Adventures in Ballroom 45

Gina slowed her breathing, and found comfort in the slow, wheezy rhythm imposed by her asthmatic airways. She stayed in this meditative state for a minute, trying to forget where she was. Slowly, she forced herself to stand up and opened the cubicle door, coming face to face with her pale, distraught reflection. A splash of bathroom tap water helped minutely with the relaxation. So too, did the vision of the crisp marble countertop, sleek chrome tapware and decorative twigs set in a tall vase, all bathed in a soft ambient light. The relaxing effect was immediately counteracted by the arrival of another bathroom patron right when her face was at its most dripping wet. The anxiety crept back quietly.

She blotted her face with paper towel and left the bathroom, gripping the straps on her backpack like a safety harness. Even the bathroom hallways in this hotel were fancy. This one was spotlessly clean and there was a series of abstract paintings on the wall. Is this what success feels like, she thought? Bathroom fittings ten times more expensive than the whole of her worldly possessions and art galleries in toilet corridors? Was there some study somewhere deep in the depths of the scientific journals entitled ‘The soothing psychological effects of modern art on the toilet entry and exit experience of corporate leaders?’ She took a seat at the conveniently placed pouffe, perfectly positioned to view a triptych of fighting polygons.

Gina unfolded her old 2nd generation manifold from her pocket, flicking to the pages of the conference program to remember why she had come here in the first place. The program looked really interesting; she was looking forward to absorbing the knowledge and learnings of her peers and idols. Hopefully it would be worth the effort of getting here. When she had arrived in the city, she had not realised that the building numbers were accessible via an instant download to her mani, she had been expecting static, digital numbers displayed on the buildings themselves and found herself totally lost and unable to find the hotel. Luckily she had downloaded an old map before leaving home and was able to troubleshoot her way through the neighbourhood using key landmarks and a bit of guesswork.

By the time Gina had made it to the hotel on the 300th floor, she was so worked up she had rushed straight to the first bathroom she could see and sobbed into her hands. This place was much more demanding than she had been expecting. The sheer number of people was phenomenal, every square of space was taken up, leaving no room for those who just wanted to stand to the side out of the way while figuring out where they were. There was no out of the way here, there was just this way, and the other way. In contrast, the bathroom and this corridor were serene; a little tiny retreat from the fast paced world just outside. As she daydreamt, a small holographic otter leapt up from the mani on her lap. It was holding a tiny pocket watch and tapping on it with a chubby little finger. She knew these hollies were for kids but she didn’t care, she found them whimsical and calming.

Gina swiped the otter away and an event notification filled the screen of her mani. ‘Networking event in Ballroom 45 in 15 minutes’, it read, ‘6:45 pm to 9 pm’. Gina let out a long sigh and tapped her fingers on her thigh meditatively. This was the part she hated even more than traversing a big city for the first time: talking to other researchers. But she had to at least try, her advisor was expecting her to introduce herself to people and tell them about her research. She needed to talk to at least one delegate, and stay for at least an hour. After setting herself this goal, Gina spent a few minutes checking her news feed, but this could only last so long since she didn’t have any messages. Gina didn’t normally get many messages from her friends and family.   She sighed again, folded the mani up and stuffed it into her pocket, and made her way back into the hotel lobby.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, it wasn’t hard to find Ballroom 45; there were flashing signs all over the place pointing conference delegates in the right direction. Gina followed the multitude of signs up a carpeted staircase; it was the plush, luxurious kind of carpet that you wouldn’t find inside anyone’s modest home. The kind that, if you did, you certainly wouldn’t let anyone walk on. It would be sectioned off with a velvet rope, you’d walk your guests past it and say, in a snooty accent “And this is the room with the carpet, note the fullness of the loops and the royal crest design. Please, look but do not touch.” That’s the kind of carpet it was. Gina savoured the softness of each step as she ascended.

The signs disappeared at the top of the stairs. There in front of her was an extremely large set of heavy looking double doors. They were easily two and a half times her height. They were doing a good job of keeping the noise of the networking firmly trapped inside the ballroom, there was just silence out here. Just to the left of the doors was a desk behind which two bored looking hotel employees sat. One of them plastered a smile on her face upon seeing Gina, “Registering for the conference?” she asked. Gina nodded. The girl disappeared behind the desk to rummage in a cardboard box, and came up brandishing a lanyard with a clear card attached to it. She passed it to Gina over the table, “Here’s your pass, it is also your translator, and there’s a copy of the program in there too.”

The other employee waved a small device over her pass and announced in a robotic voice, “I’ve loaded your pass with two beverage tokens. Please take care to remember which door you’ve entered through. Exits for some of the other dimensions aren’t compatible with human life. Have a wonderful conference.” Gina took a deep breath, closed her eyes, opened one of the doors and stepped through. Before she even raised her eyelids she sensed a bright, warm glow. Opening them slowly, she was stunned by the vision before her. The ballroom was a vast, convoluted hive of extravagant curved bars lined with plush red velvet stools. Everything around her was glowing golden as if it had all been smothered in molten gold. Even the ceiling, which stretched away like a vast sky, was a warm yellow hue giving one the sense of a glorious summer’s day. The air smelled of honey and there was the gentle sound of water trickling from an enormous golden statue filling the entrance.

