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Individual differences in human motivation and emotion that appear early in life, usually thought to be biological in origin. Temperament is sometimes considered the biological or physiological component of personality, which refers to the sum total of the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social dimensions of an individual.



Ancient Greek and Roman physicians invoked nature, claiming that the proportions of the various humors or fluids in the bodies influenced personality. They thought that there were four basic temperamentssanguine (cheerful), choleric (irritable), melancholic (gloomy), and phlegmatic (apathetic)which were determined by the predominance of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm respectively in the person's physical constitution. The ancient theory survives in the form of such expressions as "being in a bad (or good) humor."

The theory of four bodily humors did not survive the rise of scientific medicine in the seventeenth century as an explanation for differences in human temperament, but it has not been replaced by any single universally accepted theory of personality either. During most of the twentieth century, political ideology, discoveries about the learning or conditioning capabilities of infants, and the emergence of psychoanalytic theory, which emphasized the importance of early experience, all combined to discredit biological explanations for human motivation and emotion. Nurture and socialization became the favored explanations of differences in temperament.

There was, however, a resurgence of interest in the contribution of temperament to children's development after the 1950s. Temperament came to be summarized as the biological dimension of personality. It was seen as a predisposition that allows two individuals to experience the same objective event very differently within the range of normal behavior and development.

Specific approaches to temperament

THE NEW YORK LONGITUDINAL STUDY Suspecting that inherent individual differences among their young patients contributed to their developmental paths, two child psychiatrists, Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess, designed a study that challenged the nature-nurture dichotomy. Beginning in 1956 and ultimately publishing their research in Temperament and Development in 1977, Thomas and Chess collected longitudinal data from over 100 children, following them from infancy through early adulthood. Using extensive clinical interviews to gather information about children's behavior as well as parents' values and expectations, they examined what they termed the goodness of fit between the individual child and his or her environment.

Thomas and Chess found that children could be rated on each of nine dimensions even in infancy:

  • Activity level: The child's general level of energy and movementwhether he or she is quiet, always "on the go," or somewhere in-between.
  • Rhythmicity: The child's regular biological patterns of appetite and sleepwhether the child gets hungry or tired at predictable times.
  • Approach/withdrawal: The child's usual response to new people or situationswhether the child is eager for new experiences or shy and hesitant.
  • Adaptability: The child's ability and pace in adjusting to changes in schedules or transitions from one activity to another.
  • Threshold of responsiveness: The child's level of sensitivity to such physical stimuli as sounds, smells, and lights. For example, some children are easily startled by sudden noises while others are less sensitive to them. Some children are pickier about food than others.
  • Intensity: The child's responses to people or events. Some children react strongly and loudly to even minor events while others are less demonstrative or openly emotional.
  • Quality of mood: The child's overall worldview, whether positive or negative. Some children tend to focus on the negative aspects of a situation while others are more positive or hopeful. Some children tend to approach life in a serious or analytical fashion while others respond to their immediate impressions of situations.
  • Distractibility: The child's ability to pay attention to tasks or instructions even when the child is not particularly interested in them. Some children have shorter attention spans than others.
  • Persistence: The child's ability to continue with an activity in the face of obstacles or problems. Some children are more easily discouraged by difficulties than others.

Thomas and Chess combined the patterns of children's ratings on each of these nine dimensions to distinguish three major temperamental types:

  • Easy children: About 40 percent of the NYLS sample displayed a temperamental profile marked by regularity, ease of approach to new stimuli, adaptability to change, mild to moderate mood intensity, and a generally positive mood. This profile characterizes what Thomas and Chess call the easy child.
  • Difficult children: About 10 percent of children showed a very different profile and were called difficult children. They had irregular patterns of eating and sleeping, withdrew from new stimuli, did not adapt easily to change, and reacted intensely to changes. Their overall mood was often negative.
  • Slow-to-adapt children: Children who were slow to warm up comprised the third temperamental group, about 15 percent of Thomas and Chess's sample. These children tended to withdraw from new stimuli and had difficulty adapting to change, but their reactions were of mild intensity and gradually became either neutral or positive with repeated exposures to the new event or person.

Some researchers prefer the terms flexible, active or feisty, and cautious instead of the somewhat judgmental terms of easy, difficult, and slow-to-adapt, respectively.

Clearly, these three temperamental types that Thomas and Chess identified did not include all of the variations seen in children across the entire sample. About one third of the children showed mixed profiles. Nonetheless, these temperamental classifications became highly influential in child development research. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the NYLS, however, was Thomas and Chess's emphasis on "goodness of fit"; that is, they maintained that the child's temperament by itself was not the most important consideration in his or her growth and development, but the extent to which that temperament agreed with the values, expectations, and style of the child's environment, whether family , childcare setting, school, or culture. For example, a quiet and serious child fits in well with a family of scholars or intellectuals, whereas an intense, active, and easily distracted child may not be accepted as readily in the same family context. In terms of culture, some ethnic groups place a high value on self-control and relating well to others, while other groups emphasize assertiveness and independence. A child who has a high energy level and reacts intensely to persons and events will have a better fit with the second group than with the first. The notion of goodness of fit also helps to explain why some children in a given family seem to get along better with their parents than their siblings do. Even though temperament is thought to be rooted in biology, different children in the same family may have very different temperaments.

TRAIT APPROACHES Some approaches to the study of temperament emphasize traits; that is, they assume that temperamental qualities can be rated as persisting within individuals across time in a variety of situations. In 1984, as published in their book, Temperament: Early Developing Personality Traits, Arnold Buss and others considered temperaments to be heritable and stable personality profilesprofiles that are genetically influenced and relatively unchanging over time. These researchers used maternal questionnaires to gather information on children's emotionality, activity, and sociability, traits they regarded as the fundamental dimensions of temperament. Interestingly, Buss and Plomin suggested that children who are rated as extreme on these dimensions may be qualitatively different from those whose scores lie closer to the middle.

