Does personality influence learning? A case study in an invasive lizard

Abstract

Learning is a change in state resulting from new experiences enabling behavioural responses to be adjusted in alignment with external cues. Individuals differ in the speed and accuracy at which they learn. Personality has been postulated as being a major influence on learning ability in terms of attention and encounter rates of environmental cues. This link forms the basis of the cognitive style hypothesis (CSH), predicting that an individual’s cognitive style will occur along a fast–slow behavioural gradient. Fast types are characterised as being active, neophilic, and bold individuals who sample their environment rapidly, yet superficially, enabling learning to occur at a higher speed, but at the cost of accuracy. Slow types have the opposite suite of personality traits resulting in them being more accurate flexible learners. Greater level of learning flexibility is thought to help promote invasions success. Here, we test the predictions of the CSH in an invasive lizard (Lampropholis delicata) to determine if personality dictates learning performance in a two-phase associative task. Results indicated that the delicate skink was capable of learning an associative task but only provided partial support for the CSH. Personality was found to influence learning accuracy, however, the direction of that relationship was opposite to that predicted. Instead, fast lizards made fewer mistakes when learning to associate a colour to a goal. These findings highlight the need to further investigate the CSH across taxa and consider its potential as an underlying mechanism of the invasion process.

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Acknowledgements

We thank H. Moule and M. Bertram for assistance during fieldwork and H. Kang, D. Littlewood, and S. Walsh for help with lizard captive husbandry. R. San Martin, I. Stewart, and P. Arnold provided access to the animal housing facility and construction of experimental equipment. The project was conducted in accordance with our Monash University Animal Ethics Committee approvals (BSCI/2012/17, BSCI/2013/19, BSCI2014/11, BSCI/2014/26, BSCI/2015/04), associated scientific research permits (NSW: SL101203; VIC: 10006866, 10006867), and under special permission from Lane Cove National Park. Financial support was provided to CTG by the ANZ Trustees Foundation-Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment and to DGC and BBMW by the Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant (DP170100684).

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MC participated in the conception and design of the study, carried out the laboratory work, provided new methods, conducted data analysis, and manuscript revisions; MM and BM carried out the field work and assisted in the laboratory work; DC and BW participated in the conception and design of the study and contributed substantially to manuscript revisions; CG conception and design of the study and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All authors have given final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Celine T. Goulet.

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We have no competing interests.

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Communicated by Hannu J. Ylonen.

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Chung, M., Goulet, C.T., Michelangeli, M. et al. Does personality influence learning? A case study in an invasive lizard. Oecologia 185, 641–651 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-017-3975-4

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Keywords

  • Associative learning
  • Behaviour
  • Cognitive style hypothesis
  • Lizard
  • Personality type