Thursday, August 10, 2006

Animal Personality

In my previous post, "Crash Course..." I described some child temperaments. All animals have temperaments. This also means they all have personalities. I know it's not a shocking statement to most, but for psychologists, it is.

See, not everyone accepts that animals have personalities. Perhaps they don't like the implication of the word. I think they bought into the "ANTHROPOMORPHISM is a SIN" bit. Some compromise by agreeing that animals have temperaments, but it's just semantics. What matters is that living organisms demonstrate individual differences in behavior, the phenotypic expression of their genetic differences. Personality/ temperament is what evolution (natural and sexual selection) acts on. It never made sense to me to deny that animals have personality, for it is akin to thinking that evolution is bunk. For all I know, they may be card carrying members of the Flat Earth Society.

That way of thinking is quickly becoming obsolete under the leadership of psychologist Sam Gosling, a young professor at the University of Texas. His research is solid, and he has a knack for catchy titles. "A room with a cue" and "From mice to men: What can we learn about personality from animal research?" are two of his best.

The first discusses how people indicate their personality by the way they keep their offices and bedrooms. Nonverbal behavior includes not only our facial expressions and "body language" but also signals based on the quality and quantity of clothing, scent, and room decor to name a few. Most of this kind of communication occurs unconsciously which means it reveals people in all of their uncensored glory, or lack thereof. This kind of information can be very useful in mate selection, a topic of great concern for EPs. "If you're looking for someone who's extroverted and agreeable, you'd probably do better meeting him or her. But if it's conscientiousness and openness you want, take a look in their bedroom." You can read more of the APA's synopsis here.

The second Gosling article is a massive review that synthesizes ALL of the research that has ever been published on animal temperament and personality, including a few studies of insect personality - butterflies and ants. E. O. Wilson would be proud. This is not the "What animal are you? sort of drivel that comes up when you google "animal personality." This is bona fide science.

You can download both articles in PDF format on Gosling's website. I wouldn't blame you if you went in for the lighter reading here or even here instead.

My Newfy has demonstrated herself to be 'slow-to-warm-up.' Skateboards, drum beats in a Shakira song, hammers, and fireworks really freak her out. So do strangers. She would rather run at maximum speed to hide in a box, behind a desk, a tree, a toilet - anything - to be away from the frightening stimuli.

In Big 5 (OCEAN) language, she is moderate on Openness, low on Extraversion, high on Agreeableness, and moderately low on Neuroticism. Dogs lack Conscientiousness. [So do many people!] She is also moderately dominant, at least for the time being. Don't ask the Old Man though, he'd tell you she's a domineering buttinski. He also wouldn't tell you that he's high on O, high on E, low on A, high on N, and high on dominance unless she's around. All of that means that she's a giant but slightly stubborn scarred sweetheart who's really pretty easy-going if there are no loud, unexpected sounds or people. Meanwhile and he's an anxious, curious, affable curmudgeon.

Dogs and all other animals (except people according to the Big 5 personality theorists) have "surgency" (dominance) added as a measurable personality factor. I think humans also have dominance hierarchies and dominance behavior, but no one asked me before publishing the five factor model of personality - and - they didn't ask Abraham Maslow either. Although he is best known for founding Humanism (a major 'school' of psychology in the 60s and the forerunner of today's "positive psychology" movement), he started out studying chimpanzee dominance as a student of Harry Harlow. If they had asked us, they would have included "dominance" as a 6th factor. Frans de Waal would agree on this one. They should have included dominance!

If you have time to kill, first take my survey (only 5 mins!), and then if you still want to learn more about personality and who your Star Wars twin is, click here.

If you do both, I'll tell you who my Star Wars twin is ;-)

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