Are dogs people too?

12 02 2006

Animal behaviour
Are dogs people too?

Feb 24th 2005 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition
Animal personalities are as clear-cut and distinctive as human ones

SOMETIMES it takes science a while to prove the obvious. Any dog owner
could tell you that dogs have personalities, and could describe that
of their own pooch. And to be fair to the science of animal behaviour,
that would also have been true of any researcher in the field 70 or 80
years ago. But the creed of behaviourism, which began to take over the
subject in the 1930s, eschewed such sentimentality. In an attempt to
bring rigour to the field, animals were thought of as machines (which,
in a sense, they are). The analogy, however, was pushed too far, and
became doctrinal rather than merely useful. The study of personality
differences between individual animals dwindled.

Samuel Gosling, however, is one of a generation of behavioural
scientists who not only recognise animal personality, but are reviving
the study of it, as he explained to the AAAS meeting. Dr Gosling, who
works at the University of Texas, in Austin, studies dogs and hyenas,
as well as people. Both dogs and hyenas are social carnivores. And
both, he has shown, have lots of personality.

One thing the behaviourists worried about was anthropomorphism—the
tendency mistakenly to ascribe human emotions and motives to other
species. What Dr Gosling and his colleagues have done to eliminate
that risk is to show that, although individuals in each species have
their own personalities, these fall inside what might be described as
a “personality space” that is distinctive to a species.

Human personalities, for example, are sometimes measured in five
dimensions: “openness to experience”, “conscientiousness”,
“extraversion”, “agreeableness” and “natural reactions” (how calm or
sensitive to stress someone is). Dr Gosling managed to establish
analogous personality spaces for his two social carnivores.

First, he asked people who knew individual animals well to describe
them with lots of different adjectives. Crucially, those people used
different terms when describing the personality traits of their
animals to those applied to people. Humans, for example, are rarely
described as “slobbering”, an adjective that came up fairly often for
dogs. But there were also some illuminating similarities. It was
hardly surprising that some hyenas were described as “aggressive”, but
“highly strung”, “calm” and even “imaginative” were also descriptions
that the hyena workers at the University of California, Berkeley, gave
to some of their charges.

Just as important, the different humans who knew a particular animal
agreed about its personality to a degree similar to that found when
several people describe a human friend they have in common. So animal
personalities look both reliable, and reliably non-human.

The five main dimensions of human personality were discovered using a
statistical technique called factor analysis. This works out how
likely it is that particular things such as behavioural traits
co-occur. Applying this analysis to dogs yielded four principal
dimensions to their personalities. Dr Gosling calls these
“sociability”, “affection”, “emotional stability” and “competence” (a
mixture of intelligence and obedience). Hyena personalities, like
those of humans, had five principal dimensions—but these included
“assertiveness”, “excitability” and “curiosity”.

Dogs, then, are not people after all—despite what some dog owners
might believe—and neither are hyenas. But they are distinct
personalities. Dr Gosling’s method has helped to launch a new
scientific discipline, comparative personality theory. It is hard to
draw meaningful conclusions from a single example. But adding
knowledge about dogs, hyenas and other species to what is already
known about people should help to illuminate exactly what,
biologically, personality is for, and also how it has evolved.

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