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Social animals suppress their personalities for safety

Social animals improve their safety when they suppress their individual personalities and conform with the group, according to a study from the University of Bristol. The research suggests that simple rules can drive conformity behavior in social groups. 

“Personality suppression may be a common strategy in group-living animals, and in particular, we should tend to see the behaviors of the most adventurous or shy individuals shifting towards what the majority of the group are doing,” said study lead author Dr. Sean Rands.

The researchers noted that the movement of a group can be strongly influenced by “leaders” who stand out as different. “A major source of differences between individuals is the repeatability and consistency of their behavior, commonly considered as their ’personality,’ which can influence both their position within a group as well as their tendency to lead.” 

“However, links between personality and behavior may also depend upon the immediate social environment of the individual; individuals who behave consistently in one way when alone may not express the same behavior socially, when they may be conforming with the behavior of others,” wrote the study authors. 

To investigate, the team developed a model to represent a small group of animals who differ in their tendency to perform risky behaviors. 

The experts looked at how these individuals would complete a foraging task while traveling away from a safe home site versus how they would complete the same task in a group setting. The results showed that the “group-aware” individuals spent longer in a safe space and moved more quickly to the foraging spot.

“Groups are usually made up of individuals who are different to each other in the way that they normally behave – these consistent individual differences are what determines the personality of the individual,” explained study co-author Professor Christos Ioannou.

“Experimental evidence for this comes from animals like the stickleback fish that we study in our lab. We can measure the personality of individual fish when they are given a food-finding task on their own, and compare it to what happens when they are put in a group of mixed personalities and given the same task.”

“When faced with a social task, we find that the fish tend to suppress their own behavior, and instead conform with what other fish in the group are doing.”

Overall, the researchers concluded that when animals pay attention to the other group members, this has an overall impact on the efficiency of the group, and demonstrates that simple social behaviors can result in the suppression of individual personalities.

The study is published in the journal  PLoS Computational Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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