By Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa, PhD (Seattle University)

The history of animal testing and the history of the life sciences go hand in hand. As Claude Bernard, the founder of physiology, stated, experimental animals, particularly frogs, are “closely associated with [experimenters’] labors and their scientific glory.”[1] And yet, these experiments were always fraught, as scientists had to manage their own emotional entanglement with their animal subjects, who often were killed or maimed in the process of the experiment.[2] Donna Haraway describes these emotional and ethical complexities as the “shared suffering” of the lab.[3] This argument is premised on the recognition of animal agency in the lab, a space where animals, apparatuses, and scientists are all responding and responsible to each other, though in very different ways. This essay will consider the process of shared suffering in the rat films made by Orval Hobart Mowrer while at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations during the 1930s. I hope to prompt us into thinking about “shared suffering” not only as a guidepost for understanding the ethics of animal experiments, but also as a methodological tool to understand visual images, specifically films, from the history of science. Mowrer’s films contain traces of the burdened relationship between him and his rodent test subjects.

It would be hard to find a better example of shared suffering than Mowrer’s behavioral laboratory, where political forces, psychological obsessions, and animal behaviors comingled.

Historian of science Rebecca Lemov describes Mowrer’s midcentury rat experiments as “a kind of autobiography,” in which Mowrer enacted his own psychological suffering on his rodent test subjects.[4] As a teen, Mowrer began suffering from a deep depression and feelings of unreality, which he later attributed to his own secret “sexual perversion,” the details of which he never fully disclosed.[5] Whatever he meant, it seems clear that Mowrer thought of himself for much of his life as a secret outsider, a position that pained him profoundly and indirectly influenced his work. In his later writing, Mowrer described the period of his life working with animals as wracked by intense bouts with alienation, anxiety, and depression—the very emotions he was simulating and testing in the lab. Drawing from Mowrer’s own accounts, Lemov concludes that Mowrer’s experiments were an attempt to physically manifest his own internal demons and thereby control them as he controlled the behavior of the rats.

Most of this work was conducted at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations (IHR), a well-funded interdisciplinary program created to tackle overarching questions about humanity. After graduating from John Hopkins with a doctorate in psychology in 1932, Mowrer eventually secured a full-time position in the Psychology Department at Yale University and as a Research Associate in the IHR.[6] There, Mowrer worked under the direction of Mark A. May and alongside the sociologist John Dollard as well as with fellow psychologists Clark Hull and Neal E. Miller. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the IHR’s collective research focused on integrating Freudian psychoanalysis with behaviorism by adapting psychoanalytic language describing motivation, desire, and repression to the quantitative observations and dispassionate vocabulary of animal laboratory testing. The result was a comprehensive (if speculative) theory that connected experimental research with the feelings, emotions, and behaviors of human populations at a variety of scales, a theory that became widely known as the “frustration-aggression” hypothesis.

Simply put, the frustration-aggression hypothesis argued that behavior is caused by drives or desires that are either fulfilled or thwarted and that this dynamic could be measured in the lab.

Mowrer helped develop these theories as a coauthor of Frustration and Aggression (1939), where the IHR researchers collectively outlined their work.[7]

An important subsection of this research focused on extending behavioral psychology as an explanation for Marx’s laws of economics. Here, the “frustration-aggression” hypothesis was applied to Marx and Engel’s description of the formation of class in The Communist Manifesto. The authors argued that Marx’s materialist interpretation of history “introduced unwittingly a psychological system” that mirrored the psychologists’ own.[8] The authors thereby reframed Marx’s description of primitive accumulation through the lens of behavioral psychology. In the version proposed by IHR researchers, the spiraling tendencies of class conflict begin with an almost mythic moment of initial, individual frustration, when the worker discovers their confined role within the instruments of production.

