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The beast inside: What does your favourite animal say about you?

Every couple of months I get calls from the media asking me to comment on what some particular aspect or preference of human behaviour says about someone’s personality and/or demeanour. Most recently, I appeared on my local radio station (BBC Radio Nottingham) being interviewed about men’s and women’s favourite animals. The ‘hook’ of the story was a survey carried out by the polling organization YouGov on 190,000 people. The story appeared in the Daily Telegraph with the headline ‘Men identify with lobsters, women with miniature pigs’:

“Asked to pick the most stereotypically ‘manly’ of animals, we might opt for a shark, bear or bull. But a new poll by YouGov has found that lobsters may be the manliest animal of them all. The survey of 190,000 people asked respondents to name their favourite animal. The results were then broken down along gender lines. The animal which was most favoured by men compared to women was the lobster, followed by the alligator and stickleback fish. Meanwhile, miniature pigs, cats and ponies were disproportionately favoured by women. Completing the ‘masculine’ top ten were sharks, eagles, octopuses, ants, narwhals, scorpions and spiders. The next most ‘feminine’ animals were donkeys, chinchillas, pandas, rabbits, guinea pigs, zebras and – perhaps the most bizarre feature of this already bizarre survey – African pygmy hedgehogs. ‘In general, men are more likely to have sympathy for heroic, aggressive or creepy animals while women are more likely to prefer the cute, beautiful and exotic types,’ a researcher from YouGov wrote. He also noted that there were no mammals in the most typically male animals, while every animal in the women’s top 20 was a mammal, apart from the penguin and butterfly. The results were deemed ‘statistically significant’, with the full breakdown of preferred animals by gender available here”. 

The DJ that interviewed me hadn’t realised that the poll wasn’t about male and female ‘top 10’ favourite animals but was actually about the top differences between men and women’s favourite animals. Although the interview was enjoyable it had no scientific value whatsoever – so why did I do it? Well, I think the main reason was to please my university’s Press Office, but also in the back of my mind was a little exercise that one of my psychology lecturers made us do in a tutorial 30 years ago.

We were asked to name our three favourite animals and then to write three adjectives to describe the animals we had chosen. I chose the coelacanth* (rare, long-living, unchanging), the South American condor (high-flying, distinctive, endangered), and the duck-billed platypus (unique, nature-defying, electro-sensitive) – thankfully I was able to check my 1985 diary to check what adjectives I had used all those years ago. We were then told by our lecturer that: (i) our first choice represented how we think we are, (ii) the second choice represented how we think other people perceive us, and (iii) the third represented how we really are. Given that I am sharing it here, gives you an indication that I wasn’t overly unhappy with the outcome (and I’d like to think there is some truth in the insight given the adjectives I chose at the time – but that’s more to do with wishful thinking than science).

At best, these kinds of ‘personality insights’ are little more than pop psychology (although arguably fun to do). Arguably the most well-known ‘animal personality test’ can be found in Roy Feinson’s 1998 book The Animal In You: Discover Your Animal Type and Unlock the Secrets of Your Personality (and you can also check out the Animal In You website). According to the website:

“Are you a wolf, rugged and misunderstood, or more like the introspective mole? Take the Animal In You personality test and find out! To identify the animal that best matches you simply answer the questions as honestly as you can. For even more accurate results, you might want to get ratings from people that know you well or have them take the test for you! This test is based on the best selling book The Animal in You by Roy Feinson, which explores how biological and social pressure conspire to form our personalities. If you find it to be uncannily accurate, it’s due to the test’s sophisticated algorithms. When you’ve entered your personal data, the test will build a mathematical model that corresponds to your unique personality, match it to our database of animal profiles and choose the ones closest to you. Though you may have one or two other possible results, remember that each person properly matches only one animal personality”.

I have to admit that I have not personally taken the test myself, but I don’t see that much difference between this type of test and those that you find in astrology books. I have a little more faith in the Myers-Briggs Test (MBT; developed by Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers) that is not a test of animal personality per se but has been extrapolated into animal personality types. The MBT draws on the theories of Carl Jung who theorized that there are four principal psychological functions by which humans experience the world: sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking. In the MBT, these dichotomies (as outlined by the online article ‘What’s your animal personality type?’) are:

  • Worldview: Extroversion (E) or Introversion (I) 
- i.e. would you rather play with your pals or hang out at home with a book?
  • Information: Sensing (S) or Intuition (N) 
- i.e. when taking in something new, do you prefer to take it simply, at face value or interpret / add meaning based on your gut?
  • Decisions: Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)
 – i.e. when making up your mind about something, do you primarily rely on logic and structure, or do you gravitate towards emotion and empathy?
  • Structure: Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)
 – i.e. would you rather things in your life to be decided and set, or do you like to stay open to whatever options might come along?

Based on your scores on these four dimensions, your personality can (supposedly) be mapped onto one of the following animals: owl (INTP; ‘wise and clam’), fox (ESTP; ‘subtle and opportunistic’), sloth (ISFP; ‘harmless and sensitive’), lion (ENTJ; ‘king of the jungle’), deer (ISFJ; ‘territorial and protective’), octopus (INTJ; ‘solitary hunter’), cat (ISTP; ‘secret and unpredictable’), otter (ESFP; ‘fun and entertaining’), wolf (INFJ; ‘rare and fascinating’), dolphin (ENFP; ‘spontaneous and creative’), honey bee (ESTJ; ‘strict and aggressive’), beaver (ISTJ; ‘slow but tough’), dog (ENFJ; ‘loyal and affectionate’), meerkat (INFP; ‘free spirited and kind’), parrot (ENTP; ‘charming and clever’), and elephant (ESFJ; ‘gentle and caring’). Finally, if you are interested in taking the test, you can do so here.

 

*The Wikipedia entry on coelacanths note they “constitute a now rare order of fish…They follow the oldest known living lineage of Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish and tetrapods), which means they are more closely related to lungfish, reptiles, and mammals, than to the common ray-finned fishes…Since there are only two species of coelacanth and both are threatened, it is the most endangered order of animals in the world. The West Indian Ocean coelacanth is a critically endangered species. Coelacanths were thought to have undergone extinction 66 million years ago…The first recorded coelacanth fossil, found in Australia, was of a jaw that dated back 360 million years…The fossil record is unique because coelacanth fossils were found 100 years before the first live specimen was identified. In 1938, Courtenay-Latimer rediscovered the first live specimen…caught off the coast of East London, South Africa. In 1997, a marine biologist on honeymoon discovered the second live species…in an Indonesian market”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Barton, S.A. (2012). What’s your animal personality type? BuzzFeed, June 20. Located at: http://www.buzzfeed.com/summeranne/whats-your-animal-personality-type#.wtJJblrrQ

Dahlgreen, W. (2015). Lobsters for men, miniature pigs for women. YouGov UK, March 1. Located at: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/03/01/animals-gender/

Feinson, R. (1998). The Animal In You: Discover Your Animal Type and Unlock the Secrets of Your Personality. London: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Healthy Living Editors (2012). What animal matches your personality? Care2.com, October 21. Located at: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/whats-your-animal-personality.html

Merz, T. (2015). Men identify with lobsters, women with miniature pigs. Daily Telegraph, March 2. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/relationships/11444854/Men-identify-with-lobsters-women-with-miniature-pigs.html

Wikipedia (2015). Coelacanth. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coelacanth

Wikipedia (2015). Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers–Briggs_Type_Indicator