Fortune Favors the Bold and Anxious — in baboon learning in this one study, at least.

Photo: Alecia Carter/ Tsaobis Baboon Project.
Photo: Alecia Carter/ Tsaobis Baboon Project.

At her Zoologic blog, over at my old haunts at Wired Science Blogs, Mary Bates looks at an absolutely fascinating study of how temperament is linked to certain behavior. In this case, researchers measured two independent traits in baboons, boldness/shyness and (separately) anxiety/calmness — and found that in new situations, baboons who were both bold and anxious learned the most. Very clever experiment by Alecia Carter of the University of Cambridge and colleagues, and a clear, skilled, absorbing write-up from Bates.

Carter and her colleagues had given all the baboons “personality tests” to measure two traits, boldness and anxiety. They assessed boldness by looking at a baboon’s response to a new food (such as a hard-boiled egg dyed green); the bolder the individual, the more time he or she spends inspecting a new food. They assessed anxiety by presenting the baboons with a taxidermied venomous snake; in this test, more anxious individuals spend more time investigating the potential threat. Boldness and anxiety are stable personality traits and are independent in baboons, meaning a bolder baboon is just as likely to be anxious as a shy baboon.

After figuring out where individual baboons fell on these two personality traits, the researchers looked at whether the traits were related to the time spent watching a demonstrator or the subsequent ability to then solve the task being demonstrated.

They found bolder and more anxious individuals were more likely to learn about a novel foraging task from another baboon — despite the fact that shy baboons watched the demonstrators just as much as bold baboons, and calm baboons paid even more attention to the demonstrators than anxious baboons. This means that an individual’s ability or interest in watching a demonstrator does not necessarily translate to then solving the task. All personality types seemed to collect social information, but bolder and more anxious baboons were better at using it.

This looks like a rich line of study, with layers of implications and new questions to follow. As Bates notes,

These results suggest that when performing behavioral studies of animals, researchers might have to consider the personality of individual animals before making judgments of their cognitive abilities. “Animals may perform poorly not because they aren’t clever enough to solve the task, but because they are too shy to interact with it,” Carter says.

Carter was especially surprised by one observation during the study: she wasn’t able to test some individuals because they were never close enough to a demonstrator to observe the task. “It seemed as if some of the baboons never foraged in the presence of a knowledgeable individual,” she says. “I was surprised that a baboon could be so limited by with whom they spent time.”

This observation is inspiring Carter’s next line of research, investigating if baboons’ social networks may prevent them from learning from others.

Get the rest at Baboon Personality Predicts Social Learning, by Bates, who is @mebwriter on Twitter.

The Carter study is Personality predicts the propensity for social learning in a wild primate, at the fine and innovative open-access publisher PeerJ.