Basic emotions were at the core of H. Hill Goldsmith and Joseph Campos's conception of temperament. In 1983, in an essay included in Socio-Emotional Development, they described temperament in terms of individual differences in experiencing and expressing such primary emotions as anger, fear , and pleasure. Goldsmith and Campos, however, emphasized the speed and intensity of children's responses to stimuli as well as the specific emotions involved. Their evaluations were based on three measurements: threshold (the amount of stimulation the child requires before responding); latency to respond (how rapidly the child reacts to the stimulus); and intensity of response.

In 2004, Mary Rothbart emphasized reactivity and self-regulation as core processes in organizing temperamental profiles. These processes, she believed, can be seen in six significant infant behaviors: smiling; distress when confronted by limitations; fear; activity level; soothability, and duration of orienting (how long the baby plays with or pays attention to a single object). Her Infant Behavior Questionnaire (IBQ), which was developed in the early 1980s, remained, as of 2004, one of the most widely used methods of assessing temperament in infants between the ages of three months and 12 months. In the first version of the IBQ, published in 1981, parents were asked to rate the frequency of these temperament-related behaviors in their child over a two-week period. The revised version of the IBQ, known as the IBQ-R, was developed by Rothbart and her colleague Masha Gartstein in the early 2000s. The IBQ-R expanded the original six measures of temperament to 14. The new measurements include the following:

  • Approach: The infant's excitement and looking forward to a pleasurable experience or activity.
  • Vocal reactivity: The baby's level of vocal responses to stimuli in its daily routine.
  • Perceptual sensitivity: The infant's ability to detect low-intensity stimuli in its environment.
  • Sadness.
  • High-intensity pleasure: The infant's reactions to pleasurable stimuli or activities of high intensity, such as loud music or bright lights.
  • Low-intensity pleasure.
  • Cuddliness: The infant's physical and emotional responses to being held or cuddled by a parent or caregiver.
  • Rate of recovery from distress: How long it takes the infant to return to a normal level of emotion after an exciting or upsetting experience and how readily the child falls asleep.

In contrast to Goldsmith and Campos, Rothbart emphasized cognitive processes in children as the key to understanding temperament rather than emotions by themselves. For Rothbart and her colleagues, the infant's ability to focus its attention is the basis of its later ability to regulate its reactions to people and events. In Rothbart's view, what she calls the attentional system allows the child to regulate his or her outward behavior as well as internal reactions to stimuli. As children mature, they develop the ability to turn their attention to alternative strategies when they are frustrated and to make plans in order to achieve their goals. Different patterns of self-regulation in turn help to explain differences in temperament.

Goldsmith and Rothbart collaborated to develop an assessment tool to gauge temperamental dimension based on systematic observations of behaviors elicited under standard laboratory conditions (for example, how a child reacts to a mechanical spider). The development of an observational protocol or test for assessing temperamental characteristics offers an advantage over reliance on questionnaires. When parents describe their children's behavior, they are influenced by their feelings about the child as well as their observations. In addition, the parents' reports include many sources of information such that reports of the child's behavior cannot be easily separated from the parents' biases, values, or expectations.

TYPE APPROACHES Another major approach to the study of temperament distinguishes among types of people characterized by different patterns of behavior. In the 1990s, in Galen's Prophecy, Jerome Kagan and his colleagues studied two types of children whom they defined as inhibited and uninhibited (or exuberant) respectively. Kagan's group studied the development of these two types of children through adolescence as well as the infant profiles that predicted the children's behavior at later ages. At early ages, inhibited children cling to their mothers and may cry and hesitate when confronted with unfamiliar persons or events. These children appear to be timid and shy and represent about 20 percent of volunteer Caucasian samples. Uninhibited or exuberant children, on the other hand, approach new events and persons without hesitation or trepidation. They appear fearless and sociable and represent about 40 percent of volunteer samples. Kagan's observations of these children over time indicated that these characteristic profiles tended to continue, although the display of temperamental tendencies varied in accordance with the child's developmental level. An older inhibited child or teenager, for example, may not cling to his or her mother or cry when coming to an unfamiliar laboratory but may hesitate to talk to the examiner and may smile infrequently.

Interestingly, Kagan found that the behavioral profiles of these children were accompanied by physiologic profiles that suggested different levels of reactivity in the children's central nervous systems, particularly in regard to fear and stress reactions. Inhibited, compared to uninhibited, children tended to have higher and more stable heart rates, higher levels of stress-related hormones like cortisol and norephinephrine, larger changes in blood pressure in response to stressors, and measurable tension in their voices when speaking under mildly stressful conditions. These differences seemed to support the contention that temperamental categories have a biological dimension.

Although young infants are not sufficiently mature to demonstrate timidity in response to new experiences, the reactivity of the structures in the human nervous system that are thought to underlie inhibited and uninhibited temperaments may appear at early ages. When infants are exposed to variations in the sights and sounds in their environment, some become aroused and demonstrate this arousal by moving their arms and legs and fretting or crying. Other infants remain calm, relatively motionless, and do not cry. Those who are highly reactive to stimulation tend to become inhibited in their reactions to novelty and uncertainty at later ages. Those whose reactivity level is low in infancy tend to grow into children who remain relaxed in novel situations so that they appear outgoing and uninhibited.

