoms and cells, it turns out we aren’t all that easily distinguished from our animal kin. So, how did humans get to be so special?
As it turns out, human psychology is the answer. Here is the primary reason human and animal psychology differ significantly — as well as a few striking similarities between how humans and animals think and feel.
Humans Are Not Governed by Biology
Geese migrate north, brown bears hibernate, salmon swim upstream — all of these animal behaviors are driven by biology, not conscious choice. Almost all animal behavior is governed by biology, which has evolved over millions of years to deliver specific species with specific behavior patterns that are more likely to result in safety and success in mating. Biology creates in animals instincts and reflexes that they unthinkingly perpetuate for generations, with only the slightest alterations to account for shifting environmental factors.
Prehistoric human ancestors undoubtedly also experienced a biological drive, and to some extent, modern humans do to. However, at some point in human evolution, people developed the ability to override their biological instincts and reflexes and opt instead to behave in different ways according to their own preferences. In many cases, humans choose poorly; history is riddled with examples of individuals making decisions that generate results contrary to their biological imperatives to find security and procreate. Still, it is exactly an individual’s opportunity to disobey their biological drive that makes humans so distinctive in the animal kingdom, and it is why so many people are so proud to elevate humankind above the rest of the biologically driven living creatures on Earth.
To what degree biology continues to influence human behavior is a subject of great debate amongst psychologists and others — and it has been for thousands of years. Most psychologists study the human mind, and for generations, the mind has been considered an intangible entity contained by but somehow separate from human flesh. Yet, advanced and specialized technology is providing psychologists, neuroscientists and more with greater insight into the connection between the mind and the body. Thus, we may soon discover that the free will supposedly granted to humankind is merely another form of biological command.
Humans Use Verbal Language
Humans are the only animal species to communicate (primarily) with verbal speech, and our ability to learn and use language has altered our psychology in key ways. For example, humans process their emotions differently as a result of the ability to express how they are feeling to those around them using words as opposed to body language and behavior. Likewise, language makes it possible for humans to remember and discuss events of the past as well as possibilities for the future, whereas most animals are compelled to focus entirely on the current moment.
Humans Have More in Common With Animals Than We Think
Many aspects of animal psychology remain present and influential within human psychology. In fact, many of history’s most prominent psychologists were influenced by animal behavior in the development of their psychological theories. Freud drew largely from studies on apes and other primates in his work on social psychology, and B. F. Skinner invested heavily in comparative psychology, primarily with pigeons and rats, before drafting his recommendations for behavior therapy. Today, many psychologists continue to conduct research on animal development to better understand human psychology. Students in online master’s in psychology programs are likely to encounter more recent examples of animal studies informing psychology theory.
One of the most obvious ways in which human behavior reflects animal behavior is the principle of reinforcement. Animals will continue to engage with behaviors that provide positive outcomes, like food, safety or mates. Similarly, humans will repeat behaviors that manifest some positive result. Of course, reinforcement becomes much more complicated in human society because people can be interested in achieving more than biological advantages like food. Still, looking at basic principles like reinforcement can help psychologists understand more about what drives human behavior and how to rectify improper behavior with greater efficacy.
Humans are animals, but we are a special type of animal thanks largely to our unique psychology. Our use of language and our ability to process information to a greater degree gives our minds more options than biology alone. Still, psychologists have much to learn about the similarities and differences between us and our animal cousins.