But Gina didn’t notice any of this detail, she was too busy fighting down a panic attack over seeing the sheer number of conference delegates swarming throughout the room. All around her, there were beings of the strangest shapes and sizes, in all colours, all elemental forms, all personalities. Most terrifying of all, some of them were experts in her field, who championed alternative hypotheses, and it was impossible to tell which ones they were. Okay Gina, she thought to herself, you just need to talk to one delegate, just one. Gina sidled over to a harmless looking, vaguely humanoid-shaped delegate who was sitting alone at one of the bars. When she got closer to them, she realised they were not in fact a single being, but were a flock of small flying creatures roughly the size of bees. They seemed preoccupied with their drink. The composition of their form kept changing as each creature flew down from the ‘hand’ to take a sip of the drink, then flew back up to reform the hand.

Just as Gina steeled herself to say hello, another delegate approached the hive being. They had a slimy, jelly-like body that glided along the floor leaving a sticky trail. The jelly-person reached out a jelly-hand and shook the hand of the hive being in a familiar kind of way, while raising another arm and encircling the hive being’s body. Great, they already know each other, Gina realised. She hurriedly aborted her mission, swerving to the left and marching away purposefully as if that had been her plan all along. This new route took her to another bar, empty this time, and she decided to sit down for a minute and order a drink. Gina waved her pass over the receiver and a menu appeared, projected holographically from the pass. She swiped through various options and selected a ginger and kingflower beverage that sounded refreshing. This bar had an auto-waiter, a kind of robotic machine that automatically dispensed drinks. Gina watched as her selection was created from various liquids in different tubes that shot down from the ceiling. While she was waiting, a tiny winged creature flew over and landed on the velvet cushioned stool next to her.

The little creature looked tired; Gina watched them pull out a miniscule mirror and apply fresh lipstick, then order a drink. Once they had both received their drinks, Gina decided to bite the bullet and offer a greeting. The creature stretched out a petite hand in return, “I’m Xanthia,” she said, “Nice to meet you.”

“Did you travel far to get here?” Gina asked.

“Oh yes,” said Xanthia, “It takes two weeks from my dimension. I used the transit time to get some writing done though, so it’s not all bad.”

Gina felt suddenly grateful for her 2-day trip to get here. “What are you writing about at the moment?” she asked.

“Oh all sorts,” replied Xanthia, “I’m a reporter. From Universal News?”

Gina had to fight to control an involuntary eye roll directed squarely at herself. Of course, the first person I decide to talk to is totally useless for networking! And am I supposed to know who she is? She wracked her brain trying to picture the Universal News logo, but her neurons did not want to cooperate and she came up empty. She deployed the old smile and nod manoeuvre, which didn’t raise any alarms.

“Oh, excuse me,” Xanthia breathed, almost spilling her drink as she replaced it on the counter and hovered off her stool. “That’s Professor Windall, I need an interview for my piece on interstellar cooperation.”

Gina watched, wide-eyed and gulped the last of her drink. This was it, she had read Professor Windall’s papers and they were incredible. If she was to meet anyone here it should be Windall. Gina followed Xanthia as she zipped through the air, weaving in and out through the delegates. Gina had to hurry to keep up, her pass bouncing on her chest in an irritating way. She slowed down as Xanthia reached her destination and dropped her jaw in awe. Prof Windall was a huge, towering being, with four protracting stick-like legs, a sort of ruff of delicate long tentacles around the neck and two humongous eyes that looked like they’d been stuffed into a too-small skull. Gina perched herself behind a large retractable banner and watched as Xanthia interviewed Windall. It looked to be a reasonably successful interview; they spoke for about fifteen minutes and Gina was pretty sure she saw Xanthia laugh at one point.

Okay, thought Gina as she watched Xanthia flit off to find another story, I can do this.

She took a deep breath and strode up to Professor Windall and smiled in their direction, standing nearby. They didn’t smile back. However, they didn’t frown either. So not a disaster, yet.

“I’ve read a lot of your work,” offered Gina, waiting breathlessly for a response before she continued.

Prof Windall glanced down to see where the noise had come from. “Yes well, I don’t really read my own work so…”

Gina tried something more relatable. “Your hypothesis about patterns of aggression being linked to interstellar distances is really fascinating, how did you come up with that?”

Prof Windall appeared to snort at this, although Gina wasn’t sure whether that was just a result of their breathing through the rather small nostrils in their undersized head. “Any numpty could figure that out, all you have to do is look at the numbers. That was one of my very simplest pieces of work.”

Gina took a moment to reassess the situation. This is not going well, she thought. She scratched at her collarbone, although she wasn’t itchy. She let the silence sit uncomfortably for a spell. It squirmed around them. Unable to bear it, she broke the silence again.

