Animals Have Personalities? Science Finally Says Yes!
By Forrest Stone
Ask almost any dog or cat owner if their pet has a personality, and you'll get a "yes" answer.
Scientists, on the other hand, have been more careful about saying that animals have "personality." This is because scientists want to study things, well, scientifically. They don't want to put human ideas on non-human subjects.
There is a word for that: anthropomorphism [an-throw-poh-MORF-izm]. It means looking at non-human things and thinking about them in human terms. In poetry, it might be useful to talk about an "angry sky," but in predicting the weather, it's best to focus on high and low pressure systems.
In the 1970s, however, scientists realized that the only way to explain some animal behavior was to say that different animals have different personalities. Scientists started using the same terms used in human psychology, such as "aggressive" and "passive." Scientists also started watching and measuring personalities in animals.
A 1993 paper in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, called "Personalities of Octopuses," was, according to the New York Times, the first time the word "personality" was used to describe animal behavior in a major professional psychology journal.
Now, "animal personality studies" include some pretty amazing discoveries. The African gray parrot can not only count but can understand the concept of zero. Think about that! The ancient Roman numbering system failed to include zero, which made it impossible for that system to develop higher math!
Chimps teach their young some kinds of tool use. There is individual face recognition in sheep. Recently it's been discovered that bees can tell the difference between two human faces. Rats laugh.
In fact, studying animal personalities has helped scientists ask more and more interesting questions not only about animals but also about humans and about all life. Why, for example, would it make sense for any species to have members that are not aggressive? Isn't being the most aggressive animal what evolution is all about?
Well, it turns out, no. Imagine a species where all the members are aggressive, say, fish that all charge out along the sea floor to hunt for food. Well, what happens if a group of bigger fish comes along and eats them all up? With no "shy" members of the species hiding among the shells and coral, well, that would mean extinction.
So scientists believe that each species really needs a mixture of "personality types" in order to give that species the best chance at surviving in a variety of changeable circumstances.
Another thing about studying personalities in animals is that scientists can look at the whole life cycle of a group of animals in a relatively short time. Octopuses, for example – the subject of the 1993 paper – only live three or four years, so over the course of a 20-year study scientists can observe several generations.
So, the next time a dog owner talks about what an amazing personality his or her dog has, you can agree without feeling unscientific! You can also tell them that a particularly funny dog might have a chance at making a rat laugh.