Animal Personality


Personality represents individual behavioural differences that are consistent over time and across situations. In humans and many taxa of nonhuman animals, individuals differ in the way they react to novel and challenging situations, and these differences affect resource acquisition, social interactions, survival and reproduction. Researchers in fields like psychology, behaviour genetics or behavioural ecology have developed different methods to study and measure personality differences, each method being characterised by its own advantages and limitations. The results associated with each method provide different colours to the concept of personality. The main goal of students of animal personality is to understand why individuals differ in their behavioural responses to identical stimuli, and why they often show sets of correlated behaviour traits. Several adaptive theoretical hypotheses offer promising explanations for the maintenance of personality differences in wild populations, although empirical confirmation of their predictions is still needed.

Key Concepts:

  • Personality represents individual behavioural differences that are consistent over time and across situations.

  • The concept ‘individual consistency’ only makes sense with the population as a referent.

  • Individual differences define the evolutionary potential of a population.

  • Individual differences within a population, differences between populations and potentially between species, are all expressions of genetic/environmental differences at different levels of organisation.

  • Rating, coding and experimental manipulation, are the three approaches to study personality in animals: each approach has advantages and limitations.

  • Individual behavioural differences are key to understanding many ecological processes and patterns.

  • We distinguish five evolutionary mechanisms that can explain the maintenance of personality differences in wild populations: trade‐offs between life history traits; spatial‐temporal heterogeneity; frequency‐dependent selection; antagonistic selection; correlational selection.

Keywords: personality; behavioural syndrome; rating; coding; experimental tests; life‐history trade‐offs; frequency‐dependent selection; spatial‐temporal heterogeneity; antagonistic selection; correlational selection

Figure 1.

Individuals can change their behavioural phenotype depending on the environmental conditions (phenotypic plasticity). However, when personality differences exist, individuals maintain their relative ranks across conditions. In (a) a behaviour is measured for three individuals in three different environments (E1, E2 and E3). Variation among individuals in the population (thick, black, double arrow) is larger than the variation within each individual (the three thin double arrows). In this extreme case, individual lines are totally parallel, and within‐individual variance represents approximately half of the between‐individual variance (repeatability ≈0.5). In case (b), we still observe individual consistent differences, but there is also some overlap between them. Note that within‐individual variance differs among individuals and is moderate compared to the between‐individual variance (repeatability <0.5); this scenario is probably closest to the reality observed in most natural populations. In case (c) one cannot predict what each individual will do in one environment based on the information from another environment. Furthermore, within‐individual variation is as large as among‐ individual variation (repeatability=0). Adapted from Réale and Dingemanse with permission of Cambridge University Press.



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Réale, Denis, and Dingemanse, Niels J(Jul 2012) Animal Personality. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023570]