“What are your thoughts on transdimensional family structure?” she asked, adding “I’m looking into examples where cultures have merged along family lines to see whether it has lasting effects on peacetime relationships between cities.”

At this, Professor Windall leaned over her, enormous eyes boring into her miniscule ones. Gina noticed that their tentacles had become rigid and were almost shaking. They spoke in a sort of drawn-out way. “Family structures are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. They mould to the surrounding context, not the other way around. If I were you I wouldn’t waste my time on such nonsense.”

Gina felt a giant lump form in her chest. Her heart was racing. She looked around for an escape route, feeling hot tears forming beneath her eyes, threatening to expose her. Luckily, Prof Windall didn’t seem to be paying any attention to her at all now, and, clearly done with the conversation, they ambled off towards someone they had spied at one of the bars. Gina looked around, hoping that no-one was looking at her, and then she ran towards an empty bar in the far corner of the room, sobbing into her hands. After a few minutes, Gina pulled a napkin from the table in front of her and gently mopped her face. When she felt brave enough to look up, she spied a concerned looking face peering at her from the other end of the curved bar. Oh no, she cringed and shut her eyes tight. She opened them again. Still there. No, no, no! The man attached to the face chair-hopped his way over to her and offered her another napkin.

“Are you alright?” he said.

“Not really,” said Gina. Kind of obvious isn’t it?

“I saw you talking to Prof Windall. Don’t worry, many of their conversations end in tears, or worse, and they’re never the one crying at the end.” He frowned.

This was somewhat comforting news. “Is everyone here such a monster?” she asked.

“Only if you’ve got actual brain cells,” he replied, grinning.

Gina narrowed her eyes, watching as he twirled a cocktail onion on a stick through his drink. The dark purple substance he was drinking swirled and ebbed.  “What do you mean?”

“There are only two kinds of people in this world of conferences,” he said, “those that build others up to advance knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and those that take others down to advance themselves for their themselves’ sake. It’s worth remembering that the only people worth taking down are the ones with the good ideas.” He winked.

Gina thought about this. “But how do you know which ones are which?”

“That’s the interesting part,” he said, nodding in the direction of a group of people over Gina’s shoulder. She turned to look as he continued, “See that group there? There’s that big hairy dude -”

“The one who looks like they’re about to swallow that small woman whole?” gasped Gina.

“That’s the one, but just watch for a minute…”

Gina watched as the large being opened a humongous mouth lined with thousands of razor sharp teeth that stretched back into their throat in rows. The mouth gaped and threatened to engulf the small, plump woman, but then it closed partially and opened again several times. The being’s whole body shook and their several eyes were squeezed shut. Gina was confused.

“Is he crying?” she asked.

“Keep watching,” said the man.

She did. The hairy guy wiped a tear from his eye, and she realised that he was laughing!

The plump lady stormed off looking very unimpressed.

The hairy dude, now with no one to focus his laughter at, glanced over in their direction and crossed the floor. He sat down next to Gina.

“Luuuuuke,” he said, holding out a hand to Gina’s newfound friend and shaking it vigorously.

Luke smiled and pointed at Gina. “This is…er,”

“Gina,” she interjected.

“Right,” said Luke. “And Gina, this is Doug. We used to work together on Feldian politics.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said. “So what was going on over there? I thought for a minute you were going to attack that woman.”

Doug looked shocked at this suggestion and all of his many eyes widened. “Heavens, no! Not me. I was on the sharp end of a rant on the history of Feldian culture.”

“Why was she ranting?”

“Well because I told her she was wrong, the silly woman!”

Gina looked at Luke, eyebrows raised.

“That woman is a renowned professor of Feldian studies, but she has some wacky ideas that don’t hold up to scrutiny,” explained Luke.

“And she’s just covered in prickles. Literally and figuratively,” added Doug. “She may look harmless but she has some nasty barbs and she isn’t afraid to use them. Even when an actual Feldian tells her politely that she has it wrong, she just gets more prickly!”

Gina nodded slowly, “but…then why were you laughing?” she asked.

Doug made a strange snorting noise she interpreted as a giggle. “Sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh!” he said, his snorty giggle turning into a bellowing roar as he slapped his thigh. “A quiveringly irate little woman is a sight to behold!”

“You mean you weren’t upset that she didn’t respect your experience?”

Doug looked surprised by this question. “Worlds! Not at all,” he said, “She’s just one person, even if she is one with a large amount of influence. Eventually the flaws in her arguments will be ironed out by the words of others. In the meantime, I know the truth and she’s wasting all of her energy being an angry ball of spines!”

Gina laughed, unconsciously tugging on the pass around her neck. Perhaps Prof. Windall’s opinion on her work wasn’t the end of the world. She didn’t even feel like finding the nearest toilet cubicle to hide in. Her pass flashed at her and she looked down. The holographic otter synced to her mani was back, telling her that she’d reached the one hour time limit she’d set herself. Gina paused for a second, then swiped the otter away. Although she’d already reached her networking goal, she suddenly felt like she could make it to the end of the event and that she might even enjoy it. Gina smiled at Luke and Doug as they recounted a previous experience with a prickly professor, and she ordered another drink.

