Are rats laughing at us?

Previously posted on Annotate
January 2006

The New York Times Magazine ran a fascinating article by Charles Siebert, The Animal Self, last weekend about a newly minted field of psychology called Animal Personality. The burgeoning psychological school subscribes to the theory that animals, like humans, are born with innate character traits, which are either magnified or diminished by their formative experiences.

Pet owners across the country, no doubt, greeted this news with a resounding, 'Duh.' But in psychology circles, Animal Personality is highly controversial. To traditionalists, the theory smacks of quackery. But the field’s founder, psychologist Sam Gosling, is quick to point out that he’s not the first to acknowledge the “humanity” of those on the lower tiers of the food chain. Even Darwin believed that animals had emotions. After polishing off The Origin of the Species, Darwin turned his attention to studying intersections between human and animal behavior. Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was published in 1872. By the late 1940’s, however, the “perils of anthropomorphizing” began to loom large in the minds of many psychologists. Articles like The Behavior of Mammalian Herds and Packs and Insect Societies, once prevalent in psychological literature, began to disappear.

This disappearance, according to Siebert, was due in large part to the emergence of the theory of Behaviorism. Pioneers of Behaviorism, like B.F. Skinner, “stressed the inherent inscrutability of mental states and perceptions to anyone but the person experiencing them.” In other words, Behaviorists believed that our minds are like vaults, impervious to the efforts of even the most skilled psychological safecracker. Once you accept the notion that people are incapable of intuiting the feelings of their fellow humans, explorations of animal psychology start to seem just a little bit silly.

After years of neglect, animal psychology is experiencing a rebirth, thanks to Gosling and his fellow travelers. Psychology’s gatekeepers aren’t terribly happy about this, but common sense and scientific advances seem to be on Gosling’s side.

Obviously, Skinner was wrong. Our minds aren’t lock boxes. As Steven Johnson says in his book Mind Wide Open, there is a “growing appreciation for the art of mindreading,” thanks, in part, to the “discovery of mirror neurons.” (For more on mirror neurons, see Psychic Cells.) And while we may not be as adept at intuiting the emotions of animals, we have reached a point when controlled studies can give us some insight into their emotional make up.
So, what have Gosling and other Animal Personality specialists learned? They’ve learned that rats laugh; fruit flies can be so overbearing that no one wants to mate with them; and while some octopi are shy and retiring, others are unrepentant flirts. Roland Anderson, a scientist at the Seattle Aquarium, christened one of their octopi “Leisure Suit Larry,” because he was always groping the guests. (The Animal Self)

Okay, you say, so animals are people too—what does this have to do with me?

Well, for one thing, studying animal psychology may help us to resolve the eternal “nature vs. nurture” debate. According to the Animal Personality folks, all signs point to nature AND nurture. (I think this deserves another, 'Duh.') For instance, studies show that three-spined stickleback fish from predator-heavy environments are shy, while sticklebacks from less dangerous waters are outgoing. At first, scientists thought that this might be the result of evolutionary adaptation alone. But, as it turns out, baby sticklebacks raised in a laidback environment become timid when raised by a father from a predatory environment.

This is not (quite obviously) irrefutable evidence that humans are subject to the influences of both nature and nurture. But if psychologists accept the hypothesis that animal’s personalities are forged much in the way ours are, then researchers are free to conduct a whole range of experiments that can ultimately help us to resolve this question once and for all. (Want further details? Listen to Gosling’s conversation with Tom Ashbrook of wbur.org)

Imagine how much earlier we would have gotten to this point if psychologists had listened to Darwin. (Hello, have you heard of hubris?) I find myself slightly ticked off at B.F. Skinner. How could one of the great minds of mid-twentieth century psychology completely write off intuition? Sorta makes you wonder if the guy was suffering from a deficit of mirror neurons, doesn’t it? Perhaps, old Mr. Skinner had a touch of "mindblindness." (Psychology Today)


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