Perhaps, as Lemov describes, Mowrer’s take on this dynamic was rooted in his own experiences of depression and alienation, since his work emphasized states of suffering produced through material circumstances. In his laboratory work, Mowrer claimed to simulate anxiety in rodents by regularly shocking them with electric currents. In a series of articles, Mowrer outlined the debilitating effects of anxiety on rats as they waited for these shocks to occur and the surprising reduction in tension when the shock was actually administered.[9] He also used these findings to construct an extensive explanation for human behaviors, especially those of marginalized and oppressed classes of people. In his chapter of Frustration and Aggression, Mowrer argues that crime is caused by a disparity between an idealized American lifestyle (which he notes is mostly propagated by advertising and film) and the actual material circumstances confining groups of people.[10] As historian Corbin Page describes, Mowrer claimed that “African Americans, Native Americans, poor people, people with less education, shorter people, young people, less attractive people, people with physical disabilities, children of single parents, unmarried people, divorcees, and so on were all more likely to be criminal” because of the restrictions of society.[11] In Mowrer’s description, these criminalized groups deviate from “normal” life, where frustration is channeled towards legal and acceptable pursuits. In this framework, criminalized underclasses of oppressed people are created through primary moments of frustration and confinement, which then leads them to a variety of antisocial pathologies and behaviors.

Mowrer not only participated in theorizing this dynamic but also set out to simulate and film its occurrence. In An Experimentally Produced “Social Problem” in Rats (1939) and Competition and Dominance Hierarchies in Rats (1940), he used film to record social interactions and their effects on individual psychology. Mowrer’s films are primarily interested in the process of individuation. Hierarchies of behavior are produced in groups of rats over multiple experimental interventions in which each rat develops an identity specific to their relationship with the group as a whole. These films are primarily interested in the development of group dynamics. Although they occasionally title and individualize single rats, the animal subjects are always presented as members of a group rather than as a single (yet universal) example in the way that animal subjects function in many other research films, e.g. Neal E. Miller’s Motivation and Reward in Learning (1948). Over the course of the films, these rats are meant to model the development of behavioral patterns of particular classes in society.


Mowrer’s films present some of the complex, messy, and often contradictory affects that make up shared suffering in the lab. The differences in arrangement and conceit in each film are significant, despite claiming to study the same process and often being screened in the same settings. The testing apparatus depicted in Competition and Dominance Hierarchies in Rats is relatively simple, mostly consisting of a glass jar that is used to confine the rats in a limited yet visually accessible space. A distinct hierarchy emerges in the behavior of the rats over repeated trials presented in the film. As the intertitles explain, the rats begin with an active and exploratory pursuit of food, as a rat with a pellet persistently turns its back on two others, who are trying to take it. But as the experiments continue, this chase after the pellet becomes violent. The film’s intertitles describe this behavior as a second stage in the production of hierarchy where exploration leads to forceful dominance. The final, heartbreaking, phase takes place when the rats have learned and internalized their position within the hierarchy. One rat becomes “dominant,” one “intermediary,” and the last “subordinate.” This change in behavior is most profound in the “subordinate” rat, who has been so affected by the violence associated with the pellet that it will no longer touch it even when alone in the jar, despite being close to starvation. We are told through the intertitles that this change is long-lasting, reemerging in all future experiments. As Mowrer explained in his presentation of the films to the New York Academy of Sciences in 1940, this film demonstrates changes in the subordinate rodent’s “personality,” who becomes “shy and restrained,” exhibiting a “food neurosis” and a decreased intelligence that has been “depressed by social experience.”[12]