Animal personalities

Do other animals have personalities? Any pet owner would tell you: “Obviously yes, my floofy is so charismatic, no other floofy is the same.” We all think it. But since we can’t give animals a link to a “which Hogwarts house do you belong in” quiz and see how they measure up, how do we know that animals truly exhibit personalities? And what is a personality anyway?

What is a personality?

Our ideas about personalities come primarily from psychology, with the American Psychological Association defining personality as “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving”. Personality is thus intimately linked with behaviour; we are certain that each person (and each animal for that matter) is unique, and that we all have different behavioural quirks that persist throughout our lifetime.

Although the concept of personality includes behaviour, emotion and cognition, for the purpose of our question I will focus more heavily on the behavioural component, as it is the aspect that is most broadly comparable to other animals (being much easier to measure!). Furthermore, I operate under the assumption that differences in emotion and cognition among individuals can also be measured through differences in behaviour (to a certain extent). For example, if you are feeling frustrated by something, it is likely to show in your behaviour.

For humans, personality is considered to be a sociocultural construct; that is, it represents the elements of individual behaviour that develop through social and cultural experiences, in contrast to those elements that arise from biological differences. But we know that our genes and our physiology influence our behaviour, and animals are no different – after all, every animal has a unique combination of genes in their DNA that are likely to influence how they behave in a way that might distinguish them from others (unless they’re a clone, or an identical twin). Over time, even identical twins will be exposed to different things in their environment that are likely to influence their future behavioural patterns, particularly in species that are capable of learning.

To a biologist, this variation in individual behaviour is not surprising. One of the basic components of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is variation – if organisms didn’t naturally vary in how they approach the world around them, no one organism would reproduce more or less than any other and the population would change only by chance. We know from experimental evidence that populations change much more than would be expected due to chance alone, with each generation. We also know that individual differences in behaviour contribute to this change through how they increase or decrease an organism’s reproductive success.

So one of the basic aspects of personality – individual differences in behaviour – is important for understanding the evolution of humans and other animals. However, if personality is simply the uniqueness of an individual’s behavioural patterns (which presumably are influenced by thoughts and feelings), why not just call this variation and be done with it? In reality, the definition of personality being unique to each individual is not a very useful concept without knowing what causes such variation among individuals. So how can we make this concept more useful to us? In some ways we have done this already, by expanding the concept of personality to describe different categories that people fit into; these categories are referred to as personality types.


Personality types

Although generally we talk about personalities as representations of the uniqueness of individuals, we also talk about one or more individuals having similar personalities, or individuals having a particular personality type. Early ideas about personality types grew out of classical theories on how our bodies worked and how that influenced our behaviour. These ideas gained ground in ancient Greece and Rome when physicians believed that there were four distinct types of body fluids (the four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood), which when unbalanced influenced a person’s temperament and health.

Obviously, we have now moved on from this humoral idea, but we do still like to talk about personalities in a categorical way. How can one concept both distinguish individuals as well as unify them into groups? The idea of personality types is partly due to our innate desire to find patterns in the world and to classify things into categories. Surprisingly, although the origins of personalities came out of physiological theory (i.e. how the body works), their later derivatives became further removed from the underlying biology. The study of personality then became an exercise in collectively describing and categorising human personality by its most basic observable components – behavioural patterns.

One of the problems with these kinds of personality classification systems is that they involve a certain loss of information along the way. In reality our behaviour is likely to vary along a scale relative to other individuals and no two individuals will be exactly alike. Furthermore, an individual’s behaviour is likely to change over time along with changes in their life experience, and is likely to depend on the circumstances they find themselves in at any particular moment.

This became clear in the field of personality with the popularity of the Myers-Briggs type indicator. The Myers-Briggs is a personality test that has been widely used to inform employers about team dynamics by classifying individuals into one of 16 personality types. Although many people find these personality types useful for reflecting on their own and others’ behaviour, the personality types developed for the Myers-Briggs were not based on valid science, and most people receive a different result each time they take the test. As a result, the test has fallen out of favour among most experts.

However, finding patterns in behaviour across groups of individuals has not lost its value. It allows us to better understand why individuals behave differently and to predict their future behaviour. Similarly, describing all of the possible components of a personality in such a way that they can be compared across individuals also allows further understanding of why people differ as it allows a standardised measure of such differences. These two ideas are reflected in a slightly different concept: personality traits. Importantly, this concept is a population measure, rather than an individual measure.

Personality traits

The most widely accepted method for measuring behavioural patterns at a population level involves a much more mathematical perspective on personalities, based on a technique called factor analysis. Factor analysis is a quantitative (i.e. measured in a numerical way rather than by description) statistical methodology that analyses all of the relationships among a set of related variables and attempts to describe them using the smallest possible number of summary variables. In this way, we can examine all of the existing variation in how different individuals behave in all sorts of situations, and organise all of this information into digestible chunks.

