The horny newt and other tales of animal personality

The assertiveness of hyenas, the emotionalality of rats, the timidity of mice, the sociability of yellow-bellied marmots, the anxiousness of pigs, the agitatedness of cows, the obduracy of donkeys (well what else?), the fearfulness of rhinoceri, the confidence of zebra finches, and, of course, the randiness of newts.

Research into the ‘personalities’ of a variety of different animals has been going on for a century. It wasn’t until recently, however, that psychologists began to ask whether this research might illuminate the study of human personality traits.

The criticisms of this line of thinking are all too obvious. Hyenas can’t talk (only laugh), pigs are don’t have to work in open-plan offices (although they may prefer it to their current lot) and newts can’t repeatedly forget important anniversaries. So what exactly can any of these species tell us about the human personality if they don’t have to deal with human problems?

Science has always been keen to understand human kind through the study of simpler creatures. Whether we like it or not, many medical breakthroughs have been made through experimentation on animals – and let’s face it, we humans are nothing more than the third chimpanzee.

Article abstract
BBC News report on dog personalities
NYT article about birds



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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 16 February 2005

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