Experimental psychology refers to the use of scientific experiments to study human and animal behavior in order to better understand the human psyche. Experimental psychologists conduct methodological experiments in controlled environments to study memory, sensation, perception, emotion, motivation, mental processes, developmental processes and social processes. They develop theories that help create effective treatments for neurological diseases and psychological disorders.
While some experimental psychologists work primarily with human patients, there is a limited supply of available human subjects. All pharmaceutical must be tested before they’re allowed to be sold to the public, and scientists are reluctant to introduce potentially toxic substances into humans for the purpose of studying the effects. So, decades ago, animal experimental psychologists began introducing psychological disorders and chemical processes into animals, a controversial process that led to public outcries of animal cruelty.
These public outcries led the American Psychological Association (APA), the Society for Neuroscience and the National Institutes of Health to establish stricter, more humane codes of conduct for the use of animals in research, though the controversy hasn’t completely died down. According to the APA, at least 90% of the animals used in psychological research are rats, mice or pigeons—animals that aren’t covered under the Animal Welfare Act.
Experimental psychology isn’t really a separate branch of psychology, because every applied branch of psychology depends upon the research findings of experimental psychologists. Experimental psychologists, in turn, must keep abreast with the needs of the needs of the applied branches of psychology in order to keep their research relevant to the needs of psychological practitioners and patients. If experimental psychologists don’t keep their research pertinent, their funding might eventually dry up.
Experimental psychologists also depend upon other psychologists; they continually read the research findings of others in order to keep current and to avoid duplicating the research of others.
After reviewing the available findings, experimental psychologists develop a hypothesis and set about gathering data to test it. They often must design equipment or models for this testing process. Once they’ve completed the testing, they must analyze the results to determine whether the tests support the original hypothesis. If not, the hypothesis must be altered or thrown out. If the results do support the hypothesis, they need to be presented to the appropriate audience for further study.
Types of Degrees
Experimental psychologists need to get a Bachelor of Science in psychology instead of a Bachelor of Arts, because of the extra coursework in science and research. Animal experimental psychologists need to load up heavily on biology and lab classes. A concentration or dual major in biology is recommended. Courses in writing and statistics are also vital. A bachelor’s degree typically spans over four years.
Students pursuing this degree will be better able to understand the mental processes of animals. Also, for many studies and experiments, animals are mainly used as subjects to test hypotheses. As part of the program, students may cover courses such as developmental and cognitive psychology, learning and behavior, biopsychology, clinical and health psychology, social psychology, animal thinking, and communication. Most universities offer animal experimental psychology courses as specializations or as single courses within general psychology programs. In some cases, students may also have to cover animal-specific training such as sign language in the case of chimpanzees.
Few jobs in psychological research are available with just a bachelor’s degree. A Master of Science in experimental psychology is almost always required for research assistants. A master’s program features the study of experimental methods, psychological measurement, statistical analysis and research design. Some universities also offer a Master’s of Science in animal behavior psychology. This degree can span over 1-3 years depending on the type and schedule of study – full-time or part-time.
A PhD degree is normally required for full-fledged researchers in psychology.
Most animal experimental psychologists work in a research facility run by a college, university, private company, governmental agency or non-profit organization. Most of them specialize in a particular area of psychology or study a particular disorder.
Experimental psychologists often work in teams, sharing the research load; sometimes they work with colleagues from a distance. Most are required to write research papers, and some of those who work for universities are required to teach. Other duties might include maintaining records and writing grants for funding. Specialists in animal experimental psychology normally have little or no contact with human patients.
The Bureau of Labor places experimental psychologists in their “all other” category; the mean annual wage for this category in 2013 was $88,400. The mean hourly wage was $42.50.