Monday, February 23, 2009

You've Got Personality

Today's post is based on the article, "They’ve Got Personality", in the current issue of National Wildlife magazine.

People who pay close attention to animals know that animals have individual personalities. Scientists traditionally deny that, and many still do. (What can we infer, then, about the quality of knowledge of animals that science has presented us with?)

The first time someone dared to use the word "personality" in reference to a nonhuman in a scientific journal was pretty recent: 1993. This was in relation to octopuses. (See also my blog post "And now... Octopuses".) Roland Anderson, a biologist at the Seattle Aquarium, noticed that keepers had vivid nicknames for the facility’s Giant Pacific octopuses. "Lucretia McEvil" tore up the fittings in her tank every night. "Emily Dickinson" was cripplingly shy.

Scientists being who they are, they needed to quantify personalities. So Anderson and psychologist Jennifer Mather devised an experiment. They tested how individual octopuses responded when gently poked, startled, or offered food. They determined that each octopus had a unique and consistent set of responses--in other words, a personality.

Still, when Samuel Gosling, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, proposed studying animal personality in the mid-1990s, his advisor told him the idea was "goofy". Gosling did it anyway, assessing Berkeley's colony of hyenas using techniques from human personality evaluation. He asked the animals' caretakers to rank them on such behaviors as assertiveness, excitability, "human-directed agreeableness", sociability, and curiosity. Though they kept from comparing notes, the four keepers gave very similar assessments of each hyena’s personality. What’s more, the results could not be explained as a consequence of traditional behaviorism ideas such as dominance hierarchy or the animals' age or sex.

Luckily for animal science, Gosling now heads up the Animal Personality Institute at the University of Texas in Austin.

Scientists are finally "discovering" that all living creatures, even insects, have personality. More examples are in the National Wildlife Magazine article linked above. Still, some researchers will not use the word "personality", substituting the sterile term "behavior syndrome".

If you have an inclination to birdwatching, you can help collect scientific data that will further "prove" that individual birds have individual personalities. Find out how at

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