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Many Minds

Nov 2, 2022

Some of us are a little shy; others are sociable. There are those that love to explore the new, and those happy to stick to the familiar. We’re all a bit different, in other words—and when I say “we” I don’t just mean humans. Over the last couple of decades there's been an explosion of research on personality differences in animals too—in birds, in dogs, in fish, all across the animal kingdom. This research is addressing questions like: What are the ways that individuals of the same species differ from each other? What drives these differences? And is this variation just randomness, some kind of inevitable biological noise, or could it have an evolved function?

My guest today is Dr. Kate Laskowski. Kate is an Assistant Professor of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California, Davis. Her lab focuses on fish. They use fish, and especially one species of fish—the Amazon molly—as a model system for understanding animal personality (or as she sometimes calls it “consistent individual behavioral variation”). 

In this episode, Kate and I discuss a paper she recently published with colleagues that reviews this booming subfield. We talk about how personality manifests in animals and how it may differ from human personality. We zoom in on what is perhaps the most puzzling question in this whole research area: Why do creatures have personality differences to begin with? Is there a point to all this individual variation, evolutionarily speaking? We discuss two leading frameworks that have tried to answer the question, and then consider some recent studies of Kate’s that have added an unexpected twist. On the way, we touch on Darwinian demons, combative anemones, and a research method Kate calls "fish Big Brother."

Alright friends, I had fun with this one, and I think you’ll enjoy it, too. On to my conversation with Kate Laskowski!


A transcript of this episode is available here


Notes and links

3:00 – A paper by Dr. Laskowski and a colleague on strong personalities in sticklebacks.

5:30 – The website for the lab that Dr. Laskowski directs at UC-Davis.  

7:00 – The paper we focus on—‘Consistent Individual Behavioral Variation: What do we know and where are we going?’—is available here.

11:00 – A brief encyclopedia entry on sticklebacks.

13:00 – A video of two sea anemones fighting. A research article about fighting (and personality) in sea anemones.

15:00 – A classic article reviewing the “Big 5” model in human personality research.

17:00 – The original article proposing five personality factors in animals.

22:30 – A recent special issue on the “Pace-of-Life syndromes” framework.

27:00 – A recent paper on evidence for the “fluctuating selection” idea in great tits.

29:00 – A 2017 paper by Dr. Laskowski and colleagues on “behavioral individuality” in clonal fish raised in near-identical environments.

32:10 – A just-released paper by Dr. Laskowski and colleagues extending their earlier findings on clonal fish.

39:30 – The Twitter account of the Many Birds project. The website for the project.


Dr. Laskowski recommends:

Innate, by Kevin Mitchell

Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller

The Book of Why, by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie


You can read more about Dr. Laskowksi’s work on her website and follow her on Twitter.  

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte and with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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