In other words, factor analysis is simply a way of reducing the amount of observable variation into a simpler form. This is possible because of the way that many personality characteristics tend to co-occur within individuals. So if we see that some characteristics frequently occur together, we can assume one part of a person’s personality based on another known part of their personality. Information is still lost along the way, but the additional information is subsumed by, and informs the interpretation of the broad categories that are produced.

E.g. we might observe that people who are consistently organised are less likely to also be spontaneous. If you then arranged ‘organised’ and ‘spontaneous’ at two ends of an axis, it can then represent a new variable, which might be called conscientiousness. That way, instead of having to say that someone is organised and not spontaneous, (2 bits of information), we can simply say that they show high conscientiousness (one bit of information). Lots of variation in behaviour can therefore be described in a much simpler way. Out of this approach came the recognisable ‘Big five personality traits’ and similar models such as the ‘Eysenck personality questionnaire’ and the ‘HEXACO model’. Examples of the personality traits described by these methodologies include extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, honesty-humility and psychoticism.

Similar personality traits have been described for other animals, in particular variations similar to extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism seem to show up in other species, including primates, mammals, fish and octopuses [1]. Although this idea of personalities is still somewhat removed from the underlying biology (that is, the existence of these patterns doesn’t tell us how or why behaviour varies in this way), it now serves as a scaffold on which we can build evidence of underlying mechanisms. For example, scientists are now finding associations between brain anatomy and some of the big 5 personality traits in humans [2].

This is where our animal friends may come in handy once again. If similar latent traits can be found in other animals, then it may be possible to investigate the biological mechanisms involved and the common contexts in which certain behaviours are more or less beneficial for reproductive success [3]. Considering this, many biologists have attempted to study personalities in other animals by measuring behaviours that can be interpreted in a similar way to some of the well known components of personality in humans. In fact, scientists have already conducted similar studies on the associations between brain anatomy and personality traits in chimpanzees, for example [4]. With time, convergence of human and other animal studies is likely to lead to great discoveries in the field of personality.

  1. Gosling SD, John OP. Personality dimensions in nonhuman animals: a cross-species review. Current directions in psychological science. 1999 Jun;8(3):69-75.
  2. DeYoung CG, Hirsh JB, Shane MS, Papademetris X, Rajeevan N, Gray JR. Testing predictions from personality neuroscience: Brain structure and the big five. Psychological science. 2010 Jun;21(6):820-8.
  3. Weiss A. Personality Traits: A View From the Animal Kingdom. Journal of Personality. 2017 Apr 1.
  4. Blatchley BJ, Hopkins WD. Subgenual cingulate cortex and personality in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience. 2010 Sep 1;10(3):414-21.


Common Critter Compendium: Pigeons

Welcome to the first in a series of snippets highlighting uncommon facts about common animals. Today: pigeons. They’re one of those iconic aspects of city life, along with skyscrapers, cars and slow people who get in your way (or should that be rude fast people who are always in a rush?). Rock pigeons (Columba livia), including domestic pigeons and feral pigeons (also known as street pigeons or city pigeons), inhabit a large proportion of the globe due to their ability to exploit human buildings for nesting sites, and human rubbish for food. Feral pigeons are descended from domestic pigeons who themselves were descended from the original wild rock pigeons found naturally in southern Europe, northern Africa and southern Asia.

Most city dwellers think of pigeons as dirty, diseased and stupid animals. I myself am guilty of calling them ratbirds on several occasions. Most of us know that pigeons have extraordinary capabilities for navigation, having been selectively bred as messenger birds, but did you know that pigeons have been used in cognitive research for over 50 years? Researchers have trained pigeons to discriminate between pictures of various classes of objects, showing evidence that the pigeons can apply what they’ve learnt to new pictures that they hadn’t seen before, even for complex and abstract objects.

In one of the first such experiments in the 1960s, pigeons were trained to peck at photos that contained humans and not to peck at photos that contained no humans [1]. The pigeons were able to do this sucessfully, including for photos that they hadn’t seen before. In the 1990s, pigeons advanced to distinguishing picasso-like paintings from monet-like paintings, like little feathered art connoisseurs [2]. The researchers involved in this behavioural research argue that this ability reflects the pigeons’ capacity to conceptualise different classes of objects, indicating that most birds and mammals are probably capable of conceptualisation.

Although it’s still unclear whether pigeons and other animals conceptualise things in exactly the same way that we do, it makes sense that animals are able to remember and respond to different categories of objects using visual cues. This ability is presumably useful for categorising things in the environment, for example things that are likely to eat you and things that are not. However, it is unclear from this research exactly which cues the pigeons use to distinguish among categories.

This makes me wonder whether animals have folk taxonomies of their own, and how they might categorise objects differently to us (if you haven’t read my post about classification systems, you can do so here). Researchers have also provided evidence for pigeons’ ability to match rotated symbols (a common task in IQ tests that humans often struggle with), and their numeracy skills, among others. So next time you pass a pigeon in the street you might just wonder what’s going on in that little brain of theirs!


