Nav: Home

For the first time: A method for measuring animal personality

November 11, 2019

We might refer to someone's personality as "mousey," but in truth, mice have a range of personalities nearly as great as our own. Prof. Alon Chen and members of two groups he heads - one in the Weizmann Institute of Science's Neurobiology Department and one in the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany - decided to explore personality specifically in mice. This would enable them to develop a set of objective measurements for this highly slippery concept. A quantitative understanding of the traits that make each animal an individual might help answer some of the open questions in science concerning the connections between genes and behavior. The findings of this research were published in Nature Neuroscience.

Dr. Oren Forkosh, then a postdoctoral fellow who led the research in Chen's group together with PhD student Stoyo Karamihalev, explains that for scientists, understanding how genetics contribute to behavior has remained an open question. Personality, they hypothesized, might be the "glue" that binds the two together: Both genes and epigenetics - which determine how the genes are expressed - contribute to personality formation; in turn, one's personality will determine, to a great extent, how one behaves in any given situation.

Personality is, by definition, something that is both individual for each animal and that remains fairly stable for an animal over its lifetime. Human subjects are generally given personality scores based on multiple-choice questionnaires, but for mice, the researchers needed to start with their behavior and work backward. The mice were color-coded for identification, placed in small groups in regular lab environments - with food, shelter, toys, etc. - and allowed to interact and explore freely. These mice were videoed over several days, and their behavior analyzed in depth. All together, the scientists identified 60 separate behaviors. For example, approaching others, chasing or fleeing, sharing food or keeping others away from food, exploring or hiding.

Next the group created a computational algorithm to extract personality traits from the data on the mice's behavior. This method works something like the five-part personality score used for humans in which subjects are graded on sliding scales that rate extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience. For mice, the algorithms the group had developed revealed four such sliding scales, and although the researchers refrained from assigning anthropomorphic labels to these ratings, they can be applied very much like the human ones. That is, each scale is linear, with opposites at either end; when the group assigned the mice personality types based on their scores for these traits, they found that each mouse could be seen to have a unique, individual personality that consistently informed its behavior. To see if these traits were, indeed, stable, the researchers mixed up the groups - a stressful situation for the mice. They found that some of the behaviors changed - sometimes drastically - but what they had assessed as personality remained the same.

What can now be learned from a method for assessing a mouse's personality? Working with Prof. Uri Alon of the Institute's Molecular Cell Biology Department, the team used the linear scales they had developed to plot a "personality space" in which two of the traits were compared. This sort of analysis yields a triangle in which archetypes inhabit the corners (for example, highly dominant and non-commensal (country mice that are not human-friendly), dominant but commensal (city mice), and subordinate). When traits are viewed this way, they can point to evolutionary tradeoffs - for example, in the need to survive and thrive in a dominance hierarchy. "In fact," says Forkosh, "we see that these archetypes - and all the shades in between - are quite natural. These traits have not been bred out of our mice, even though they have lived for generations in labs and could probably not survive in the wild."

Further transcriptional analysis mapped the gene expression patterns in the brains of these mice, which identify a number of genes that were associated with certain personality traits they had classified.

"This method will open doors to all sorts of research," says Forkosh. "If we can identify the genetics of personality and how our children inherit certain aspects of their personalities, we might also be able to diagnose and treat problems when these genes go wrong. We might even, in the future, be able to use these insights to develop more personalized psychiatry, for example, to be able to prescribe the proper treatments for depression. In addition, we can use the method to compare personality across species, and thus to gain insight into the animals that share our world."
Prof. Alon Chen is the President-Elect of the Weizmann Institute of Science. Also participating in this research were Sergey Anpilov and Yair Shemesh of the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Markus Nussbaumer, Cornelia Flachskamm and Paul M. Kaplick and Simone Roeh of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry and Chadi Touma of the University of Osnabrück, Germany.

Prof. Alon Chen's research is supported by the Vera and John Schwartz Professorial Chair in Neurobiology; the Ruhman Family Laboratory for Research in the Neurobiology of Stress; the Perlman Family Foundation, founded by Louis L. and Anita M. Perlman; the Fondation Adelis; Bruno Licht; and Sonia T. Marschak.

The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world's top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to scientists, students, technicians and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.

Weizmann Institute of Science

Related Behavior Articles:

Fishing for a theory of emergent behavior
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba quantified the collective action of small schools of fish using information theory.
How synaptic changes translate to behavior changes
Learning changes behavior by altering many connections between brain cells in a variety of ways all at the same time, according to a study of sea slugs recently published in JNeurosci.
I won't have what he's having: The brain and socially motivated behavior
Monkeys devalue rewards when they anticipate that another monkey will get them instead.
Unlocking animal behavior through motion
Using physics to study different types of animal motion, such as burrowing worms or flying flocks, can reveal how animals behave in different settings.
AI to help monitor behavior
Algorithms based on artificial intelligence do better at supporting educational and clinical decision-making, according to a new study.
Increasing opportunities for sustainable behavior
To mitigate climate change and safeguard ecosystems, we need to make drastic changes in our consumption and transport behaviors.
Predicting a protein's behavior from its appearance
Researchers at EPFL have developed a new way to predict a protein's interactions with other proteins and biomolecules, and its biochemical activity, merely by observing its surface.
Spirituality affects the behavior of mortgagers
According to Olga Miroshnichenko, a Sc.D in Economics, and a Professor at the Department of Economics and Finance, Tyumen State University, morals affect the thinking of mortgage payers and help them avoid past due payments.
Asking if behavior can be changed on climate crisis
One of the more complex problems facing social psychologists today is whether any intervention can move people to change their behavior about climate change and protecting the environment for the sake of future generations.
Is Instagram behavior motivated by a desire to belong?
Does a desire to belong and perceived social support drive a person's frequency of Instagram use?
More Behavior News and Behavior Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.