Pessimistic Cows

Who says you have to be a person to have a personality? A new study from researchers University of British Columbia’s Animal Welfare Program has identified specific personality traits that tend to stay the same in individual cows over time.

The point of departure for this research was previous work showing that individual cows often react differently in certain situations. From here, the researchers asked a logical question: do these differences in behavior come from personality traits that are stable over time?

To test this theory of bovine personality, the researchers administered personality tests to calves at 25 and 50 days of age. In particular, they focused on the personality trait of pessimism.

How exactly can you tell whether a cow is an optimist or a pessimist? you might ask. A fair question.

In this case, the researchers designed in task in which the calves learned to associate different parts of a pen with a reward (a container of milk) or a mild punishment (an empty bottle and a puff of air to the face). Then the researchers placed an object in an ambiguous spatial location, between the reward and punishment locations, and watched how the calves reacted. More optimistic calves approached the new location while those who avoided it were presumably more focused on the negative possibilities.

Over time, whether the cows were optimists or pessimists tended to remain stable. Moreover, the researchers found that bovine pessimism was related to a more general bovine personality trait of fearfulness.

Through further experiments, the researchers found another personality trait that tended to stay the same over time: sociability. In other words, whether cows tended to approach and interact with other cows was apparently partly a matter of personality.

Altogether, these findings add evidence to the idea that animals, like people, have personality traits that remain more or less constant over time. In the case of cows, these personality traits seem to include fearfulness, sociability and pessimism.

Image: Flickr/sonder3