Oh, hey, Crash Course have done a video about measuring personality
That’s kind of my thing. Although the video talks more about trait theory and self than concepts behind how we measure it, which is what I’m interested in, it’s pretty cool. It notes that traits are used to ‘predict behaviour and attitude’ but it doesn’t really get into the idea that we’re only using models and hence the models are infinitely variable. The simpler your model (e.g. the big five personality traits) you have less power to predict specific behaviours, but it’s general enough to apply to most humans and even some other animal species. That’s why we tend to go for the two-trait model for animals (also known as active/passive coping).
Anyway, I’m just bitter because my massive paper on the subject hasn’t been published yet.
And it would be really cool if we could try floating imaginary scenarios past animals . . .
First off ‘anthropomorphism’ is when you assign human characteristics to non-human objects or animals. (Now, I’ll point out that the traditional definition of this doesn’t specify that it has to be a unique property of humans. For example, having eyes is a characteristic of humans. Is it anthropomorphic to say dogs have eyes? The rant about the definition is for another time). Sometimes, when we interact with animals, we assume they are interpreting the interaction in the same way we are. In essence – that we all think in the same way.
This week a few different posts crossed my virtual desk, all on the subject of different ways of thinking, and it got me thinking (I think).
Firstly: a friend shared this interesting blog post from dog trainer and blogger Michael Blough. It talks about how ‘hugging’ can be unpleasant for dogs and it reminded me about the press surrounding this paper, which came out as ‘stroking is stressful for cats’ and greatly worried my mother.
The advice I gave my mum, and the advice Blough gives his followers, is the same: listen to what your animal is saying. But of course there’s an inherent contradiction in this! How can you listen to your animal when I’m also telling you it doesn’t think like you? How are you supposed to interpret what your pet is saying to you when it’s fundamentally speaking a different language?
I will be the first to say it’s hard and I don’t interpret my animals’ behaviour correctly 100% of the time. I’d argue that anyone who says they’ve never gotten it wrong with an animal is fooling themselves (let me know in the comments if you’re sure you’re a regular Dolittle). However, I’d say I’m right a good 95% of the time and hey, I’m blogging on the internet right? Listen to me, and I’ll give you some tips.
Blough starts with a pic of him hugging his dog. The dog is looking away, eye white is just visible, and you can clearly see the dog is about to leap from his arms. In this case it’s obvious the dog wants to end this form of physical contact.
Now have a pic of me and my dad’s dog receiving a hug.
This is Rosa and me a few years ago. We’re sitting at the kitchen table and Rosa (the size of a border collie) is sitting upright on my lap while my younger sister is sitting opposite us talking animatedly about her impending departure to uni. I happen to remember this because this pose would be classed a ‘nervous’ hug for Rosa. My sister’s animation worried her so she sat upright. Normally she’d be lying on her back like a baby, tongue lolling out one side of her face, a small glob of drool descending onto my t-shirt.
Rosa is not a typical dog. The difference between this photo and Bough’s is pretty clear, Rosa doesn’t look like she’s about to leap from my arms, her eye whites are hidden (even from this angle). She’s not leaning in any particular direction.
If we were being very critical we could say my arm is clearly restraining her and it is – it’s restraining her from falling off my lap as she’s a little too big. I’d hold a child in the same way.
So these are all the visual cues I’m using to assess this situation and come to the conclusion Rosa is happy in this situation. And Rosa frequently requests hugs (sometimes a little too eagerly – she’ll be half on my lap before I’ve sat down and has cracked my chin with her thick skull). If a pet requests something, it’s a safe bet that it likes it. Now occasionally owners will say the infamous line “Oh they like it!” of their clearly unimpressed pet, the pictures of cats with hats on the internet are proof enough of that. In this case I’m saying Rosa has a particular, unique set of behaviours which are unambiguous and precede her attempting to sit on my lap. It involves eye contact, gaze direction towards my lap, and pawing. Sometimes I will sit and invite her up with a similarly unambiguous signal where I’ll pat my knee repeatedly and call her name. If she chooses not to come up, there’s no penalty. So here when I’m saying Rosa ‘requests’ a hug, I’m saying she initiates the contact with signals that have developed over the course of our relationship.