Given what we know about Mowrer’s own experiences of deep depression and anxiety at the time he made this film, its emphasis on the pain felt by its rodent protagonists is striking. Indeed, the way the films position the viewer invites sympathy with the rats even as it disavows it, creating precisely the type of strained, conflicted relationship that defines “shared suffering.” The relatively isolated rats, the theoretical framework of “personality typing,” and the clear allusions to human culture in the intertitles lend these rodents an interiority that they would not have otherwise. The camera is placed at eye-level with the rats, and the transparency of the experimental apparatus allows for an intimate proximity during their social interactions and in moments of isolation. Finally, the lighting of the film works to isolate the rats in an inky darkness, playing up the contrast between the white coat of the albino rat and the painted black of the matte background. By presenting the rats on a magnified scale and creating a narrative of deprivation and conflict, the film depicts moments that, at least to my eye, are deeply poignant, such as when we watch the listless, hesitant, and starving rat who has been forced into the role of subordinate. It is not inconceivable that Mowrer himself felt similarly, as he later described conflicting feelings about these experiments and the relationship they established between him, his emotions, and his animal subjects. The ravages of social violence have immobilized the rat we see onscreen, and its seeming terror at the introduction of the other rats—leaping to the far corner, belly up—was meant to be read within Mowrer’s framework as a kind of psychological trauma. Social subordination therefore becomes the film’s prime cause of personality formation, as the rat moves from being indistinguishable within the group to a distinct “identity” by adopting a position in relation to the others. Mowrer provides no explanation for why certain rats adopt particular social positions, describing, in true behaviorist fashion, behaviors as emergent from the experimental setting rather than individual rats. Here, poverty is represented as a combination of material substrata and relational dynamics that lead to neurosis. As Mowrer describes, his films were meant to present simplified, controlled, “habit mechanisms” of living organisms from which human society and language is derived.[13] These were precisely the types of linkages between human society and animal experiments that behaviorist theories such as Mowrer’s were built upon and ultimately undone by. But, at the time, behaviorist theories of society were ascendant precisely because of their “ability to generate cast-iron laws of behavior in the animal laboratory.”[14]


Mowrer’s other film, An Experimentally Produced “Social Problem” in Rats, operates in a different register, and, intentional or not, approaches questions of class far more as an issue of design and material arrangement than interpersonal socialization. Key to this shift in framework is the experimental apparatus, which is changed over the course of the film. Depicting the “Skinner method,” in which the rats are held in an enclosure containing a lever that must be pulled in order to receive food, this film codes the rats’ behavior in terms of production and consumption rather than dominance and submission. An Experimentally Produced “Social Problem” in Rats begins with the lever and food chute being placed on the same wall. In these early sequences, the rats learn to operate the lever whenever they are hungry, easily satiating themselves by producing more food on command. But in subsequent scenes, the food chute and lever are placed on opposite walls. Now, labor and its product are essentially split. Two classes of rats emerge over time when multiple rats are introduced into the later version of the apparatus. Over the course of four days, the rats go from all working, but never benefitting from their work, to all fighting over a space at the food chute, without any food being produced, to finally a single “worker” who does the vast majority of the labor while rushing back and forth between the lever and the food chute in order to snatch bits of food away from the “dependent” or “parasitical” rats who wait by the chute. As the intertitle concludes: “A ‘class society’ has emerged.”

The spectatorship position of this film is starkly different from Competition and Dominance Hierarchies in Rats. Most of the film’s footage is taken above the experimental enclosure, looking down through its open top. The solid walls of the apparatus prohibit camera angles at the rats’ level. Instead, we have a schematic vision, akin to an architectural blueprint. Viewed from above, the intense affective interiority of Competition and Dominance is gone. Closer tracking shots that occasionally focus on details of specific behaviors—crowding around the food chute, operating the lever itself, and frantically running back and forth between the lever and the chute—sporadically break the uniformity of the film’s bird’s eye view. But, despite being closer to their subjects, these shots retain the schematic perspective of the wide shots, displaying curiosity more than a sense of pathos. Ultimately, poverty in An Experimentally Produced “Social Problem” in Rats is explored less in terms of individual psychology and more as the product of supply and demand, production and distribution. The rats demonstrate the material effects of class organizations beyond the constraints of human society, suggesting a history of organisms that extends beyond traditional nature/culture boundaries. Here, we have a variation on Haraway’s “shared suffering” that one might call a “shared struggle,” in which animals, as well as humans, can become part of the proletariat.

