The idea of non-human animals having personalities has been controversial. Some say that the concept of personality is distinctly human, and that attributing personality to animals is anthropomorphization. However, many researchers in the field of cognitive science define personality in terms that can easily apply to other species.
In the most general sense, personality is defined as consistent differences in behavior between individuals.1 These various differences in behavior can be distinguished as personality traits: boldness, sociability, and so on.
If one individual tends to be bold and curious, while another tends to be cautious and reserved, it can be said that these two individuals have different personalities.
Many scientists studying animal cognition are focusing their efforts on understanding animal personalities, and there’s much evidence that animals do indeed have personalities.2 One team, hailing from the University of Turku, has recently published a new study on personality differences in Asian elephants.3
The Turku team studied a group of over 250 Asian elephants in Myanmar. They were drawn to studying elephants specifically because they are highly social, long-lived, and demonstrate impressive cognitive abilities. Data on personality in animals with these characteristics is currently still rather scarce.
“Personality studies on other species than humans have so far focused on primates, pets and zoo populations, or on species that have a relatively short lifespan. Besides humans, personality studies on other long-lived species living in their natural habitat are rare.”
– Martin Seltmann, Postdoctoral Researcher & Study’s Lead Author4
For human personality, a common model is based on 5 personality traits: neuroticism, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion.
In the elephant study, the team found that personality is expressed through three main traits:
“Attentiveness is related to how an elephant acts in and perceives its environment. Sociability describes how an elephant seeks closeness to other elephants and humans, and how popular they are as social partners. Aggressiveness shows how aggressively an elephant acts towards other elephants and how much it interferes in their social interaction,” describes Dr Seltmann.
The elephants studied were used by the Myanmar natives for pulling logs of cut timber. Elephant riders (mahouts) were asked to contribute to the study by giving rankings for each elephant based on 28 different adjectives describing behavior.
Statements like the following were ranked for how well they applied to each elephant:
- “Elephant seems to listen (no ear flaps) closely to everything mahouts say or do.”
- “Elephant likes to make friends with other elephants of the same gender.”
- “Elephant causes harm or potential harm to other elephants; e.g. barks, charges, bites, kicks.”
Having rankers that were experienced and familiar with the elephants was important for the study. The mahouts were ideal choices because each one had close relationships with the elephants they were assigned to, and could provide a lot of insight into the individual personalities of each elephant.
The findings showed clear personality differences, and these differences were even observable during the course of the study.
“We met elephants that were clearly more curious and braver than others. For example, they always tried to steal the water melons that were meant as rewards,” said Dr Steltmann.
Research on animal personality can be used to better understand how to deal with individual animals and improve their well-being. Additionally, accounting for personality differences in animals can help researchers draw more accurate conclusions from their studies. This is particularly relevant for research regarding how animals respond to stress and specific features in their environments.
You can learn more about the Myanmar Timber Elephant research project by visiting their website.
This article was written by Amanda Pachniewska, founder and editor of Animalcognition.org.
1 – Andrea S. Griffin, Lauren M. Guillette, Susan D. Healy
Cognition and Personality: an Analysis of an Emerging Field
2 – Claudio Carere, Dario Maestripieri
Animal Personalities: Behavior, Physiology, and Evolution
3- Martin W. Seltmann, Samuli Helle, et al.
Evaluating the Personality Structure of Semi-Captive Asian Elephants Living in Their Natural Habitat
Royal Society Open Science
4 – University of Turku
Asian Elephants have Different Personality Traits Just Like Humans