Testing the predictions of coping styles theory in threespined sticklebacks

Miles K. Bensky, Ryan Paitz, Laura Pereira, Alison M. Bell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Coping styles theory provides a framework for understanding individual variation in how animals respond to environmental change, and predicts how individual differences in stress responsiveness and behavior might relate to cognitive differences. According to coping styles theory, proactive individuals are bolder, less reactive to stressors, and more routinized than their reactive counterparts. A key tenet of coping styles theory is that variation in coping styles is maintained by tradeoffs with behavioral flexibility: proactive individuals excel in stable environments while more flexible, reactive individuals perform better in variable environments. Here, we assess evidence for coping styles within a natural population of threespined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus). We developed a criterion-based learning paradigm to evaluate individual variation in initial and reversal learning. We observed strong individual differences in boldness, cortisol production, and learning performance. Consistent with coping styles, fish that released more cortisol were more timid in response to a predator attack and slower to learn a color discrimination task. However, there was no evidence that reactive individuals performed better when the environment changed (when the rewarded color was reversed). The failure to detect trade-offs between behavioral routinization and flexibility prompts other explanations for the maintenance of differing coping styles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioural Processes
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • Animal personality
  • Coping styles
  • Cortisol
  • Individual differences
  • Learning
  • Threespined stickleback

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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