By Jeff Fleischer
For many people with pets, the idea of their dog or cat having a unique personality probably seems intuitive.
But while scientists have long seen important links between human and animal anatomy and physiology, relatively little research has been devoted to studying the personality traits of nonhuman animals.
That’s gradually changing thanks to organizations such as the Animal Personality Institute. Part of the University of Texas at Austin’s department of psychology, API brings together researchers in animal personality from various universities, conducts studies on animal traits, and holds public events to share its findings.
Samuel Gosling, associate professor at Texas and API’s founder, first began studying animal personality in the late 1990s as a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley. He began thinking about the subject when, in a seminar on human behavior, his class tried defining the boundaries of personality.
“My background was in philosophy as well as psychology,” Gosling says. “The sort of typical philosopher’s gambit is to try to push things until they don’t make sense anymore. So I was thinking, ‘Let’s take a case where personality clearly doesn’t make sense and then we can find out where the boundaries lie.’ So I came at it from the perspective that animals don’t have personalities.
“Then I began thinking, ‘If they don’t, why don’t they?’ And I couldn’t come up with any sensible reason. I began looking into some old studies on monkeys and I began doing some research myself, and that’s how this whole thing started…What I’ve found is there is as much evidence of personality existing in animals as there is in humans.”
His first study, published in 1998, focused on a colony of spotted hyenas housed at the UC. Gosling asked the animals’ team of keepers to rate each of more than 30 individual animals on a number of personality traits, such as aggressiveness, sociability, and playfulness. “What I looked for was agreement on what these animals were like,” he says. “And while they didn’t agree on everything, on average the keepers agreed about as strongly as people typically agree on the personality of humans.”
Gosling’s next study applied the five-factor model, a widely accepted scale for measuring human personality to animal data from 19 existing studies that used 12 different species. The factors extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness proved particularly useful across species, with individual animals from apes and dogs to octopuses and guppies showing a range of differences in those categories. Chimpanzees also showed a measurable level of conscientiousness, which many scientists thought existed solely in humans.
“How we define personality is a crucial question,” Gosling says. “My research and other research that has shown that animals do have personality are really looking at a subset of what people usually mean by personality in humans. We’re talking about character traits, which are consistent patterns of behavior across time and situation.”
One of the goals of this research is to use what can be learned about animal personalities to better understand humans. Gosling says the studies on animals allow for a set of ideal research possibilities that a study on humans couldn’t include.
“If I wanted to really know how personality develops or look at the childhood causes of personality disorders or personality traits, I would want to take a group of animals and study them from conception to death, recording everything they did and observing them every day of their lives,” Gosling says. “Perhaps controlling who the parents were, who mated with who. Or doing cross-fostering studies in which you take the infant of one species and get it to be brought up by another. That would be the perfect study to do in humans; but of course we can’t do it.”
In a study published in 2001, Gosling and two other scientists had people with dogs and others familiar with the individual animals rate them on a range of personality factors. The same animals were then given specific tasks to complete, such as going on a short walk with a stranger or finding a dog biscuit hidden under a plastic cup, and rated on their behavior (Researchers also controlled for breed and other appearance bias by seeing how the judges graded the personality of dogs based solely on photos). People’s descriptions of their dogs matched up well with how other judges ranked their personalities.
“Because of how closely they’re integrated into our everyday lives, there are lots of things we want to know about dogs,” Gosling says.
One thing API researchers are looking at is how best to match dogs and guardians based on their personalities, studying dogs at Austin-area animal shelters. Another ongoing study involves using personality traits to determine which working dogs are best suited to tasks such as bomb and drug detection.
“In terms of animal welfare, the dog shelter stuff is very important work,” Gosling says. “If we can match dogs to [guardians] effectively, we can get the dogs out of the shelters quickly, stop having them returned, and make their [people] happier.”
For more information on the institute, visit www.AnimalPersonality.org. Several of Gosling’s research publications are available on his website, linked to API.
Jeff Fleischer has worked as an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald, a reporter for the Daily Herald and as the national politics and op-ed editor for U-Wire. He lives in Chicagoland with six lovably eccentric cats.