Why Furries Choose Their Species

24 Nov 2014 |

How and why do furries choose their species?

Species choice is a question that interests us at [adjective][species] a great deal, and we know it interests the wider furry community. It is a choice that is at the core of the furry identity, one of the key building blocks toward the way we present ourselves within the furry community.

We have a wealth of data on species and character selection, thanks to many years of the Furry Survey and the work of the International Anthropomorphic Research Project (IARP). We are able to correlate species choice with hundreds of different variables… yet we have been able to identify little tangible that drives a furry towards choosing, say, a wolf rather than, say, a horse.

I had a chat with Dr Courtney Plante (aka Nuka)—IARP researcher, furry, and [adjective][species] contributor—to explore what we have learned, and discuss why it’s such a difficult question in the first place.

We have already presented several data results and visualisation on species popularity and selection, notably:

Example of our species visualisation - click the picture to play with the interactive version
Example of our species visualisation - click the picture to play with the interactive version
  • Word clouds summarising the language people use to describe their characters. We think that this provides insight into how people create and build their furry characters.
Word cloud example: why lions are lions
Word cloud example: why lions are lions

 (Makyo has written two articles looking at species selection and character creation in more detail: Part 1 & Part 2.)

Interestingly, the data often tends to disprove common assumptions about furry characters. For example, male foxes are often (jokingly) thought of to be gay. Yet the opposite is true: foxes are most popular with straight male furs:

Foxes are popular among straight, cis, men
Foxes are popular among straight, cis, men

We also tend to assume that furries, on first joining the community, will start as something fairly generic before species-hopping to something more unique or personally representative. So we might expect that the most popular species—wolves, foxes, dragons—would be more popular among furs in their first year or two in furry. Yet the data shows this to be incorrect: there are no clear correlations between species choice and time in the fandom.

Species popularity stays pretty static over time - click the picture for a much clearer, interactive version
Species popularity stays pretty static over time - click the picture for a much clearer, interactive version

This formed the starting point of our discussion, which I have edited for clarity.

JM: There is no obvious trend towards or away from certain species as people spend more time in the fandom. This surprises me.

Nuka: Me too; social identity theory has an off-shoot called “optimal distinctiveness theory”, which states that people like to stand out… but not too much.

If you lump people into too big a group, they find ways to stand out... If you make them stand out too much, find ways to fall back into the group. I think when furries first get into the fandom, furries are ‘distinct’ enough that all that matters is fitting in. I think that many furries latch onto a common species (wolves, foxes, etc…).

However, as furries spend time in the fandom and it becomes a more normative part of their life, they start to realize that they don’t feel distinct enough anymore… they’re “just another fox” or “just another wolf”. So they tend to make themselves more distinct. I notice, again anecdotally, that VERY few wolves or foxes will say “I’m just a wolf” or “I’m just a fox”, there’s often a qualifier, something that makes them more distinct. A particular subspecies of wolf (e.g., “arctic wolf” or “timber wolf”), or a particular color (e.g. “blue wolf”), or hybridization (“wolf/fox hybrid”), etc. Or, as you suggested, they may change their fursona to something that they feel more precisely represents them, which just so happens to include being more distinct than “just another wolf”.

JM: I recall talking with Klisoura and Makyo about their trials and tribulations collecting species data. Furries give a lot of information that makes them difficult to easily categorize. They deal with the problem by allowing one datapoint for each species mentioned, so a foxwolfdragon is counted as one fox, one wolf, and one dragon. That might also contribute to our preponderance of wolves.

Note to self: title for future [adjective][species] article: A Preponderance of Wolves

Nuka: Ugh… tell me about it. I’ve analyzed species data all of ONCE… In our biggest dataset ever, we looked at species data for more than 4,500 furries. Never again…

It took me almost a full week on Wikipedia trying to figure out what some of the things WERE. And then realizing that no matter how I tried, it was next to impossible to organize the data in any meaningful way (it’s easy when it comes to “foxes” and “wolves”, for example… but where do you put a person who puts “canid?” What counts as a “big cat”? Is there a meaningful difference between a “big cat” and a “little cat”, from a psychological perspective?)

In the end, I’ve given up on trying to get anything meaningful out of the species data. I’ve picked away at it again and again, and lo and behold, we’ve found no systematic differences between people when it comes to fursona species. A lot of things matter when it comes to your fursona (e.g., how it relates to who YOU are), but the species it manifests itself as doesn’t seem to be one of those things.

JM: We have published our visualization that looks at species versus sex, gender & sexual orientation. There are some big differences, and not always the ones you might expect.

Nuka: I certainly won’t deny the possibility that there are statistically significant differences when it comes to things like sex / gender / sexual orientation and species choice. But three issues are at play here:

a) The less important one: When you’re looking at dozens of species, coupled with rather large sample sizes, by sheer chance alone you’re going to find blips in the data that come up as statistically significantly different, but which are relatively spurious, or of such small effect size as to be negligible. For example, if I look for statistically significant differences in the gender composition of 100 different species, I will, by chance alone, find 5 that are statistically significant.

b) That first point aside, there may be some legitimate differences in the gender / sex / orientation composition of different species that are not merely a product of chance. They may be particularly large effect sizes and may be particularly compelling. The next question is this: is this something idiosyncratic to this species, or is this part of a more substantive, meaningful difference. For example: Let’s say that, lo and behold, people who self-identify as cows are far more likely to be females than males. And let’s say the effect size is huge and replicates across samples. So it’s not due to chance. Well, does it tell us something substantive about the psychology of people who pick cows, or might there be a far more mundane, idiosyncratic reason? Well, if cows are female (as opposed to bulls), then it might make sense that there is an overrepresentation of women among this species. The reason is pretty idiosyncratic, however, and really doesn’t contribute much to our understanding of the psychology of fursona selection beyond what we can say about cows specifically.