MALLEABILITY OF TEMPERAMENT Malleability refers to the extent to which temperament can be influenced or reshaped by later life events. The reader should note that the continuity of temperamental profiles from infancy through later ages is a group phenomenon; that is, individual children may change and become more or less inhibited while the groups of children remain distinct on average. Neither temperament nor biology is destiny. Temperament and environment both influence development, although relatively few researchers have studied the interaction of these two influences as of the early 2000s.

Research in early 2000s about temperament

In the early 2000s, research on temperament in children and adolescents is making use of new brain imaging technology to expand understanding of the biological processes that influence emotional self-regulation and task-related activities. This technology is known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Functional magnetic resonance imaging is based on the fact that activity in a specific part of the brain is accompanied by an increased flow of blood to that region. As the blood flow increases, the amount of deoxyhemoglobin, a form of hemoglobin that has lost its oxygen content, decreases in the affected area of the brain. Since the amount of deoxyhemoglobin in the blood affects the magnetic resonance image signal, it can be used as the source of the signal for fMRI. This discovery means that fMRI studies can be conducted without injecting radioactive materials into a subject's blood. In addition, it means that usable MRI images can be obtained in a very short period of time (1.52 minutes on average) rather than the longer periods of testing required when radioactive materials are used.

FMRI has many beneficial applications, ranging from more accurate planning for brain surgery to more effective pain management . In terms of the study of temperament, fMRI allows researchers to study such complex brain activities as problem-solving as well as visual and auditory (hearing) perception. In 2003, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) began a study that uses fMRI technology on 60 children and adolescents between the ages of nine and 16. The study is designed to test the hypothesis that differences in temperament related to differences in brain functioning put some children at an increased risk of certain psychiatric disorders later in life. The type of child that Kagan's research group identified as inhibited, for example, appears to have the same pattern of disturbed nerve cell activity that has been identified in adults diagnosed with mood or anxiety disorders. Specifically, inhibited children seem to have a higher level of activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which regulates emotion, and a lower than average level of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which governs a person's ability to express emotions. Exuberant children, on the other hand, are thought to have a relatively high level of activity in the prefrontal cortex in response to certain stimuli.

In addition to its usefulness in studying the parts of the brain that are activated by sensory perception, thinking, and emotional responses to various stimuli, fMRI may also be helpful in distinguishing between problem behaviors in children that are rooted in temperament and behaviors that indicate a psychological problem. As of the early 2000s, research in the area of temperament has not been closely coordinated with research in childhood psychiatric disorders; as a result, both the causes and treatments of these disorders were, as of 2004, not well understood. Child psychiatrists have already observed that avoidant personality disorder (APD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are closely linked to the inhibited type of temperament as described in Kagan's work. To give another example, such temperamental traits as irritability and strong negative reactivity are thought to contribute to the development of oppositional defiant disorder in some children. Lastly, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is thought to be heavily influenced by genetic factors affecting the child's temperament, including the production and metabolism of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that affect the child's ability to focus his or her attention.

Common problems

The following are some of the problems that may arise in connection with differences in children's temperaments:

  • Parents tend to regard certain characteristics as negative rather than as potentially positive. For example, a child's slowness to adapt may be seen as a drawback rather than as a protection against the dangers of impetuosity or being overly influenced by peer pressure.
  • Behavioral problems are related to a poor fit between parent and child. Pediatricians often see families in which a vicious circle of negative interactions develops. The most common example is an angry reaction to a difficult child's aggressiveness or restlessness that takes the form of scolding or spanking. The child reacts to the parents' negative actions by increased aggressiveness, temper tantrums , or stubbornness. Another common pattern is the shy or inhibited child who becomes even more withdrawn when parents react to the shyness by lecturing or shaming the child.
  • Favoritism becomes a factor when some parents find it much easier to relate to a child with a flexible temperament or one whose temperament matches their own than to a child who does not fit in as well. They may ignore the child they find less agreeable or punish him or her unfairly.

Parental concerns

Common parental concerns about evaluations of their children's temperament include the following:

  • Fears about labeling or stigmatization: Some parents are concerned about the reactions of teachers or other adults if their child is identified as "difficult." This fear is one reason why some researchers prefer to describe children in this category as "active" or "feisty" rather than to use the negative term difficult.
  • Concerns about fairness: Parents whose children have different temperaments are sometimes concerned that treating the children differently will be perceived as unfair or unjust.
  • Concerns about the parent-child bond: Some parents worry about their ability to relate to a child with a difficult temperament or one whose temperament is different from their own. They may feel guilty about their negative emotional reactions toward such a child and doubt their ability to be good parents.

When to call the doctor

As has already been mentioned, it is not always easy for parents to distinguish between a child with a "difficult" temperament whose behaviors are still within the normal range and a child with a psychiatric disorder. Some guidelines that have been given by pediatricians include the following:

  • The specific problem behavior(s) cannot be attributed to the child's developmental stage (such as "the terrible twos").
  • The child's problematic behaviors occur frequently.
  • The child has several problematic behaviors.
  • The child's behaviors are interfering with his or her social and intellectual development.


Amygdala An almond-shaped brain structure in the limbic system that is activated in stressful situations to trigger the emotion of fear. It is thought that the emotional overreactions in Alzheimer's patients are related to the destruction of neurons in the amygdala.

Cortisol A steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex that is important for maintenance of body fluids, electrolytes, and blood sugar levels. Also called hydrocortisone.

Goodness of fit A term first used by Thomas and Chess to describe the importance of children's interactions with their environment as well as their basic temperament in understanding their later growth and development.