In some ways, this type of animal research is the least likely to withstand the scrutiny of an ethical cost-benefit analysis of scientific knowledge gained versus animal suffering caused. It produced hypotheses and fantasies, images of possibilities rather than concrete tools for acting. Mowrer and his peers’ central assumption—that rats can in some way stand in for humans—was often flawed or absurd, the worst type of arbitrary reason for causing suffering. Indeed, Haraway finds this type of behavioral modeling, which produces the animal as a substitute for human pain, among the most troubling.[15] There is no denying the troubling power differential between Mowrer as filmmaker and experimenter and his rats who were made to painfully perform the scenes he concocted. But these experiments still raise fascinating, worthwhile questions. For instance, what if we reframe Mowrer’s work as a method of abstract, imaginative, and creative thinking that was produced through the shared labor (and suffering) of nonhuman participants? One way of understanding Mowrer’s research is to view it as a collaborative process of imagining a collective future and a collective past, with animals participating in the authorship of theoretical histories. Even if in actuality most of this research into rodent behavior ended up falling short of this potential—with the rats functioning as metaphorical props in fantasies of human engineering—there is a strain of productive utopianism here, where animals and humans labor side-by-side in a process of speculative thinking about living together. Indeed, Mowrer’s first film, Animal Studies in the Social Modification of Organically Motivated Behavior (1937-1938), offers a glimpse of an idyllic alternative to the pain and trauma of his other films. Like the others, this film features groups of hungry rats placed into an experimental apparatus and given food pellets, but, in this instance they are given just enough food to satisfy their hunger and there is no separation of producer and consumer rats.[16] Eventually, what develops is a food-sharing system, in which rats even can take the food from each other’s mouths without fighting, and each eats its fill. As the film concludes “an ‘altruistic society’ has arisen.” But once these rats have access to a private space that can be used to hoard food, fiercer fighting recommences.


None of what I have written is meant to justify inflicting pain on animals in the lab. These experiments emphasized suffering more than sharing. Mowrer himself felt trapped and persecuted by the methods and confines of his field. In a well-publicized 1947 speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Illinois, Mowrer rejected the lack of a moral focus in experimental psychology, advocating for a return to religious and commonplace understandings of guilt and responsibility.[17] Afterwards, he dramatically shifted the focus of his research, emphasizing group therapy based on confessing past sins rather than experimental testing.

The implicit shared suffering in his work from the 1930s, which is vividly on display in his films, was ultimately untenable for Mowrer, and led him to massively reshape his life. He was deeply unhappy when he was conducting this research and making these films, a fact that haunts them.

And he was not the only one unhappy. The rats in these films also were desperately searching for an escape from their circumstances. In a lecture given to the New York Academy of Sciences, Mowrer admitted that the rats featured in An Experimentally Produced “Social Problem” frequently attempted to escape (to “leave the field of play”) by jumping out of the open top of the apparatus through which they were being filmed.[18] Scenes of this behavior were edited out, deemed irrelevant at the time. But the desire to escape remains as an invisible presence in the films. These movies are shot through with the frustrated wish for freedom, emanating from both the scientist and the rats in a discordant process of attunement. Imprisoned together by the disciplinary rules of behavioral psychology, the confines of the testing apparatus, and the editing of the film, the animal test subjects and the human researcher seem to grope uncertainly, and often painfully, for a better way of being together, one that was more psychologically, personally, and politically humane.

Dr. Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa is an Assistant Professor in Film Studies at Seattle University. His research focuses on the history of scientific filmmaking, nontheatrical film, and animal studies. His book, The Celluloid Specimen: Moving Image Research into Animal Life is due to be published by the University of California Press in 2022.


“Animal Studies in the Genesis of Personality.” Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences. 3, no. 1 Series II (November 1, 1940): 8–11.

“Anxiety-Reduction and Learning.” Journal of Experimental Psychology. 27, no. 5 (November 1940): 497–516.

Bernard, Claude. An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. Dover. Courier Dover Publications, 1957.

Dollard, John, Leonard W. Doob, Neal E. Miller, Orval Hobart Mowrer, and Robert R. Sears. Frustration and Aggression. New Haven: Pub. for the Institute of human relations by Yale university press, 1939.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. When Species Meet. Posthumanities 3. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Hoggan, George. “Vivisection: (To the Editor of the ‘Morning Post’).” Morning Post, 1875.

Lemov, Rebecca M. World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men. 1st ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.

Mills, John A. Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. NYU Press, 1998.

Mowrer, O. H. “A Stimulus-Response Analysis of Anxiety and Its Role as a Reinforcing Agent.” Psychological Review. 46, no. 6 (November 1939): 553–65.

Mowrer, O. H., and R. R. Lamoreaux. “Avoidance Conditioning and Signal Duration — a Study of Secondary Motivation and Reward.” Psychological Monographs. 54, no. 5 (1942): i–34.

