When I took a graduate course in social psychology several years ago (it was required), I had little respect for the area. A friend of mine -- another cognitive graduate student taking the course because it was that or evolutionary psychology -- and I took to calling it "E! Psychology," after the cable network, because we often felt that the emphasis was on flashy results over good science. Social psychologists are even fond of calling particularly flashy effects "sexy." We noted that in social psychology, just about everything is called "the [insert sexy label here] effect," so that I once wondered whether social psychologists came up with the names for their effects, and then went out and looked for something to which they could apply the name. My attitude toward social psychology has improved a great deal since then, even if I still have qualms about some of the areas' methods. But every now and then, I happen upon a paper that reminds me why I once thought social psychology was the astrology of the social sciences.
Take, for example, the paper I read last week, titled "Personality Dimensions in Spotted Hyenas (Crocuta crocuta)." Part of a surprisingly large literature on personality traits in nonhuman animals, this paper reports on the study of the personality dimensions of a group of captive spotted hyenas in California. Here's the gist of the study. The author, along with a few experts on hyena behavior, developed a list of potential personality traits, drawing them largely from the literatures on human personality traits and the personality traits that have been observed in other nonhuman animals (mostly primates). After deciding on how to operationalize these traits in terms of the types of behaviors that these traits should produce in hyenas, four observers who were familiar with the individuals being studied spent 26 weeks observing the hyenas and rating on a 5 point scale the extent to which each individual exhibited the traits. Then, the author used factor analysis techniques to analyze the ratings and determine the dimensions along which hyena personalities varied.
Before moving on to the results, it should be noted that there was a great deal of variability in interrater reliability across the different traits, with reliability scores (coefficient alphas, for those who are interested) ranging from .05 (indicating almost no correlation between the ratings of the different observers) to .90 (indicating a high correlation between them), with a median reliability of around .7. Now, that much variation, along with a moderate median reliability score, might give some people pause, but this is E!... I mean social psychology, so we can let it slide.
Anyway, back to what's really important, the results (this is an exploratory study, after all, so who really cares about methodological imperfections, however glaring?). Out of the factor analysis came 5 dimensions that accounted for 77% of the variability in the observers' ratings. They were assertiveness, excitability, human-directed agreeableness, sociability, and curiosity. Now, assertiveness was highly correlated with dominance/submissiveness, which plays an important role in hyena social interactions, and human-directed agreeableness may be limited to captive hyenas, so it's hard to know what to make of those two, though the author does argue that the human-directed agreeableness dimension may be a product of underlying personality traits (e.g., sensitivity to social relations) that manifest themselves differently in wild hyenas. The other three dimensions, however, did not correlate with dominance, sex, age, or appearance, thus ruling out the most obvious alternative explanations.
What does all this mean, you ask? The purpose of the study is to provide a comparative framework for studying personality that might provide insight into human personality. The idea is that studying animal personalities, how they develop, the role of socialization, etc., might provide some insight into the development and relative dependence on nature vs. nurture of human personality traits. With that in mind, the author compares hyena personality dimensions to the Big Five personality dimensions, believing that the hyena traits are related to human Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. The comparisons are rough at best, however.
After reading this study, my curiosity was piqued. I had to go out and read more about animal personalities. It turns out, studying hyena personalities isn't really that strange. Other studies have looked at the personalities of everything from chimps and Rhesus' monkeys to guppies and octopi (see this paper for a review). Who knew guppies had personality? So far, of the Big Five, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, and Openness have been observed in a variety of species, with Conscientiousness only appearing in chimps (and even there, in a fairly rudimentary form).
One more thing before I let you go read those fascinating papers. If you're like me, when you read about personality dimensions in animals that are drawn from (and compared to) human personality traits, the word "anthropomorphic" flashes in bright neon orange in your mind. But the authors of the review linked in the last paragraph have anticipated this flashing mental sign, and provided an argument against it. As evidence that anthropomorphism is not a problem, they cite high interrater reliability in the study of personality traits in a variety of species (hopefully higher, and with less variability, than in the hyena study); the use of careful behavioral observation and "carefully recorded ethological observations," with both types of studies yielding similar results; and the existence of "meaningful differences" between species, indicating that raters are attending to nuances in behavior patterns. I'm not sure how any of these speak directly to the problem of anthropomorphism in trait attribution, given that all the raters are human, and therefore likely to have similar anthropomorphic trait concepts. It's quite possible that they would find consistent between species differences, since different species display different behaviors, and that they would find similar results with different methodologies (which all ultimately involve attributing human-based traits to animal behaviors). But who cares? Someone's studying octopus personalities, and that's just plain cool.