Inhibited A type of child defined by Jerome Kagan and his colleagues as having a low level of responsiveness to strangers, a reluctance to initiate activities, and requiring a long time to relax in new situations. Children with inhibited temperaments appear to be more susceptible to anxiety disorders, depression, and certain personality disorders in their later years.

Malleability A term that refers to the adaptability of human temperament; the extent to which it can be reshaped.

Neurotransmitter A chemical messenger that transmits an impulse from one nerve cell to the next.

Norepinephrine A hormone secreted by certain nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system, and by the medulla (center) of the adrenal glands. Its primary function is to help maintain a constant blood pressure by stimulating certain blood vessels to constrict when the blood pressure falls below normal.

Personality The organized pattern of behaviors and attitudes that makes a human being distinctive. Personality is formed by the ongoing interaction of temperament, character, and environment.

Protocol A plan for carrying out a scientific study or a patient s course of treatment.

Reactivity The level or intensity of a person's physical or emotional excitability.

Temperament A person's natural disposition or inborn combination of mental and emotional traits.

Threshold The minimum level of stimulation necessary to produce a response.

Trait A distinguishing feature of an individual.

Type A category used to define personality, usually based on a theory of some kind. Inhibited and uninhibited are examples of personality types.

See also Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); Magnetic resonance imaging; Personality development.



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Doreen Arcus, PhD

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Temperament is defined as biologically based individual differences in emotional and motor reactivity, attention, and self-regulation (Rothbart and Bates 1998). Temperament is an aspect of personality that is seen in human infants and in other animals; it constitutes the core of the developing personality. Temperamental characteristics are dispositions or capacities; temperament is not seen continually, but only in situations that bring out the reaction or the capacity. There has been increasing interest in the possibility that biologically based temperament will affect children's social experiences and personality development. Taking temperament into account emphasizes what the child brings to the family, and the way parenting and child temperament work together to influence the child's social development. Temperament is also related to adult patterns in forming a family and having children.

Measurement of Temperament

Methods of measuring temperament include self-report and caregiver-report questionnaires, laboratory observations, and home observations (Roth-bart and Bates 1998). Questionnaires ask parents and other caregivers to report on the behaviors of their children, and the researcher then combines this information across situations and conditions for a measure of temperament. For older children and adults, self-reported feelings and behaviors in specific situations are also assessed. With the exception of reports of sadness, moderate levels of agreement are generally found between children's and parents' reports of the child's temperament.

Strengths of questionnaires as a method for measuring temperament include the broad range of information they can assess and the ease of their administration. Limitations include the possibility that parents may describe their child in a generally positive (or negative) way. Many studies, however, have found significant agreement between questionnaires and other measures of temperament (Rothbart and Bates 1998).

Laboratory studies focus on children's reactions to presentations that are likely to lead to an emotion, action, or focus of attention, comparing one child's reaction with that of other children. The child's behavior in the home has also been observed. Strengths of laboratory methods include the ability to use standard situations to elicit temperament in all children, and to measure heart rate and other psychological reactions. Limitations of the laboratory include high cost and emotional carryover from one measure to another. Use of home observations permits researchers to see the child's temperamental responding in a natural setting, but home observations lack the standardized control of the situation allowed by the laboratory.

The Structure of Temperament

Groundwork was laid for research on temperament in childhood by Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and their colleagues in the New York Longitudinal Study (Thomas et al. 1963). They analyzed interviews with parents about behaviors of their two-to-six-month-old infants, and identified nine dimensions of temperament: activity level, approach/withdrawal to new situations, adaptability to the desires of the parent, mood (positive versus negative), threshold, intensity, distractability, rhythmicity, and attention span/persistence.

Major revisions to this list have been proposed, based on factor analytic research on children's temperament. Factor analysis examines correlations among items or variables to determine which items or scales cluster together and which are relatively unrelated. The list of temperament dimensions in infancy and early childhood includes activity level, positive affectivity, fearfulness, anger/frustration, and by early childhood, effortful control (Rothbart and Mauro 1990). Effortful control refers to the capacity to inhibit a dominant response, such as opening a present, in order to perform a less dominant response, such as waiting for the appropriate occasion.

Studies of temperament in childhood have identified three broad factors of individual differences (Rothbart and Bates 1998). The first is surgency or extraversion, including activity level, high-intensity pleasure (risk seeking), impulsivity, positive excitement, smiling and laughter, and low shyness. The second is negative emotionality, including discomfort, sadness, anger/frustration, fear, and low soothability. The third is effortful control, including inhibitory control, attention, perceptual sensitivity, and low-intensity pleasure. Data on a large sample of toddlers in the Australian Temperament Project have yielded broad factors of negative emotionality, self-regulation, and sociability (Prior et al. 1989) that are very similar to negative emotionality, effortful control, and extraversion/surgency.


Some psychologists have suggested that there are categories or types of people based on their temperament. Jerome Kagan (1998), for example, has argued that behaviorally inhibited and uninhibited children are two temperament types. Thomas and Chess (1977) described types of children labeled difficult, easy, and slow to warm up. In their view, difficult children were high on negative mood, withdrawal, adaptability, intensity, and low on rhythmicity, whereas easy children were defined by the opposite pattern. Slow to warm up children were seen as having mild, negative reactions to new stimuli, adapting slowly to the new situations. Because the factor analysis on which their typology was based has not held up in later research, the term difficult has not had consistent meanings. There are other problems with typologies: often many children do not fall into any of the categories. In addition, one of the types is often judged as negative, leading to expectations of future negative behavior from the child that may not be justified. John Bates's (1980) view of difficultness as defined by negative emotionality and demandingness has been a helpful contribution to the field, but his definition does not require the use of a typology.