c) The final point, which is related to the previous one: is there any theoretical reason, a priori, to have hypothesized these differences, and are they “differences that make a difference”? As a psychologist, I love a good theory. I love when, based on previous research, I can create a new hypothesis and predict some aspect of human behaviour from it. So, if we find a difference in gender composition of a species AND it’s not due to chance AND it’s not idiosyncratic to that species (e.g., something similar happens to related species, or to species who share a particular dimension), then it’s worth asking how this helps us build a better model of fursona-creation? How does this help further our knowledge of the motivations underlying furries’ chosen species? What does this tell us about the processes underlying fursona creation? And can we use this to predict new information? If we know that people who choose cows as a fursona are more likely to be women, does this tell us anything about people who pick foxes and wolves? People who pick mammals? People who pick realistic species? And, more importantly, do these differences make a pragmatic difference? Does knowing that a person picked a Cow over a Fox help us meaningfully predict some aspect of their real-world behaviour (e.g., self-esteem, aggression, openness to experience, extraversion, etc.)?

This is why I’ve given up on species analysis within our own data. In our own analyses, we’ve found nothing systematic, nothing that wasn’t idiosyncratic, nothing that was of theoretical relevance, and nothing that reliably predicted something of real-world substance. 

That said, I’m also open to, and intrigued by, data that has been far better organized and more thoroughly and systematically assessed. I don’t rule out the possibility of something meaningful being there. I’m just dubious of it. Despite lay theories that many furries have about what fursonas tell you about a person, the evidence, at least as I’ve seen it, suggests that this is more a product of post-hoc reasoning and the availability heuristic at play.

JM: What about the differences between character and self? Does it matter if your fursona is an idealized or actual version of you?

Nuka: This one is probably the most exciting to me. From studying fantasy research in the last two years, I’ve come to realize that people often trivialize the content of fantasy. They think that because something is fantasy, it has no bearing on the real world.

Our most recent research suggests that it really DOES matter whether your fursona is a better version of you, represents you, or whether your fursona is an all-around unlikable person. People may think, when they’re creating their fursonas, that they’re doing so on a whim, that the choices they make simply reflect preferences (e.g. “I just like wolves” or “I guess I just identify with cats…”), but it turns out that the form of one’s fursona and how one situates their fursona relative to themselves speaks volumes about their actual self-esteem, life satisfaction, depression, felt anxiety, etc.

JM: This is a terrific bit of research. I wrote about it at the time for [a][s], and it touched on a few areas that I’d looked at. I share your excitement: it’s fascinating stuff.

I didn’t find this so surprising though, although it’s possible that the research has moved in different directions from my thoughts.

It makes sense to me that a fursona is a kind of personality experiment. We have a lot of people in their 20s, and as we all know personality doesn’t really solidify, at least from a Big 5 perspective, until age 30 or so. I see fursonas as a kind of personality experiment, an exploration of things that might be. So someone with a divergent fursona has a lot more maturation to do than someone with the fursona that closely represents themselves. And maturation correlates with things like happiness & life satisfaction, and negatively correlates with things like depression and anxiety.

At least that’s how I saw it. Does that match up with your research? Is there a correlation between fursona and age?

Nuka: *laughs* Depending on who you talk to, the idea of personality “solidifying” is incorrect (at any age). One of my colleagues believes that the concept of personality itself is a false one, that there is no “personality” per se, given that it is so often determined by the situation one finds themselves in.

This perspective is in line with the idea that a fursona gives a person “another context” where their personality may differ. If I’m a shy, quiet person by day, my fursona gives me a context within which to be an outgoing, extroverted person. And it may be the case that, insofar as a person actively seeks out such novelty in experience, it may be correlated with better well-being all in all.

When you say “a correlation between fursona and age”, what exactly do you mean? A correlation between felt closeness to fursona and age? Between similarity of fursona to self and age?

JM: Well, we know that people become happier as they age (ref), which correlates with self-acceptance or self-realization. If closeness-to-fursona is a sign of having a good relationship with yourself (which makes sense to me), then perhaps that’s something that happens with age. So maybe the effect you’re seeing is just part of the normal maturation process.

Nuka: I agree completely that as people age, they come to self-accept more, and an increase in felt connection to fursona would be predicted by this.

What’s interesting to me (and to my colleagues) is how furries compare to non-furries on this. We’re starting to show evidence that furries, relative to non-furries, tend to be behind the curve at bit, at least in their early 20s, when it comes to resolving big questions about ‘who am I?’ But spending time in the fandom tends to predict an increase in solving these kinds of questions, until furries not only “catch up” to the rest of the population, but actually come to surpass them, becoming even more satisfied with themselves.

JM: So, yes, is there a correlations between closeness-to-fursona and age?

Nuka: I believe so, but it’s confounded with years spent in the fandom. An older person is likely to have spent more time in the fandom, and if they’ve spent more time in the fandom, they’re more likely to feel closer to their fursona, one of the motivations to hang around.

I haven’t checked this in the longitudinal data from our ongoing study, though I’m doubtful we’ll find any aging effects yet. One year of difference isn’t exactly a lot, even across a population.

JM: Thanks Nuka. I'm looking forward to seeing what you discover as your research moves forward.