People who keep animals as pets will often talk about their pet’s personality – identifiable traits that appear to be displayed in a consistent manner across contexts and time. Although it was once considered anthropomorphic to talk about nonhuman animals as having a ‘personality’, today, studies dispute this view, with many researchers believing that personality is not just something found in humans, but is ancestral amongst animals. So what is so important about personality?
The answer lies in human research: studies have found that certain personality traits are associated with life outcomes, for example, neurotic traits are associated with lower well-being (a measure of happiness) and with increased mortality risk1-3. If personality really does play such an important part in living (or dying), then it is very much worth studying. Psychologists are interested in what determines personality (nature vs. nurture) and how we can predict and manage health risks that seem to be related to certain personality traits.
Of course, to assess such complex relationships in only one species is not enough to understand them. To really understand what personality is, where it comes from and how it affects our lives, we need to consider the same questions in other animals. By studying other species, such as our primate relatives, we can begin to understand the origins of personality, and its role in behaviour.
As it turns out, personality traits are just as identifiable in chimpanzees and bonobos as they are in humans4-6. What’s more, associations between personality and well-being, similar to those found in humans, exist in other species of primates. For example, chimpanzees with neurotic personalities tend to have lower well-being5; gorillas who are more extraverted live longer7; and orangutans who have higher well-being also live longer8.
These findings are not only interesting to evolutionary psychology, but also of potential benefit to improving well-being in captive apes. However, the findings don’t stop there. There is growing evidence that personality also plays a role in cognitive testing with primates.
Much research with captive primates relies on the use of touch screen tasks or social learning paradigms to study their ability to learn, improvise and make decisions. These tasks give us an important insight into primate cognition, and to what extent nonhuman primates parallel human abilities in learning and social interaction. However, a few studies have found that individuals that are more innovative and curious are more likely to take part in this research, which could lead to selection bias in ‘recruiting’ monkeys to take part9-10. This can limit our interpretation of study results, as well as comparisons between different test groups10-11.
Thus, research to date indicates that not only is personality quantifiable in animals, but that it is an important consideration in assessments of well-being, mortality risk and cognition. Although still a relatively new field of study, animal personality research is expanding rapidly12, and no doubt will continue to play an increasingly important role in understanding behaviour and cognition in some of our closest relatives.
This is a guest post written by Vanessa Wilson. Vanessa is a PhD candidate in differential psychology at the University of Edinburgh, where she studies personality and emotional perception in nonhuman primates. Follow her on Twitter at @V_DubleU.
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American Journal of Primatology