The end of the twentieth century brought additional typologies of temperament (Robins, John, and Caspi 1997) related to Jack and Jeanne Block's (1980) categories of personality. One type, called overcontrollers, includes children who appear to be high in control of their impulses, often showing rigid patterns of behavior. Undercontrollers include children who are impulsive and who may act aggressively against others. A third type, resilients, includes children who respond in a flexible way to the demands of the environment. The expectation would be that overcontrollers would be high on fearfulness, undercontrollers would be high on surgency, low on fear and effortful control, and probably also high on anger/frustration. Resilient children would likely be high on effortful control. Future research may bring typologies and more dimensional approaches together.

Stability and Development of Temperament

Looking at children's temperament across time and development, seven-year-old temperament has been predicted by laboratory measures of fear, anger, and positive affect/surgency in infancy (Rothbart, Derryberry, and Hershey 2000), although attention showed little stability from infancy. This is probably related to the relatively later development of the executive attention system. As this system develops, the child's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can come increasingly under self-control (Posner and Rothbart 1998). By the age of four, children's ability to delay going after a reward predicts higher achievement and greater emotional control in adolescence. Avshalom Caspi and Phil Silva (1995) found that children who were high on approach or confidence at three to four were also more impulsive at age eighteen, and higher on social potency, that is, taking charge of situations. More fearful children at age three to four were later higher on harm avoidance (avoidance of danger), lower on aggression, and lower on social potency. Children's distress proneness, when combined with lack of attentional control at three to four years, predicted higher distress tendencies at age eighteen.

The same longitudinal study (Caspi et al. 1995) predicted behavior problems at age fifteen from behavior at three to five years. Preschool approach predicted later lower anxiety and withdrawal in boys, and preschool distress combined with lack of attentional control predicted problems such as impulsivity and aggression, in both boys and girls. A number of links have now been identified between temperament and the development of psychopathology (see review by Rothbart and Bates 1998), as well as between temperament and health status, including adolescent substance use (Wills et al. 2002).


Temperament, conscience, and discipline. Temperament measures allow study of the way temperament and social experience influence each other in personality development. For example, children's fearful temperament interacts with their treatment by parents in the development of conscience. Grazyna Kochanska (1995) found that more fearful children showed greater early development of conscience than less fearful children. She also found that gentle parenting (without using punishment) predicted conscience development among fearful children, but not among fearless children. In contrast, moral behavior of less fearful and more uninhibited children, but not fearful children, was greater when their mothers were responsive and when the mother/child attachment was secure (Kochanska 1995).

Kochanska's studies suggest that there are different developmental pathways to conscience for children who are temperamentally different. Gentle discipline de-emphasizing power may fit well by not allowing fearful children's arousal to reach such high levels that the child cannot take in parental messages. The use of power and punishment may raise these children's arousal to levels that may interfere with internalizing parent messages. Gentle discipline does not, however, promote morality in fearless children, who appear to be more sensitive to rewards associated with responsive parenting and to a close relationship with their parent.

Temperament and attachment. Attachment refers to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors shown by a child in a close relation to others, most often the mother or other primary caregiver. Although research findings have not been altogether consistent, there are reports of significant relationships between temperament and attachment measures (Rothbart and Bates 1998). One of the most interesting was reported by Dymphna van den Boom (1989). She found that infants who were irritable as newborns were more likely to be insecurely attached to their mothers at the end of the first year than nonirritable newborns. In a second study, van den Boom enrolled irritable newborn infants and their mothers for an intervention study. One group of mothers was taught parenting skills, including how to soothe and play with their babies; another group was not. With intervention, the trained mothers became more responsive to their babies, and more of their infants were identified as secure in their attachment at one year. Continued positive effects of this intervention on children's social behavior have been found for the children up to ages two and three years (van den Boom 1995).

Goodness of fit. Thomas and Chess developed the idea of goodness of fit to think about how temperament and parenting may interact to influence children's adjustment. Goodness of fit was said to result "when the child's capacities, motivations, and temperament are adequate to master the demands, expectations, and opportunities of the environment" (Chess and Thomas 1989, p. 380). The idea behind this concept is that different family situations may be a better fit for some children than others, depending on the child's temperament. Parents may also place different values on temperament-related behaviors. Behaviors seen as negative by parents would be considered a "poor fit." Thus, behaviors of an extraverted child may match one parent's values, but be seen as inappropriate by other parents.

Chess and Thomas (1984) gave as an example of poor fit the case of Roy, a highly distractible child. As an infant, Roy's distractibility allowed parental soothing to be quick and effective. Later, however, the distractibility that had been helpful to the parent in infancy was a problem as Roy became unreliable and forgetful as an older child. His mother nagged him to get things done, and in time, Roy ignored his mother's messages. This, in turn, led Roy's mother to judge him in negative terms. Roy's behavior did not improve, and the mother did not recognize that what had made him a good baby was now leading to unreliable behavior at home and at school that led her to judge him negatively. Although goodness of fit has been difficult to study, there is now some evidence of relations between goodness of fit, higher achievement, and more positive classroom behaviors (Paterson and Sanson 1999).

Additional Influences on Temperament and Parenting

Other factors may influence the relationship between temperament and parenting (Sanson and Rothbart 1995). These include the age and sex of the child, as well as social factors. In studies of mothers' responses to children's temperament, similar behaviors may lead to different responses depending on the child's age. At younger ages in infancy (e.g., six and twelve months), higher distress is related to more mother involvement. At later ages (e.g., eighteen and twenty-four months), the same behavior is related to lower mother involvement (Sanson and Rothbart 1995). Parents may begin by showing greater effort in raising a distress-prone child, but may not be able to sustain the effort over time and development.