  1. Herrnstein RJ, Loveland DH. Complex visual concept in the pigeon. Science. 1964 Oct 23;146(3643):549-51.
  2. Watanabe S, Sakamoto J, Wakita M. Pigeons’ discrimination of paintings by Monet and Picasso. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior. 1995 Mar 1;63(2):165-74.

Do other animals have social rules?

We humans are very good at social rules. We have complex systems through which we encourage others to behave in a certain way, including laws, taboos, customs and many unspoken social norms. Social rules are essentially expected patterns of behaviour in a particular situation or social context, which vary across cultural groups. Often, there is some sort of social consequence for individuals who don’t behave in the expected manner. Think of the rules involved in play between two animals; the social rules of play are different to the social rules in other contexts (e.g. feeding). During play, subordinate individuals are free to jump on, chase, or bite dominant individuals without consequence – as long as they don’t bite too hard!

The existence of such context-dependent behaviour in animals requires at least two things: a) a signal denoting that any following behaviour is considered ‘play’ and is associated with different expectations, and b) a socially enforced consequence when the appropriate behaviour is not displayed in that context. So when a pretend play-bite goes too far, the play partner might retaliate with aggression, or stop playing (NB: this rule does not apply to human-cat interactions, in which case they’ll constantly cheat and you’ll inevitably fall for their innocent belly-revealing ruse over and over, because damnit, they’re just too cute!).

Most reference to social rules and social norms centres on human societies, with significant overlap in definitions of social rules, social norms, and cultural norms. There is surprisingly little literature on this topic with respect to other animals, at least in a general sense. Here, I will consider social rules as abstract concepts that dictate what an individual should do in a certain social situation or interaction. I contrast this with social or cultural norms, which are an emergent property of groups of individuals (i.e. an observed common pattern of behaviour) that can arise from the existence of social rules. I make this distinction because social/cultural norms can also arise via other mechanisms (for example, if all individuals followed the same cultural model, they may end up behaving in the same way, without an associated enforcing rule).

The evolution of social rules is intimately linked with the evolution of group living, cooperation, and common goods. This seems a pretty obvious connection; in order to have rules on how to interact with others, you need to first be likely to interact with others. However, many usually solitary species also show some form of social rules – individuals do have to interact with others occasionally, particularly for the all-important task of reproduction. Likewise, individuals all want the same food sources and will compete with other individuals to gain access to them, so even solitary foragers need to know where they can go to eat in peace. Think of the way that many animals mark territories with scents or sounds – these signals allow both the territory owner and any intruders to avoid social interaction and any potentially aggressive confrontations.

Even in solitary species then, there are usually rules for how to interact that involve signalling of a situational context, which, if not followed, result in social consequences. These consequences might simply be that the interaction ceases, that a chance at reproduction is denied, or that aggression will occur. While in humans, rules are often socially learned and socially enforced, rules of interaction in other species may be elicited and enforced in other ways, without the use of language. This includes not only visual signals and gestures, but the aforementioned olfactory (smell) and auditory (sound) signals too.

For example, in the eusocial hymenoptera (e.g. Vespula vulgaris, the common wasp), colonies consist of a queen, who builds the nest and then produces eggs, and the workers, who cooperatively forage, tend to eggs and fix and protect the nest. In these species, worker females are often able to reproduce independently, by laying unfertilised male eggs. However, when the queen has mated with multiple males, workers are more closely related to the queen’s offspring than they are to their fellow workers’ offspring. This gives workers an incentive to stop other workers reproducing. Workers have been shown to police each other’s reproduction by eating worker-laid eggs when they come across them. Generally this is achieved via olfactory signals on the eggs, but in some species egg-laying worker females also receive aggression from other workers, suggesting some social enforcement of this reproductive rule.

The problem with this very broad and abstract definition of social rules, is that other things can dictate what an individual animal does, aside from other individuals of their species. Cognitive psychologists and biologists have investigated these processes in a great deal of detail. These processes involve simple ‘rules of thumb’ or heuristics and iterative learning, such as: eat things that taste delicious, and don’t eat things that taste repulsive. This kind of behaviour does not require that anyone tells you what to eat and what not to eat, it is simply a behavioural response to a physiological stimulus, which may be learned based on previous experience with things that tasted that way in the past and had nasty consequences.

What about if an individual learns when to eat in a social context, for example, a subordinate wolf tries to eat from a cooperatively hunted kill but a dominant individual is aggressive towards them. After a few attempts the subordinate learns that they can eat in peace if they wait until after the dominant wolf has eaten. Is this an example of a social rule, then? It certainly seems to fit our abstract definition of a social rule, but how is it any different to learning how to respond to inanimate objects in response to an unpleasant stimulus (e.g. pulling your hand away when you touch a hot stove)?

Frans de Waal touched on this issue in his book, Good Natured, noting that the problem with ascribing these situations as socially enforced rules is that we are assuming intentionality on the part of the dominant individual. “We do not know if the rules that we recognise in animal behavior, and that we see being enforced, exist as rules in the animals’ heads” [1, p. 96]. It is difficult to solve this puzzle because it is hard to measure this level of intention in other animals. Social rules could therefore be said to exist in other animals, but individuals may not be consciously aware of their existence in the same way that humans are, particularly in the sense that we communicate the rules and our intentions to each other through language.

