Is personality uniquely human?

Prof Adam Hart writes about his recent radio programme about animal personalities, including work by UoG Research Fellow Dr Samantha Patrick

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Over the past ten years or so there has been something of a mini-revolution in the way we are thinking about animal behaviour. We have started to move away from an “average” approach, where differences between animals of the same species are thought of as statistical noise towards an appreciation that not all members of a species are the same. Where different individuals have different behaviours, researchers have been able to gather considerable data on a staggering variety of species that support the concept than individuals themselves are consistent in their behaviours. This individual consistency has become known as “animal personality”.

It might seem strange that animal behaviour researchers have embraced a word so intrinsically linked to humans (it has “person” as its root!) but in fact the term is the perfect word to describe individual consistent behavioural responses or tendencies. Much of the research has examined behavioural traits similar to extroversion and introversion, consciousness and other traits we have tended to think of as “human”.

Over the past few weeks I have been putting together a documentary for the BBC Radio 4 strand called Frontiers that covers this emerging field. As always, this has been something of a rush and a bit of challenge to fit in with other commitments. If you have seen me rushing around the campus lately or dashing off down St Paul’s Lane carrying a bag then it’s likely I’ve been off to catch a train around the country to interview some of the leading scientists in this field. Two of these have a strong connection to UoG: I’ve interviewed Lance Workman, who the third year have heard lecturing about human behavioural ecology, and Sam Patrick who is a research fellow here. I’ve also been to Wytham Woods in Oxford, to London, to Plymouth, to Exeter, to Gloucester to record someone “down the line” (using the media studio at Park campus) and back to London to write and record the script last Friday. The script is the voiceover that links the various interview segments together and this was mostly written at a coffee shop table in a cold Gloucester while waiting for the early train to Paddington.
All this train travel has some advantages – I was also able to put together an article for the BBC’s online news site, which is a sneaky way of getting a little extra “reach” on the project http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04tlft2

A lot more reach comes from the “World Service” version, which involves recording a script with a few tweaks for an international audience. The documentary will get broadcast across the World Service network next week to an estimated audience of 45 million.

Adam Hart
Professor of Science Communication

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