Differences have also been found in parents' reactions to similar behaviors depending on the child's sex. More positive response to boys' than girls' irritability and negative emotion has been found, especially from fathers (Sanson and Roth-bart 1995). Different beliefs of parents about how acceptable a temperamental attribute is for boys and girls might lead to different parent responses to similar behaviors from girls or boys.

Some studies examining the relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and temperament have found no relationship. In a study of temperament and parenting in children aged three to four years, however, Margot Prior, Ann Sanson, and their colleagues (1989) found twice as many significant correlations between temperament and parenting measures in a high SES group than in a low SES group. The authors interpreted this as evidence of possible greater sensitivity and accommodation to the individuality of their children among high SES mothers.

Temperament and marriage. Temperament's relevance to marriage and the family involves adults as well as children. For example, temperament is related to age of marriage and of having children. In both U.S. and Swedish samples, childhood shyness was found to be related to later age of marriage and having children for men, but not for women (Kerr, Lambert, and Bem 1996). These findings suggest a tendency of less outgoing men to be less forward in the mating area. For women, these characteristics may be less important.

With data from a longitudinal sample followed for thirty years beginning at ages eight to ten, Avshalom Caspi, Glen Elder, and Daryl Bem (1989) found similar marriage patterns in adults who were shy as children. Men who were shy as children married an average of three years later, became fathers an average of four years later, and entered into a career path an average of three years later than men who were not shy as children. Childhood shyness in females predicted more traditional marriage and career paths, although women who were shy in childhood married at the same age as their nonshy counterparts, they spent fewer years in the workforce than women who were outgoing in childhood (Caspi, Elder, and Bem 1989).

Caspi, Elder, and Bem (1987) also examined the life-course patterns of adults with a history of explosive behaviors as children. Men who were illtempered as children (showing frequent and severe tantrums) were more likely to divorce and to have erratic work lives in comparison with men who were not ill-tempered as children. Women with histories of childhood tantrums tended to marry men with lower occupational status, were likely to divorce, and were considered to be illtempered as mothers (Caspi, Elder, and Bem 1987).

Differences in marital and family functioning have also been related to child temperament (Stoneman, Brody, and Burke 1989). For both fathers and mothers, consistent ratings of their older girls' temperamental difficulty (defined by Stone-man et al. as active and emotional) was related to decreased marital satisfaction and a less positive family climate in two-child families. Marital and family distresses were also related to having two temperamentally difficult siblings.

Temperament and culture. Numerous studies have found both similarities in the structure of temperament across cultures, and differences in levels of temperament between children of different cultures. A study of children's temperament in the People's Republic of China found lower surgency and higher negative affect than in a U.S. sample, with the two cultures also showing differences in relations among temperament variables (Ahadi; Rothbart; and Ye 1993). In the United States, but not China, children with higher effortful control were reported to have lower negative affectivity (fear, sadness, etc.). In China, but not the United States, higher effortful control was related to lower surgency. Culture may influence behaviors of children seen as worthy of control, and these behaviors can vary across cultures. In the United States, it may be more important to control negative feelings, whereas in China, stress may be placed on controlling one's outgoing and impulsive behaviors.

In an examination of relationships among culture, parental attitudes, and temperament, Xinyin Chen and colleagues (1998) studied two-year-old Chinese children in the People's Republic of China and Caucasian children in Canada. Chinese children were significantly more inhibited than the Canadian children, and inhibition was related to more acceptance and warmth from the Chinese mothers. In Canadian children, inhibition was negatively related to mothers' acceptance and encouragement. Again, there is the suggestion that cultural values may shape temperament by encouraging valued and discouraging de-valued characteristics.


This review has focused on individual differences in temperament and development, including family interaction. However, temperamental individuality among adult partners and its relation to family functioning is worthy of greater research interest. Future research on marriage and family processes should increasingly make use of measures of individual differences in temperament. Results of these studies, in turn, can be applied to marriage and family counseling. A temperament approach adds complexity to our view of childrearing and our thinking about how families function, but it also offers possibilities for increased understanding that would not be possible with simple, one-directional views of how parents influence children.

See also:Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Childhood, Stages of: Infancy; Conduct Disorder; Developmental Psychopathology; Discipline; Juvenile Delinquency; Oppositionality; Parenting Styles; Shyness


ahadi, s. a.; rothbart, m. k.; and ye, r. m. (1993). "children's temperament in the u.s. and china: similarities and differences." european journal of personality 7:359–377.

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In contrast to theories that attribute variation in behavior primarily to socialization influences, temperament refers to early-appearing emotional, physiological, and attentional tendencies that, in interaction with the environment, organize the development of stable traits. Because a common focus on consistency of traits over time unites concepts of personality and temperament, temperament has been construed as an intrinsic core around which personality emerges.

A useful distinction between temperament and personality is that the latter includes a broader array of constructs involving more socially constructed cognitive attributes, such as morality, self-concepts, and beliefs. Temperament refers to more basic and overt behavioral tendencies. The more specific nature of temperament allows for coordination of adult research with investigations of infants and nonhuman animals, including the exploration of neural systems associated with temperament traits.

Although ideas regarding temperament appear in the writings of Greco-Roman physicians, the preeminence of the socialization models inherent in learning and psychoanalytic theories in the first half of the twentieth century prevented temperament concepts from receiving substantial attention from developmental psychologists until the 1960s. Two developments contributed to increased consideration of temperament during the latter half of the twentieth century. The first involved observations made by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess (1977) of children experiencing psychological dysfunction despite being raised in well-functioning homes. A second and more recent advance concerns increasing sophistication of neuroscience measures and corresponding theories that have allowed for greater precision in linking activity in the brain to individual differences in behavior.


