On The Psychology Of Fish


[Note:  Image taken from wikipedia entry on Archer fish.]

There are many animals for whom psychology has been at least tried out with a considerable degree of interest, but to my knowledge at least the psychology of fish is one that has been neglected.  This is perhaps somewhat obvious, as fish are not animals who tend to impress us with their cerebral powers.  Yet as someone who has at least some familiarity with fish, it is pretty clear that fish do have a psychology and it is worthwhile to examine it, even if briefly, because the fact that fish do have a psychology of their own means that we cannot neglect the mental life even of animals whose brains are particularly small, because it does not apparently take much brainpower to have at least something that is worthwhile that can be gained by pondering the exercise of its brain, not least the fact that fish are pretty stereotypical prey animals (for the most part, more on that below) and have the mental capacity at least to show some sort of prey response.

I was prompted to write about this subject today because of an experience of mine that happened last night.  Once a month I visit my CASA kiddo, and it so happened that last night was the time for the monthly visit, where I drive over to her paternal grandparents’ home and chat and observe a bit and eat dinner and talk with the grandparents about what is going on and give encouragement and information as is necessary.  The kiddo herself is an energetic and bright elementary schooler whose early childhood trauma was pretty horrific, even by the standards of my own personal experience and observation.  Be that as it may, after I was done eating dinner but before we had dessert, the kiddo wanted to show me the new fish tank she had received as a gift since my last visit.  Although there were plans for other fish, including guppies and a frog (which were apparently sold out when the fish tank was purchased), the fish tank had within it a large pink and purple castle, some colorful rocks and plants, and three little fish.  Being somewhat fond of fish, I took the opportunity to observe the fish and noted that they were fond of a particular corner of the fish tank unless they could see the kiddo or I near that area, in which point they would scamper to safer areas.  When I talked to the grandfather, he stated that the fish had been darting all over the tank at the pet store, and so their timidity so far here must be due to some sort of aspect of fish psychology that I had not hitherto been aware of.

To be sure, fish psychology is something I should be somewhat are of.  As an elementary school student, in one of the classrooms of a gifted teacher of either math or science (I cannot remember which one it was at this point) there was a fish tank and one day I had the brilliant idea to use the net to chase after the fish in the tank.  Needless to say, the teacher was not particularly impressed by the terror I inspired in his fish, which makes some sense if the experience of having a little person use a net on a fish leads to some sort of traumatic response in a fish that might make it less hardy.  Since fish are fairly fragile creatures who die at alarming rates, anything that endangers the survival of fish is likely to be viewed with extreme displeasure by those who pay a lot of money for fish as well as their tanks and food and filters and so on and so forth.  And although I have not been a particularly skilled fisherman, one of my friends in Southern California had a large number of archer fish who would squirt at you from the other side of the room, because they apparently thought that you could be some sort of tasty insect, and their aim was impressive given their diminutive size.

These experiences ought to have clued me in that fish have at least some sort of rudimentary psychology.  To be sure, it does not appear to be particularly complicated.  One could not write a lengthy book on the transactional analysis of relationships among koi, for example.  Even so, fish show at least some rudimentary predator and prey responses.  A coworker of mine when I was working for a company involved in processing mortgage applications brought her beta fish to work and that fish was fairly aggressive to anything it could see, which was somewhat endearing as the fish was of no personal threat to me.  Small animals which show a great deal of fierceness far disproportionate to their size are something which I have always been fond of, for whatever reason.  And from these interactions it is clear that some fish (like beta fish and archer fish) show predator responses to beings around them while others (like the timid fish in the tank of my CASA kiddo and of my elementary school teacher) show obvious prey responses of anxiety and timidity when faced with the presence of nearby larger beings.

How far does this psychology extend, though?  Fish can live in schools, for example, and so it is clear that they have some sort of social life.  Do fish feel terror when they are faced with curious beings that may want to hurt them?  How do archer fish or beta fish learn to distinguish bemused human beings from potential food or between rival fish and beings that one would not want to trifle with, respectively?  The fact that these questions can be asked suggests that there is something to uncover in the behavior of fish.  And it should be readily admitted that fish are not even particularly intelligent animals within the animal world.  Certainly archer fish cannot compare to cephalopods or cetaceans when it comes to intellect, and if small fish in a fish tank have some level of psychology, then the limits of psychology are considerably broader than we have previously understood.  If our actions cause some sort of response of fear or anger in fish, then are we responsible for the emotional lives of these animals as we happen to interact with them?  Was it an act of cruelty to play with fish with a little net?  Is it an act of cruelty to bring a bumptious beta fish to a place where there are many people who will prompt his aggressive response?  And if we can be cruel to fish, where does our responsibility for treating other creatures with consideration and kindness end?

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to On The Psychology Of Fish

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    I’ve never thought of fish possessing a “fight or flight” instinct. But I have wondered when observing some fish darting away from people as they approach the tank while others rush toward them. It would be fascinating to study the wiring within these different classes of fish that stimulates those immediate–but different–responses to the same situation.

    • Yes, I agree. One would likely assume that fish don’t have enough brainpower to have any sort of psychology, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. It is definitely something I will have to investigate more.

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