AUSTIN, Texas—Cats, dogs, hyenas and other animals have personality traits in much the same way humans do, says a University of Texas at Austin psychologist who is working toward developing a new field in animal personality.
Dr. Samuel D. Gosling also believes the biological mechanisms underlying these behavioral traits are similar across species. "The idea that nonhuman animals have unique personalities stems from the evolutionary continuity that exists between humans and other species," he said.
"Unfortunately, there is no unified body of research on animal personality. Some of the early pioneers of psychology studied personality in animals, and then the subject disappeared. I suspect that psychologists thought it didn’t sound very scientific," Gosling said. "Scientists have been reluctant to ascribe personality traits, emotions and thoughts to animals, even though they readily accept that the anatomy and physiology of humans is similar to animals."
Yet, there is no reason to believe that natural selection shapes only physical traits, Gosling said.
"Darwin himself argued that emotions exist in non-human animals, and his evolutionary theory suggests that behavioral traits, including personality, can evolve in just the same way as fins, wings and arms," he said. "We should realize that studying the personality of animals could help us understand a lot about human personality."
Gosling has published several articles on the subject, is designing a psychology course on animal personality for the academic year 2003-2004, and has submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to work with animals at the San Antonio Zoo and at University of Texas primate facilities.
His ideas and research on animal personality will be featured on a Discovery Channel segment in September. For the segment, Gosling recreated one of his Austin dog park studies. Gosling’s studies examine scientifically whether dogs, cats and other animals really have personality traits in the same way humans do, or whether, as some skeptics believe, people are simply projecting their own personalities onto their animals.
Through hunting and domestication of animals, human welfare has been intimately tied to the behavior of animals for centuries, said Dr. Michael Domjan, chairman of The University of Texas at Austin Department of Psychology. "Because of this, people have always had a fascination about animal behavior and made up their own informal theories about animal behavior and personality.
"Gosling’s research is important because it addresses the issue of animal personality formally and systematically," he said. "The outcome of this effort will tell us important things about nonhuman animals. It will help identify similarities and differences in personality across species and help us begin to study the evolution of personality traits."
Gosling, who was raised on a farm in England, began his research while working on his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. In a research project at Berkeley’s Institute of Personality and Social Research, Gosling and Dr. Oliver John set out to "map the landscape" of animal personality by piecing together the isolated research reports on the subject. Their results were published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Since coming to The University of Texas at Austin in 1999, Gosling has continued his research into animal personality with John and others. In studies involving dogs, cats, fish, ferrets and spotted hyenas — to name a few — they have discovered that certain characteristics of personality — particularly extroversion and emotional stability — are evident in animals as low on the phylogenetic scale as guppies and octopuses. The way these personality characteristics are manifested, however, depends on the species.
"Whereas an introverted human will stay at home on a Saturday night or stand alone at a party, an octopus will stay in its den during feeding and attempt to hide itself by changing color," Gosling said.
They also found that the certain personality characteristics, in particular the conscientiousness vs. impulsiveness factor of personality (deliberation, self-discipline, dutifulness, order), might be evident only in humans and in their closest relatives, chimpanzees.
One of the most interesting facts to emerge from Gosling’s research on spotted hyenas is that male hyenas are more neurotic, high strung, fearful and nervous than females. The reason, Gosling suggests, is that female hyenas are larger and more dominant than males.
"This example suggests that sex differences in personality may be related to the ecological niches occupied by the two sexes in a species, and illustrates how a comparative approach can offer a fresh perspective on the interplay between social and biological factors in personality," Gosling said.