But what is Rosa thinking here? This is a fascinating question for me. And coincidentally I came across a blogpost on PopSci about this video. In essence it appears that the baby is reacting to the emotional content of the song the mum is singing. I like the expert PopSci have consulted who says:
…the baby’s facial expressions are more consistent with a conflict between sociality and fear – perhaps a positive social response to her mother’s face, and fear in response to her mother’s low and loud singing voice, which is not like her speaking voice. Babies at this age often react negatively to unfamiliar things, including new people, and familiar people with something out of whack (e.g., wearing a hat)
Which I think is a great interpretation of what’s happening in that baby’s mind. It takes into account the baby’s behaviours, its expressions, and prior knowledge of how babies process things. I wonder, can I interpret Rosa’s thought processes?
I really enjoyed reading John Bradshaws ‘In Defence of Dogs’ and the companion book ‘Cat Sense’ which gives a brief natural history of our most common pets and talks about their behaviour. In it, Bradshaw points out the common fallacy of believing dogs are simply wolves – they’re not. They’re the wolves who chose to associate with humans, who’ve been with us for 20,000 years (Sablin & Khlopachev, 2002), and who are capable of understanding us and interacting with us in ways that even hand-reared wolves can’t comprehend (Gacsi et al 13, Viranyi et al 2008). And yet we don’t know if our dogs love us. In fact there is a paper out there which suggests that the closeness between dog and owner, as perceived by the owner, has no relationship with how attached the dog appears to be to the owner (Rehn et al, 2014). In essence, you may like your dog, but your dog might not like you.
But before you get too depressed about this – I have hope. And it doesn’t come from the fact we use the same social separation test to judge attachment in dogs as we do in babies (Rehn et al 2013) or that individual personalities in dogs and humans changes the attachment (Zilcha-Mano et al 2011) in the same way unique human friendships have different levels of attachment. It’s not even that, as the PopSci article shows, we’re just as good at misunderstanding our own babies as we are dogs (and babies aren’t hugely scarred by that).
So I’m going to give some interpretation a shot, just as an exercise. Rosa, like the baby, isn’t verbal. She doesn’t think in language (and while she might understand words like ‘walk’, ‘out’, ‘dinner’, ‘dad’, I doubt she’s capable of putting these things into sentences). What is Rosa thinking when she asks for a hug?
I don’t believe she’s thinking about ‘love’ or abstract concepts like that. I think her thought processes run more along the lines of “It’s she-who-is-sometimes-here-and-smells-like-and-talks-like-my-daddy-and-who-gives-me-food-lots [Jill, for short]. She lets me sit on her, which is comfortable and maybe she will scratch my ears or rub my belly”. And then I think she initiates the interaction she wants, she approaches me, she gets to sit on my lap, and usually I will arrange her so she can lie back and observe everybody else in the room because I know she likes to keep an eye on what they’re doing. Now I think her mind is going along the lines of “there is my pack, here it is comfortable, I can smell food, my ears are being nicely scratched, my daddy is happy”. I’m sure much of her contentedness relies on the fact she adores my dad and when I visit my dad we’re usually laughing and talking and enjoying ourselves.
In essence I think dogs, cat, other animals, babies and even drunk people live in the moment for the most part, with only a vague understanding of consequence at the very best. As the only sober ones at the party, the onus is on us to make sure they’re all okay, and not to take advantage of them by hugging them when they don’t want it.
One of my all time favourite topics is that of animal personality. In fact my PhD was centred around animal personality, using some nifty new technology to explore the phenomenon. Most of my papers are about how personality affects the lives of cows.
Don’t laugh. That’s genuinely what my PhD is in.
There are actually plenty of production and welfare reasons to study this in cattle, but today I want to talk to you about one of the basic concepts of personality.
Let’s Talk Science
You’ve heard people talk about personality traits or dimensions (I’ll use traits for the rest of this article), but what do you know about personality traits? I’m going to give you a very complicated sciency sounding sentence here, and by the end of this article, I think you’ll understand it.
Are you ready?
Are you sure?
Personality traits are a statistical construct based on the behavioural variation displayed number of individuals sampled.