For a long time, it was assumed that only humans had personalities or could exercise self-control. Now, biologists are starting to discover that birds and other wildlife share these traits with humans.
We explored how self-control and personality influenced the feeding behavior of the great tit, a common garden bird species in Eurasia, and our results revealed that both factors play an important role in how they take their decisions.
Self-control is the ability to control one’s impulses. Even as adults, many of us struggle with self-control on a daily basis. Against our best judgment, we might choose to eat that extra slice of cake instead of an apple, or turn on the television instead of going for this walk. We lightly berate each other when we fail, and in many cases there are no serious ramifications for a few less than ideal choices.
But the evidence suggests that success in many areas of life depends on self-control.
Personality also guides many of our decisions. Our “extraversion” influences our way of socializing and our “openness” affects our tendency to take risks. Not surprisingly, personality can also influence life outcomes, such as happiness and health.
Self-control in the great tit
Life in the wild is harsh and few animals live as long as they could, often due to their inflexibility when making decisions.
We wanted to know if they just kept doing the same thing, guided by their natural impulses, or if they could change their behavior when needed.
First, we trained wild great tit, temporarily taken into captivity, to become proficient at finding hidden food that was only accessible through the side of an opaque plastic tube. When the tube was replaced with one that was transparent but otherwise identical, many birds impulsively pecked at the front of the tube, through which food could be seen. Others resisted this impulse and soon realized that food could only easily be taken from the side.
This “hijacking task” is often used as a way to measure inhibitory control, one of the brain’s key cognitive processes that underpin self-control.
Those same great tits with better inhibitory control were also the ones who were more flexible in an experiment that mimicked one of the ways great tits find food in nature.
In this experiment, the birds were trained to find mealworms hidden under the sand until this behavior became very natural to them. When a better food option – larger and more visible – was suddenly also available on the sand surface, the birds that were identified as having good inhibitory control earlier were also those that were able to resist their impulse or break their habit. , to simply search for food hidden under the sand. Instead, they switched to the new best food option, even though it was in a clear glass bottle, so not that easily accessible.
Flexibility in foraging is important for survival, but this is the first time it has been linked to self-control in animals.
Personality has also influenced flexibility
However, we also wanted to explore if personality played a role in their foraging flexibility.
To measure the personality of the great tit, we used a standard exploratory behavior test – the tendency to explore new environments.
This is very similar to the “openness to new experiences” personality scale in humans.
Exploration behavior is easily measured by evaluating how many birds move when placed in a new environment, in our case a room with five artificial trees that they had never seen before.
Some birds were faster explorers than others. Previous studies have shown that this simple personality trait is inherited from parents and predicts all kinds of great tit life outcomes, including promiscuity (which can increase paternity that a male acquires in other nests. but can also result in loss of paternity to their own nest) and lifespan.
It also predicts the tendency to take risks. Fast explorers are risk takers.
So when the experiment of foraging in the sand was repeated under the risk of predation, carried out by briefly placing a stuffed hawk in the same room at a safe distance from the birds, fast explorers were much more willing to pass. to the new food on the surface.
It is well known that animals dislike novelty when there is a threat from a predator, and we suspect this is why slow explorers, those who avoid taking risks, have stuck with choosing the hidden but familiar food, while the Fast Explorers were happy to increase their risk of being eaten, so they could tap into a new and potentially better food source.
The complexity of animal behavior
Our results suggest that these two quite different behavioral traits – exploratory and risk-taking behavior (personality) and self-control – together explain how flexible birds are when choosing their food. This illustrates how complex animal behavior can be.
Since survival and reproduction are so heavily dependent on food, our results suggest that self-control and personality may well be influential determinants of Darwinian fitness, that is, the ability to pass genes to life. the next generation.
However, the implications for fitness are not easy to predict. In the same way that impulsive behavior can also be good for people in specific circumstances – it can be beneficial for innovation and entrepreneurship – the costs and benefits of good or poor self-control, or even being a fast or slow explorer is also likely to vary in the wild.
Humanity would do well to remember that we are controlled by the same behavioral traits that determine whether wild animals thrive or go extinct, and ensure that we apply our flexible thinking capacity to the most significant challenges facing our planet.