Subtle differences exist in the boundaries researchers have used to define temperament. Early descriptions of temperament primarily considered susceptibility to, and severity and pervasiveness of, affective displays and included evidence of genetic origins and appearance during the first year as hallmarks (Goldsmith et al. 1987). More contemporary perspectives soften these boundaries, additionally focusing on attentional and behavioral processes that alter the course of emotional responses, and allowing for environmental influences.

In the early twenty-first century, the most frequently cited definition of temperament is that proposed in 1981 by Mary K. Rothbart and Douglas Derryberry: constitutionally based, relatively stable individual differences in emotional, motor, and attentional reactivity and self-regulation. The term constitutionally refers to the role of biological underpinnings, shaped by heredity, maturation, and interactions with the environment. Stable refers to consistency both over situations and over time. Reactivity involves latencies, intensity, and duration of behavioral, affective, and physiological reactions to changes in the environment. Self-regulation refers to attentional processes, such as orienting and focusing, and behaviors, such as approach and withdrawal, that modulate reactivity.


Temperament is assessed through structured and naturalistic observations made in the laboratory and the home, and through parent- and self-report questionnaires (the latter from older children and adults). Naturalistic observations maximize external validity but are time-consuming and often demonstrate low consistency across measurement periods. Laboratory assessments allow for tighter control of eliciting contexts, but ethical and practical limitations constrain the type of traits that can be assessed and may result in carryover effects from one procedure to another. The use of questionnaires allows for measurement of child behavior across a wide range of situations but can be contaminated by reporting bias. Despite the differences among assessment strategies, Rothbart and John E. Bates, in their 2006 examination of several studies, demonstrated convergence across measures.

Because of their ability to efficiently assess multiple aspects of behavior, questionnaires have been instrumental in identifying important temperament dimensions. Studies conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s have used factor analysis of finely differentiated attributes to elucidate high-order traits. In a 2001 paper, Samuel P. Putnam, Lesa K. Ellis, and Rothbart describe three similar factors that have emerged from different questionnaires and across the lifespan. These factors also bridge gaps between personality and temperament traditions, as they bear resemblance to three of the Big Five traits commonly reported in adult personality studies. The first, labeled surgency and resembling the personality construct of extraversion, includes activity level, sociability, impulsivity, and enjoyment of high-intensity activities. The second, negative affectivity, is conceptually similar to neuroticism and includes sadness, anger, fear, and discomfort. The third, referred to as orienting/regulating in infancy and as effortful control thereafter, includes enjoyment of low-intensity activities, attentional focusing and shifting, and inhibitory control, and bears similarity to the personality construct of conscientiousness.


Rothbart and Bates (2006) review studies of twins and adopted children that indicate significant genetic effects on temperament, as well as describe more recent molecular genetic investigations that suggest specific genes underlying temperamental traits. Evidence of biological underpinnings suggests that temperament traits should be stable across time, and this is true to an extent. Several studies have supported predicted associations between infancy and middle childhood, but these relations are often fairly modest. More robust stability is found after the age of three years, and longitudinal studies conducted by Avshalom Caspi and colleagues (2003) have confirmed relations between temperament at age three and personality at age twenty-six. In their 2000 review, Brent W. Roberts and Wendy F. DelVecchio found that stability estimates increase throughout much of adulthood.

Multiple factors account for increasing estimates of stability with age. The first concerns the difficulty of measuring the same construct at differing developmental points, as both the expressions and elicitors of temperament change with maturation. The second explanation is that real change in the traits may occur because of environmental influences, and plasticity in systems underlying temperament may decrease over time. Finally, it is now recognized that temperament itself develops. Of primary importance is the emergence of regulatory capabilities that modulate earlier-appearing reactive tendencies. One such shift occurs in the second half of the first year, as fear-related behavioral inhibition alters the expression of approach motivation. Throughout the toddler and preschool periods, dramatic increases in effortful attentional and behavioral control allow for greater flexibility in the expression of other predispositions. Individual differences in maturation rates compound the appearance of instability.

The dominance of learning theories in explaining individual differences has given way to greater appreciation for inborn, biologically mediated predispositions that shape personal characteristics. Several temperament characteristics exhibit normative developmental change but also demonstrate interindividual stability over long periods. With advances in both measurement of genetic and neural processes and in theories explaining how biology and environment interact to form developmental pathways, our understanding of temperament is sure to show dramatic gains in the near future.

SEE ALSO Personality; Trait Theory


Caspi, Avshalom, HonaLee Harrington, Barry Milne, et al. 2003. Childrens Behavioral Styles at Age 3 Are Linked to Their Adult Personality Traits at Age 26. Journal of Personality 71 (4): 495513.

Goldsmith, H. Hill, Arnold H. Buss, Robert Plomin, et al. 1987. Roundtable: What Is Temperament? Four Approaches.Child Development 58 (2): 505529.

Putnam, Samuel P., Lesa K. Ellis, and Mary K. Rothbart. 2001. The Structure of Temperament from Infancy through Adolescence. In Advances in Research on Temperament, eds. Andrzej Eliasz and Alois Angleitner, 165182. Lengerich, Germany: Pabst Scientist Publisher.

Roberts, Brent W., and Wendy F. DelVecchio. 2000. The RankOrder Consistency of Personality Traits from Childhood to Old Age: A Quantitative Review of Longitudinal Studies. Psychological Bulletin 126 (1): 325.

