How I accidentally conducted experiments on a human

Recently, scientists performed personality experiments on birds. Some time ago, they conducted them on octopuses. Reading about them, I realize I accidentally conducted personality experiments on a human being.

Birds have personalities. Octopuses don't. These are the results of personality tests conducted by two different groups of scientists, at two different times. Neither is intrinsically interesting. What is interesting, though, is that science has now officially come up with a definition for 'personality'. It seems such an unscientific term, but researchers agreed that it meant this: showing consistent behavior to consistent stimuli. Sounds dry, but it allowed for some basic experiments.

Researchers exposed both animals to like stimuli. The birds were shown an unfamiliar object in their feeding dish, followed by an unfamiliar object in an otherwise bare cage. The birds who braved the unfamiliar object to get the food also tended to go up and touch the new object in their cage. The octopuses were shown high-definition television images of other octopuses or of prey items. Unlike the birds, octopuses did not react to images of competitors the same way. One day they'd be aggressive towards the intruder. Another day they'd hide. The researchers concluded that birds had consistent personalities, risk-averse versus risk-taking, the same way that people did. The octopuses had no such consistency. If they were a person, they'd behave completely differently from one day to the next. They'd have no set personality.

But is that really how people behave? Is personality as basic as being predictable. Given so many variants in the life of any person, would they really do the same thing over and over if given the same stimuli? The answer is yes. I know this, because it turns out I accidentally conducted a personality experiment on a human.

There are times in anyone's life when they have to return to the same venue, one with alcohol, several nights in a row. Conventions, for example, tend to center around bars at the end of the day. Attendees tend to see the same people over and over. One night, a gentleman came up to me and started a conversation. He was nice. He seemed interested in what I had to say. We had a nice talk. He was also sway-on-your-feet drunk. It didn't affect his behavior, besides the swaying, so that was no problem, but after a few minutes, he wandered on.

The next night, I returned to the bar. The guy had also returned, and was in the same state of inebriation. I briefly made eye contact with him, smiled and nodded hello, and went on with my talk. The guy came over to me, and talked - opening with the exact same line he had the night before. I was a little flustered, so I replied the way I had before. It was only when he responded to my response the exact same way he had the night before that I realized that he truly didn't remember. He started out by asking me questions about my favorite authors. Being a human with a personality, I had the same favorite authors two nights in a row, so I gave him honest answers. He seized on the same author out of the three that I had mentioned, and asked another question. Again, I answered him honestly, the same way I had the night before. And we ended up having the same conversation.

The third night I went back to the bar. Found the same guy. He opened with a different line this time, but the conversation wound back to the same subjects, and he asked the same questions and he selected the same authors and we had a third round of the same conversation.

I'm not mocking the guy. Sure, the situation was funny. He'd forgotten about the whole thing and started up again each night like we were in the first act of Groundhog Day. But he was intelligent, polite, good-natured, and seemed to actually care about what I was saying. He was a good guy. Each time.

I guess that was just his personality.

Via Scientific American and New Scientist.

Octopus vs. television illustration via A Perfect Circle.