Consistent Individual Behavioral Variation The Difference between Temperament, Personality and Behavioral Syndromes

animal personality
animal behaviour and welfare

Jill R. D. MacKay

Marie J. Haskell


July 17, 2015

Ethologists use a variety of terminology such as ‘personality’, ‘temperament’ and ‘behavioral syndromes’ almost interchangeably to discuss the phenomenon of individuals within a population of animals consistently varying from one another in their behavioral responses to stimuli. This interchangeable usage of terminology has contributed to confusion within the field of animal behavior and limits the study of the phenomenon. Here we use a rapid, non-exhaustive and repeatable search strategy literature review to investigate where there were unique distinctions between these three terms and where there was an overlap in their usage. We identified three main areas of confusion in terminology: historical usage which is not updated; a lack of precision between different fields of study; and a lack of precision between different levels of variation. We propose a framework with which to understand and define the terms based on the levels of variation ethologists are interested in. Consistent individual animal behavioral variation relates to the different structures of variation of between-individual/between-population and between and across contexts. By formalizing this framework we provide clarity between the three terms which can be easily defined and understood.

Behind the Paper

This paper went to a few journals before landing at Animals, and more than a few times folk asked “do we need this?” Given that, as of 2023, its my second most highly cited paper, it certainly has sparked some discussion in the field. I still find this way of thinking about animal personality to be really helpful, and hopefully others do too.

Also, this paper came about because my PhD theses was spending a lot of time thinking about these terms and it seemed sensible to just have it as a chapter. So yes, reviews from theses can be published. Even in ethology.