Wednesday, January 8, 2014

It's official: Animals have personalities!

by Sandra Parshall

Anybody who has lived with animals and observed them closely knows they are individuals with distinct personalities. But to science, that is "anecdotal" information, tainted by emotion -- anthropomorphism -- and proof of nothing. It’s nice, then, that researchers are now doing scientifically conducted studies of animal personalities.

Virginia Morrell reports on these studies in an article in the February issue of Psychology Today. Morrell points out that until only a few years ago scientists in general ridiculed the notion that nonhuman animals had personalities. When the great primatologist Jane Goodall discussed the individual temperaments and personalities of the chimpanzees she observed, she was criticized for her unscientific approach. Goodall also expressed the belief that chimps experienced – gasp! – emotions. Imagine such a thing!

Graybeard male chimp at San Francisco Zoo, listening
attentively as I talked to him.
If you live with a cat or a dog or both, you’re rolling your eyes by now. Of course they have personalities. Of course they feel emotion. (How many of us have seen surviving pets grieve to the point of illness following the death of a companion?) Pets  aren’t reflecting what their owners project onto them. Every truly caring pet owner allows an animal to be itself. We can mistreat them and force them into doing things they don't want to do, into hiding their true natures, but relief from a bad situation will almost always bring a cat's or dog’s natural personality back to the surface.

The two cats that share our home couldn’t be more different. Gabriel, an Abyssinian, is forward, friendly toward everyone, a greeter at the door. Emma dashes for cover when the doorbell rings, and although women don’t frighten her the way men do, she’s likely to stay hidden until any intruder departs. Gabriel is compliant about such things as claw-clipping and medication. Emma is a holy terror. Yet they live in the same house and receive equal attention and love. They are what they are, not what we have made them.

Mammals aren’t the only animals with distinct personal natures. Such diverse creatures as octopuses, crabs, fish and insects have demonstrated individual differences in the way they respond to the world. But despite evidence presented occasionally by reputable researchers such as Goodall, scientists were reluctant until recently to admit that nonhumans could possess the same traits we see in our own species. This branch of animal studies didn’t really take off until the late 1990s. Now it’s turning up fascinating information about the other living beings that share our world.

Not surprisingly, researchers have confirmed that humans share many traits with our primate cousins, but some differences have also been found. For example, chimpanzees – who live in families and complex communities as humans do – also possess what is called the “conscientiousness factor,” which involves the ability to plan and to behave in predictable ways that contribute to social order. However, the largely solitary orangutan lacks this trait. Humans differ from all other primates in the way we compete for and display dominance – at least in civilized societies.

Across many different species, researchers have found that an agreeable personality with a low level of neuroticism is directly tied to a strong immune system and a longer life. This is equally true of humans, monkeys, great apes, house cats, and probably demonstrates a genetic link between health and personality. (Yes, we all know mean dogs and nasty humans who have lived into old age, but we're talking majorities and generalities here.)

Now that science has finally recognized the possibility that other animals have personalities, just as humans do, maybe we can move toward a recognition that they also have some of the same rights we have. 


Anonymous said...

Wonderful - I agree with you completely! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more. I was able to keep an entire litter of 8 cats, who are all beloved members of the family. All raised by the same mother, living in the same house, each is so different from the others.
I've always hoped that those who abuse animals because they can, come back in another life on the receiving end.

Sandra Parshall said...

The people who make me shake my head are those who talk about "savage" wild animals and creatures without conscience, while humans are slaughtering each other with abandon all over the globe.