segunda-feira, 4 de abril de 2011

Are you a dog person or a cat person?

Even Among Animals: Leaders, Followers and Schmoozers

Published: April 5, 2010

I recently tried taking a couple of online personality tests, and I must say I was disappointed by the exercise. I was asked bland amorphisms like whether I was “someone who tends to find fault” with people (duh), is generally “friendly and agreeable” (see previous response), and always “does a thorough job” (can I just skip this question?).

Nowhere were there any real challenges like the following: Let’s say you are very hungry, and you go over to your favorite food dish. Inside you see, in addition to the standard blend of peanuts and insect parts, a bright pink plastic frog. How long before you work up the nerve to eat your dinner anyway? Or: You have just been ushered into a room that is in every way familiar, except that somebody has put a scrap of old, brown carpet in the middle of the floor. Do you keep your distance from the novelty item, or do you rush over and start pecking at it?

These and other vividly tangible gems are taken from the burgeoning field of animal personality research, the effort to understand why individual members of the same species can be so mulishly themselves, and so unlike one another on a wide variety of behavioral measures. Scientists studying animals from virtually every niche of the bestial kingdom have found evidence of distinctive personalities — bundled sets of behaviors, quirks, preferences and pet peeves that remain stable over time and across settings. They have found stylistic diversity in chimpanzees, monkeys, barnacle geese, farm minks, blue tits and great tits, bighorn sheep, dumpling squid, pumpkinseed sunfish, zebra finches, spotted hyenas, even spiders and water striders, to name but a few. They have identified hotheads and tiptoers, schmoozers and loners, divas, dullards and fearless explorers, and they have learned that animals, like us, often cling to the same personality for the bulk of their lives. The daredevil chicken of today is the one out crossing the road tomorrow.

Researchers are delving into the source and significance of all these animal spirits. They are asking questions like, when geese start on a wild goose chase, what sort of goose will lead the flock, and why do the rest choose to follow it? They are devising computer models to explain how different personality types can be maintained in a given animal population, and they are exploring the upsides and drawbacks of different personal styles.

In his studies of fishing spiders, for example, J. Chadwick Johnson, now at Arizona State University, has discovered that some juvenile female spiders are exceptionally voracious predators and thus grow into beefy, fecund adults. But the avarice has a potential downside. The big-mouthed female spiders have a nasty habit of cannibalizing potential mates before copulation, and without sperm to fertilize their eggs, all their hard-won superfecundity could go to waste.

Other scientists are exploring personal qualities that span phylogenies and allegories: Recent research suggests that highly sensitive, arty-type humans have a lot in common with squealing pigs and twitchy mice, and that to call a hypersensitive person thin-skinned or touchy might hold a grain of physical truth.

Some critics complain that the term “animal personality” is a bit too slick, while others worry that the entire enterprise smacks of that dread golem of biology, anthropomorphism — assigning human traits to nonhuman beings. Researchers in the field, however, defend their lingo and tactics. “Some of the behavior patterns we’re talking about are similar to what we call personality in human psychology literature,” said Max Wolf of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. “So why not call it personality in other animals?”

M. Bell of the University of Illinois at Urbana, who studies personality in stickleback fish, said: “We’re not being cute and anecdotal, we’re looking at consistent differences in behavior that we can test and measure.”

Reporting in this month’s issue of the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers from the University of Glasgow addressed the widespread concern that the findings of animal personality studies, so often performed on captive subjects, may be laboratory artifacts, with scant relevance to how the creatures behave in nature.

Working with a group of 125 wild-caught blue tits over the course of two winters, Katherine A. Herborn and her colleagues first typed each bird’s personality in the lab, focusing on two key traits: neophobia, or fear of novelty, and the willingness to explore one’s surroundings. They put pink plastic frogs in the birds’ food dish and clocked the time it took each bird to feed. All the birds noticed the luminous intruder.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 6, 2010, on page D1 of the New York edition.

Your Pet May Reveal Information About Your Personality

Would you consider yourself more of a "dog person" or a "cat person"? According to one personality study, your answer to this question might actually reveal important information about your personality.

In a study of 4,500 people, researchers asked participants whether they considered themselves to be more dog people or cat people. These individuals also completed a personality survey that measured a number of broad traits including conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism and agreeableness.

The researchers discovered that people who identified themselves as dog people tended to be more extroverted and eager to please others, while those who described themselves as cat people tended to be more introverted and curious.

According to researcher Sam Gosling, a psychologist at the University of Texas-Austin, the results might have important implications in the field of pet therapy. By using personality screenings, therapists might be able to match people in need with animals that are best suited to their personality.

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