In The Field

ABS: The power of personality

Every research field has its buzzwords. And for those who study animal behaviour, the latest one is ‘behavioural syndromes’. It’s kind of like personality profiling for animals, and the concept’s originators hope it will offer more realistic ways to think about their behaviour. And as some researchers point out, it could even shine a light on that most infuriatingly complex of animals, humans.


Behavioural syndromes are suites of matching behaviours that appear in different contexts, explains Andy Sih of the University of California, Davis, who has coined the term. For example, an animal might show aggressive behaviour in a range of different situations – say in defending a territory, courting a mate, or foraging for food. Other potential syndromes could include a general tendency towards boldness, or choosiness, or social interactivity, each of which might appear in a range of different situations.

Animal behaviour experts are still arguing over how these ‘syndromes’ should be defined and investigated, but the theory already promises to shed some light on some interesting questions, such as that of the overaggressive male. If a male has a generally aggressive syndrome, then he might be very good at defending his territory, but rubbish when it comes to attracting a female, because he’s so aggressive that he becomes intimidating. We might also expect to see certain syndromes in certain contexts – for example, those who disperse most widely across a terrain are likely to be generally bold in their demeanour. In fact, Sih suggests, this may even help to explain the modern American psyche, given that the founding fathers were undoubtedly bold animals keen to make their mark and expand rapidly. “Now we want to drive hummers; we have a giant ecological footprint; we’re obese,” he says. “It’s a melting-pot of bold colonists.”

The idea of behavioural syndromes could shed yet more light on human society and politics, suggests David Wilson of Binghampton University in New York state. Using survey data from US teenagers, he studied the factors that make one more likely to display ‘prosocial’ behaviour – helping one’s fellow man, whether it benefits you or not. One of the most important factors that make a person more likely to act in this neighbourly way is whether or not they live in a generally nurturing community. This leads Wilson to propose that people with different attitudes to helping in the community are like different species occupying different ‘niches’ in an ecosystem. As long as you’re with your own kind you do ok – but as soon as you put a fish out of water, say by plonking a do-gooder in an area where people favour a dog-eat-dog approach, they will struggle to get along and will begin to lose out.

Of course, there are different reasons why people might differ in their levels of prosocial behaviour. Wilson found two general types of prosocial person: religious people who see it as a duty, and those who are not religious but have other moral convictions. Similarly, there are two reasons why someone might adopt a selfish, non-prosocial (antisocial?) stance; Wilson refers to these two types as ‘narcissistic’ and ‘downtrodden’. So, in terms of behavioural syndromes at least, the Wall Street hotshot and the street-corner mugger might have more in common than they think.

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