Mowrer, O. H., N. N. Rayman, and E. L. Bliss. “Preparatory Set (Expectancy)—an Experimental Demonstration of Its ‘central’ Locus.” Journal of Experimental Psychology. 26, no. 4 (April 1940): 357–72.

Mowrer, O. H., and Peter Viek. “An Experimental Analogue of Fear from a Sense of Helplessness.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 43, no. 2 (April 1948): 193–200.

Page, Corbin. “Preserving Guilt in the ‘Age of Psychology’: The Curious Career of O. Hobart Mowrer.” History of Psychology. 20, no. 1 (February 2017): 1–27.

“Preparatory Set (Expectancy) – Some Methods of Measurement.” Psychological Monographs. 52, no. 2 (1940): i–43.


[1] Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (Courier Dover Publications, 1957), 115.

[2] One of Bernard’s own students wrote emotionally about his own deep feelings of remorse and anguish while vivisecting dogs that he had come to feel emotionally connected with in the daily operations of the lab. George Hoggan, “Vivisection: (To the Editor of the ‘Morning Post.’),” Morning Post, 1875.

[3] Donna Jeanne Haraway, When Species Meet, Posthumanities 3 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 89.

[4] Rebecca Lemov, World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005): 98.

[5] O. H. Mowrer, “Abnormal Reactions or Actions? (An Autobiographical Answer),” in J. Vernon (Ed.), Introduction to General Psychology: A Self-Selection Textbook (Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Company, 1966): 18.

[6] Corbin Page, “Preserving Guilt in the ‘Age of Psychology’: The Curious Career of O. Hobart Mowrer,” History of Psychology 20, no. 1 (February 2017): 5,

[7] Dollard et al., Frustration and Aggression, 23–26.

[8] Dollard et al., 23.

[9] O. H. Mowrer, “Preparatory Set (Expectancy)—a Determinant in Motivation and Learning,” Psychological Review 45, no. 1 (January 1938): 62–91,; O. H. Mowrer, N. N. Rayman, and E. L. Bliss, “Preparatory Set (Expectancy)—an Experimental Demonstration of Its ‘central’ Locus.,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 26, no. 4 (April 1940): 357–72,; O. H. Mowrer, “Preparatory Set (Expectancy) – Some Methods of Measurement,” Psychological Monographs 52, no. 2 (1940): i–43,; O. H. Mowrer, “A Stimulus-Response Analysis of Anxiety and Its Role as a Reinforcing Agent.,” Psychological Review 46, no. 6 (November 1939): 553–65,; O. H. Mowrer and Peter Viek, “An Experimental Analogue of Fear from a Sense of Helplessness,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 43, no. 2 (April 1948): 193–200,; O. H. Mowrer, “Anxiety-Reduction and Learning,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 27, no. 5 (November 1940): 497–516,; O. H. Mowrer and R. R. Lamoreaux, “Avoidance Conditioning and Signal Duration — a Study of Secondary Motivation and Reward,” Psychological Monographs 54, no. 5 (1942): i–34,

[10] John Dollard et al., Frustration and Aggression (New Haven: Pub. for the Institute of Human Relations by Yale University Press, 1939), 113.

[11] Page, “Preserving Guilt in the ‘Age of Psychology,’” 7.

[12] O. H. Mowrer, “Animal Studies in the Genesis of Personality,” Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences 3, no. 1 Series II (November 1, 1940): 11.

[13] Mowrer, 9.

[14] Mills argues that despite behaviorism’s lost prestige, its basic premise that psychology should be subject to empirical, experimental study continues to hold sway within the discipline. John A. Mills, Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology (New York, NY: NYU Press, 1998), 73.

[15] Haraway, When Species Meet, 79. She writes: “there is a whole world of those who can be killed, because finally they are only something, not somebody, close enough to ‘being’ in order to be a model, substitute, sufficiently self-similar and so nourishing food, but not close enough to compel response.”

[16] Mowrer, “Animal Studies in the Genesis of Personality,” 9.

[17] Page, “Preserving Guilt in the ‘Age of Psychology,’” 2.

[18] Mowrer, 10.


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