a beautiful lie?

What is personality?

I am working on this topic in mouse lemurs at the moment, tiny, little primates, lemurs from Madagaskar, nocturnal, omnivorous, big eyed, terribly cute and fast and funny…

And I have read what feels like a thousand publications on the topic, so I think I have somewhat of an understanding of what is understood of personality in animals. That individuals vary in their behaviour, so not all show the entire spectrum of possible responses to for example a predator or a conspecific, but they are limited in their “range” of behavioural response and behaviours are constant over time and contexts. There’s a few “general” personality traits in animals, as there’s the big five in humans (neuroticism, extraversion, openness to new things, agreeableness and… forgot the last one, but never mind&hellip. The animal analogs are Exploration/ novelty avoidance, activity, boldness, aggressiveness and sociability, and they correlate with each other, or usually do, and different grades of each are best under different environmental conditions and so on and so on, it doesn’t sound like it, but I really like the topic, it’s terribly interesting and complex. I mean, you can get basically all biological and behavioural fields into there, neuroscience, the influence of genetics, epigenetics, hormones, environmental conditions, everything… It’s a spiderweb with a thousand threads to try and understand why some animals are aggressive and others not, with experience and maternal and epigenetic and structural and hormonal influences… And then honestly, researchers have started to dive into that topic about fifteen years ago, it’s an entirely new and basically totally neglected field. Okay, usually you assume that there is evolution and that selects for ONE best structure of one trait ad that’s it, and variation was viewed as noise, as long as it didn’t refer to different strategies of reproduction or so, but those are not connected to personality, as least not that we know (yet?)… I mean, where were all the guys that had pets as kids? Don’t tell me that anyone who grew up knowing pets would deny that there are differences, that they are each unique and have their different temper?

And honestly, I know it’s not the perfect scientific way to look upon things, but you cannot tell me that researchers view the animals they work with and observe almost every day as all equal – I mean, it’s basically like a daily soap to watch a group of monkeys for a long while, every day, and you start getting to know them really soon, who is the troublemaker, who is always trying to get out of the way of fights, who is curious and who is scared about the human observer, all stuff like that…

Anyway, one thought occurred to me and I just can’t get rid of it: What if it might be a lie? I mean, you can ask humans how they rate themselves for certain traits, then ask their friends, then put them to a certain task watched by independent judges and let them rate the same stuff and then you see how consistent it is… It’s easy to assess personality traits in humans, there’s standardized tests and everything, but in animals all I can do is observe and do some experiments and try to measure only my variable (which is tricky, as often they are intermingled, for example if you test for exploration, activity messes it up because animals have to move through your new environment, and maybe the highly explorative but lazy ones end up getting lower exploration scores just because they moved less&hellip. In most animals that’s not a problem at all, you assume they do what they do and are done with, everything’s fine…

But what do you do with highly developed, highly intelligent specimen? I mean, chimpanzees can basically lie, great apes possess a “theory of mind”, they are aware of themselves, their identity, and of others, they are empathic, they can guess and understand what others feel and need. Probably you could ask a chimp if he thinks he is rather aggressive or bold compared to others, I am sure they have some concepts of cowardice, aggressive guys and boldness. But we lack a common language, so back to observation and experiments… Only: Is behaviour identical with personality? I mean, usually it is – we can pretend to be bold or aggressive or feign interest in someone else’s problems if it’s beneficial for us at the moment, but not for a long time, not permanently. So  when you test animals alone, away from the group and they don’t know they are observed you should get rather reliable results, and over time an individual should “reveal what it’s made of”… But still, couldn’t it be that the really peaceful one feign aggressiveness to be left alone, or to defend their rank? Or whatever?

I mean, is it what we do or what we think that makes us who we are? When we can’t even answer that in humans properly, how are we going to answer it in animals, with out means of communication being so much worse *smile*?

Phu, that’s a hard question… I don’t expect to find an answer myself, and I am pretty sure philosophers have thought about this human dilemma for centuries… Still, there’s a weird feeling left by this question whether I really measure what I want to, whether it is even possible to somehow grab and describe an animal’s personality accurately. Not if they can distinguish between their inside, their mind world and the outside, what they do… Would be good to know what concepts of life and themselves those tiny guys I am working with have, but I guess it’s impossible to answer that. I just guess we underestimate most of the species we deal with regularly… It’s so hard to measure cognition and find appropriate tests…

Well, anyway, this thought, what if it all is different within and without caught me and nagged me… I remains exciting, guys, you never cease learning new things and finding new problems :-)


3.4.12 13:30


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