To investigate the presence of intentionality in animal social rules requires more sophisticated research beyond simple observation, since only behaviour itself is visible to us and not the intentions behind it. Evidence for this concept has been building from the philosophical and psychological field of ‘Theory of Mind’ – the ability for individuals to attribute mental states to themselves and others. Scientists have attempted to determine whether various species possess even a rudimentary version of this ability, including nonhuman primates, birds and dogs.

For example, scrub jays are known to store surplus food in caches within their territories. Some scientists argue that scrub jays show evidence of theory of mind because they will re-cache food in another location if they were observed by another jay the first time they buried it. It is argued that the jays infer that the other individual now knows where their food is and therefore that they will steal it. However, it is possible that this behaviour too can be explained by simpler behavioural rules based on past experience [2]. Other suggested evidence for intentional behaviour and theory of mind in other animals is similarly hotly debated. So far, I am not quite convinced by the available evidence, so our question about social rules in other animals remains unresolved, except that we can say on the surface many organisms do appear to follow social rules. I am certain that with time, cognitive science will move closer towards an answer on whether animals are cognitively aware of such rules or not.


  1. De Waal, F.B., 1996. Good natured (No. 87). Harvard University Press
  2. van der Vaart, E., Verbrugge, R. and Hemelrijk, C.K., 2012. Corvid re-caching without ‘theory of mind’: A model. PLoS One, 7(3), p.e32904.

Babbling bingo – babies, birds and bats

How do scientists decide how to group animals into categories? The grouping of organisms into categories in science is known as Taxonomy (for the word nerds, the term originates from the Greek taxis, meaning ‘arrangement’, and nomia, meaning ‘method’ or ‘science’). Essentially, this is a field of biology that sets the rules regarding the names of organisms and what category of organisms they fit into. A taxonomy (as a noun) can therefore tell us whether an organism should be labelled as ‘plant’ or ‘animal’, ‘fish’ or ‘fungus’ (for example). But how do we decide what each category is and what qualifies an organism to fit in that category?

Some of the earliest Western classification systems, building on the obvious animals vs. plants distinction, classified both existing and non-existing organisms by such things as usefulness and awesomeness. For example, in the Great Chain of Being (a philosophy of life that was popular during the Renaissance) wild animals were placed separately on the chain because they were so awesome that they could not be tamed, thus necessitating a separate category from the wimpy domestic animals. And useful working animals like horses were separated from other domesticated animals that were more useless in economic terms (like pets). Granted, the Great Chain of Being also encouraged the notion of “higher” and “lower” beings (in a moral sense, which is heavily value-laden and not very scientific) and it also included nonexistent organisms like angels. But in some ways the Great Chain was onto something.

Despite the drawbacks of the Great Chain of Being, the concept of classifying animals based on usefulness is actually a perfectly logical methodology. In fact, most cultures seem to have converged on similar classification systems focusing heavily on edibility and domestication, generally also with a basic distinction between plants and animals. Other categorical additions include the ways in which the organisms are obtained for food. These kinds of classification systems are called folk taxonomies. Interestingly, within these various folk systems, a single type of organism (i.e. a species) can belong to a number of different categories (i.e. the system is poly-hierarchical). This is very unlike scientific taxonomy in which each organism belongs in one place in the hierarchy, nested within larger groupings of similar organisms.

Folk classification systems are highly contextual, and differ among cultures and individuals. For example, in her study of the folk taxonomies of the Anindiyakwa people of Groote Eyelandt, Julie Anne Waddy [1] noted that “English speakers would find the folk generic taxon goanna (monitor lizard) sufficient for their purposes without further differentiation among the six or eight scientific species. But to an Aborigine each of these goanna species is a potential food source whose differences in behaviour and habitat one needs to be aware of in order to obtain a meal and therefore each one is assigned to a different folk generic taxon.” In this context, there is an important reason to have different names for each type of goanna that wouldn’t really apply if you weren’t interested in eating them.

For biological science, the development of a comprehensive classification system for all organisms stemmed from a desire to catalogue the natural “order” of the universe, to understand the similarities among all living organisms and to standardise the naming of organisms. Carl Linnaeus is widely regarded as the father of taxonomy; in his major work Systema Naturae (published in 1735), he firmly established the binomial naming system (with every organism being named in a standardised way using a latin genus and species name – still the standard method today!). In addition, Linnaeus characterised the major hierarchical groups: kingdom, class, order, genus and species, to which a few more levels have been added since (domain, phylum and subspecies among others).

