Characters in sitcoms become more and more like caricatures of themselves over time, with exaggerated personality quirks and tendencies. Now, researchers have discovered a similar phenomenon in spiders! Biologists from Pittsburgh and Berlin recently teamed up to study the behaviour of one of the few species of social spider: Stegodyphus mimosarum. (This sociable arachnid lives in colonies numbering up to 300, and individuals work together to bring down prey as large as birds and rats!)
The study at hand investigated the development of personality traits, and found that the type of social life each spider has determines, in part, its personality. That is, spiders with one consistent social group have much stronger (and more predictable) personalities, while spiders with shifting social groups are less consistent. Further, stable social groups have much more variation between individuals (think: Breakfast Club) than the amorphous, shifting groups.
So, spiders with a consistent group of friends tend to occupy certain social niches from which they rarely diverge! Personality is not only determined by environmental variables and social experiences, though; one’s inherent nature also plays a role. When initially medium-bold and medium-timid spiders joined a stable social group, the “boldies” grew bolder and the timid spiders more timid.
As one lead researcher noted, these findings resonate with our own experiences as humans. Social groups can alter and exaggerate our personalities; if you want to redefine yourself, it might be best to move to a new town! A possible explanation for this phenomenon is best illustrated through a clip from the hit film Superbad, featuring the wisdom of Jonah Hill (WARNING: language is not suitable for work): “people don’t forget.”
In other words, far from fostering behavioral conformity, a predictable social life accentuated each spider’s quirks and personal style, rather as the characters in a sitcom — the Goth girl, the huckster, the lovable buffoon — rise ever more to type with every passing laugh-tracked week.