Fido Has a Personality- How Do We Measure It?

As we have seen in class so far, and from a number of great posts from my classmates, measuring psychological constructs in humans is quite difficult. There are many things to take into account. Is the test valid, is it reliable, does the construct we’re measuring actually exist? If that wasn’t hard enough, some researchers have challenged themselves with measuring personality in animals! We have all wondered whether our dogs or even pet fish have personalities, and many of us are convinced they do.

It turns out that Fido does have a personality, and scientists can use at least some of the Big Five personality traits to describe individual animals, whether they be pigs or octopuses. What methods have researchers used to measure personality in animals? What are the different ways researchers have overcome the limitations associated with these methods?

It is trained researchers who observe animals’ behaviours in various situations and rate their personalities on trait adjectives (ie. playful). Gosling and John (1999) write that some of their colleagues are skeptical of this method, because of the way humans engage in anthropomorphic projections, or projecting human traits onto things that do not really possess them. The authors argue that this opinion is unfounded. They maintain that independent raters agree about the relative ordering of individuals on a trait and that different behaviours relevant to each species were used to measure the traits, yielding similar findings.

There have been many attempts to construct questionnaires that can be used to assess animal personalities. Recently, one group of researchers published a 41-item scale assessing the personality of chimpanzees (Freeman et al., 2013). Before this questionnaire, two different kinds of scales had been developed. Some scales were designed with top-down approaches. In other words, researchers adapted scales validated in another species (namely, us). However, this meant that the traits measured may have not been relevant to chimpanzees. Alternately, some scientists developed scales with a bottom-up approach, developing a scale based on the unique traits of the species. This also had a disadvantage, as it was difficult to compare species to one another. Freeman and his colleagues therefore combined these two approaches, and developed a scale relatively free from the limitations of earlier scales. Raters can now use their scale to reliably rate chimpanzees on six distinct dimensions of personality, and continue furthering research on personality development in animals.



Freeman, H. D., Hopper, L. M., Gosling, S. D., Brosnan, S. F., Lambeth, S. P., & Schapiro, S. J. (2013). Developing a comprehensive and comparative questionnaire for measuring personality in chimpanzees using a simultaneous top-down/bottom-up design. Am. J. Primatol. American Journal of Primatology, 75(10), 1042–1053.

Gosling, S. D., & John, O. P. (1999). Personality Dimensions in Nonhuman Animals: A Cross-Species Review. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(3), 69–75.

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