The work of Linnaeus provided an excellent foundation, but it was developed before there was an understanding of evolution and genetic inheritance of traits. Before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (published in 1859), and the discovery of DNA and its role in inheritance, organisms were classified based solely on similarities in visible (i.e. physical or behavioural) characteristics. This meant that the groupings of organisms were often arbitrary,especially considering that the available technology didn’t allow easy observation of subtle differences in form and function. At the time, it was assumed that similarities in the observable physical characteristics of organisms reflected a natural hierarchy of relatedness, with more similar looking organisms being more closely related. Because changes in DNA sequences affect all morphological characteristics in some way, studying the differences in physical features between organisms often achieves similar results to studying the differences in DNA.

However, some of the developments in taxonomy following the discovery of genetics and evolution have been surprising. For example, elephant shrews (pictured below) were originally thought to be most closely related to shrews (a group of mole-like small mammals), despite the recognition of their elephant-like snout (hence the common name). At face value, they do look much more like a shrew than like an elephant, but molecular evidence now suggests that elephant shrews are more closely related to elephants after all!

Nowadays, with our extensive knowledge of the way in which genes interact with environments to produce the shapes and forms of all organisms, the scientific field of taxonomy largely describes the evolutionary and genetic relationships among organisms. Essentially, most organisms are now grouped based on shared ancestry, as determined by DNA sequencing, and these ancestral relationships are displayed in the form of a branching tree. The inevitable culmination of taxonomies based on evolutionary and genetic relationships was a major step in our understanding of the living world. Grouping organisms by their evolutionary relatedness works very well if you’re trying to build a mono-hierarchical taxonomy in which each organism exists in one standard place relative to all other organisms. This system is also great for standardised naming of species.

A mono-hierarchical classification based on evolutionary relatedness works because differences in DNA and in physical features accumulate between different populations of organisms when they no longer interbreed, and the longer the populations are separated, the more differences are likely to accumulate (this is how we get new species, but that’s a story for another day). For example, imagine that two populations of a single species are suddenly separated by a body of water that they are unable to cross (as has happened many times in natural history due to changes in sea level). The two populations can no longer interbreed, and so new DNA mutations that emerge in one population will usually not be present in the other. Over time, the number of DNA changes that differ between the two populations will increase purely by chance, and if those changes affect physical or behavioural characteristics then the two populations will begin to look and act different.

However, other factors can influence the rate and degree of divergence between two populations, through the mechanism of natural selection. For example, if a major predator was on one side of the new body of water, but not on the other, one population will accumulate changes in DNA that affect the organisms’ ability to escape that predator. Perhaps the population over time becomes smaller in size and more cryptic in behaviour, because those individuals that were smaller and tended to hide were more likely to survive and reproduce, and these two traits were inherited by their offspring. Differences in the environment thus influence the degree of similarity among even closely related species that haven’t been separated for a long time.

These two concepts – the order of new species arising over time and the degree of divergence between them – are both necessary for an accurate scientific taxonomy and are now much easier to divulge due to the advancements in DNA technology. But the result is that now taxonomies only tell us about some similarities among organisms – those that are inherited from a common ancestor.

Similar characteristics arising from shared ancestry between two species are termed homologous. But some similarities among organisms arise from similar functions, or similar environments, rather than shared ancestry. These characteristics are termed analogous. This takes us back to the idea of grouping organisms for different functional purposes (i.e. can I eat this or not? Will this animal attack me or will it leave me alone? Is this a fluffy animal or a non-fluffy animal?). In addition to the more practical uses (like not getting attacked, or calculating the probability of a fluffy cuddle), thinking about groups of organisms that share behavioural or morphological characteristics (despite being distant evolutionary relatives) can be very useful for understanding why animals do the things they do.

Biologists essentially do this when studying the evolutionary origins of specific behavioural and morphological characteristics. It is particularly interesting when a similar characteristic appears in two very distantly related species, because it suggests that there is some similar environmental factor shared by those species that favours such a characteristic. This can help to build knowledge about the complex relationships between environments and the species that inhabit them. For instance, many behaviours that were once thought to be unique to humans and some of our closest relatives exist in similar forms in other, often distantly related organisms. Exploring the circumstances in which these behaviours arise in each species can tell us something about why that behaviour is useful, in humans or otherwise.

I will leave you with the example of “babbling”. Babbling is a stage in human language development in which infants imitate sounds that they have heard, and string them together into nonsensical phrases. Babbling is distinct from true language because it doesn’t convey any meaning. During development, the social feedback obtained from parents and other individuals reinforces the use of certain sounds and leads to the acquisition of meaningful language (a process known as vocal learning). Although language is still considered uniquely human, “babbling” has been observed in several other species in which individuals need to develop complex vocal repertoires. These species include many songbirds, pygmy marmosets and greater sac-winged bats. Perhaps other species will be added to the babbling bingo as we discover more about communication in other animals?

Obviously, the reason why we share this characteristic with these species is not because we all inherited it from a common ancestor. This tells us that there’s something very useful about this behaviour for animals with complex and social vocal systems, and that there is much that we can learn from our fellow babbling rellies about the purpose of this particular behaviour. There are so many more examples of this ‘convergent’ evolution, many of which are yet to be discovered.

  1. Waddy JA. Classification of plants and animals from a Groote Eylandt Aboriginal point of view. The Australian National University; 1988