Rothbart, Mary K., and John E. Bates. 2006. Temperament. In Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, ed. Nancy Eisenberg, 99166. Vol. 3 of Handbook of Child Psychology, eds. William Damon and Richard M. Lerner. 6th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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Thomas, Alexander, and Stella Chess. 1977. Temperament and Development. New York: Bruner/Mazel.

Samuel P. Putnam

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An individual's characteristic emotional nature, including energy level, prevailing mood and sensitivity to stimulation.

Individual variations in temperament are most readily observed in newborn babies. Even immediately after birth , some babies are calm while others cry a lot. Some respond favorably to being held while others squirm and protest. Some are soothed by soft music and others do not stop crying long enough to hear it. Because of these immediately observable variations, temperament is often considered a biologically based characteristic.

Hippocrates discussed variations in temperament as early as the 5th century b.c. His hypothesis that there are four basic human temperaments that correspond to various bodily characteristicscholeric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic endured for many years before modern theories became accepted. American psychologist Gordon Allport (1897-1967), who came to dislike psychoanalytic theory and behaviorism because of their emphasis on seeking universal theories to explain all human behavior and disorders, believed temperament was one of three "raw materials" that distinguish individuals from one another and from other living beings. Along with intelligence and physique, temperament was genetically determined and unique within each person. Allport wrote that temperament includes a person's susceptibility to emotional stimulation, strength and speed of response, and mood . In a longitudinal study in New York starting in 1956 with data from more than 100 children that they tracked through adolescence , child psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas identified at birth nine different temperament characteristics. These characteristics, which could be observed at widely varying degrees in babies influenced their development: activity level, rhythmicity or regularity in biological functions, tendency to approach or withdraw, adaptability, threshold of responsiveness, intensity or energy level of reactions, quality of mood, distractibility and attention span, and persistence. From these nine dimensions emerged three major temperamental types: easy-going children, difficult children, and slow-to-warm-up children. Chess and Thomas also examined the goodness of fit between the individual child and the environment of the child.

Assuming that temperamental qualities can be rated on continuous dimensions across individuals, some approaches focus the study of temperament on traits . Isabel Myers, with her mother, Katherine Briggs, published the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in 1962, identifying 16 different behavior patterns and drawing upon Carl Jung's four psychological types. The test was widely used by psychologists in individual and couples counseling, as well as in business to provide greater self-understanding. Adults as well as children display temperaments that are individually and uniquely determined by biology. Discussion in this field has centered on the degree to which temperament is inborn nature and the degree to which temperament is nurtured or coaxed along by an infant or child's environment.

While supporting the belief that temperament is biologically based, many personality experts also maintain that temperament can develop and change over the course of a person's life in response to personal experiences and environmental conditions. Fussy babies can grow to be placid toddlers. Similarly, passive infants sometimes grow up to be classroom troublemakers. Interaction with parents, siblings, and other social contacts as well as life experiences affect an individual's predisposition toward a particular temperament. Doreen Arcus in her study observed infants in their homes for their first year of life. Highly reactive infants were less likely to become timid and inhibited one-year-olds when their mothers were firm and direct in their limit-setting behavior in response to infant transgressions like pulling at plants or getting into the cat food. When mothers were highly permissive and indirect in their discipline, highly reactive infants tended to become fearful and inhibited. Emmy Werner in a study found that temperament could ease difficult circumstances in the environment. An easy, sociable temperament provided a protective buffer for children growing up in difficult circumstances. The environment can nurture changes both positive and negative to reshape an infant's natural tendencies. Natural tendencies can ameliorate or worsen environmental situations. Acknowledging the interactions of both temperament and environment during development should make possible continued progress in understanding of the intricate multiple influences on a human's life and growth. Neither temperament nor biology is destiny.

Further Reading

Bates, J.E., and Wachs, T.D. Temperament: Individual Differences at the Interface of Biology and Behavior. Washington, D.C.: APA Press, 1994.

Carey, W.B., and McDevitt, S.C. Coping With Children's Temperament: A Guide for Professionals. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Chess, Stella, and Thomas, Alexander. Know Your Child. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1996.

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temperament From at least classical times, temperament has referred to an individual's or a group's consistent and stable pattern of behaviour or reaction, one that persists across time, activity, and space. The roots of the theory of temperament lie in classical Greek medicine and astronomy. A central component of the humoral theory of the body, temperament (‘crasis’ in Greek) denoted the particular balance of the four primary qualities — hot, wet, cold, and dry — characteristic of a given individual in a healthy condition. The mixture was fixed at birth, largely through astrological influences, though modifications could occur with ageing, changes in environment, disease, geography, etc. Although each person was deemed to have his or her own individual temperament, they were generally described as variations on four basic types: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. These states were at once physiological and psychological, denoting both the organization of the internal body and what might be called an attitude toward life. Galen's On Complexions, drawing on Hippocratic sources and the ideas of the Pneumatics, presents an elaborated account of the theory of temperaments (complexio in Latin), one that had much influence on medieval medical authors. According to ancient and medieval medical theory, most internal illnesses could be explained as the result of complexional imbalances, and therapy consisted of various interventions designed to restore the proper mixture of the four elements. Because temperament was understood to be something individual, however, remedies had to be patient-specific, tailored to the unique complexion of the particular sufferer.

The medical theory of temperament began to lose favour in the early modern period. As a characterization of a person's psychological state, however, temperament continued to be employed by both psychologists and the lay public well into the twentieth century. In general, the concept has continued to refer to something both physiological and innate, although there is much dispute in the literature over whether temperaments are inborn or develop early in life through an interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Whatever their origin, it is widely accepted that temperaments both help to shape, and are themselves shaped by, the social environments in which an individual develops and lives, and that they represent styles of thought and behaviour that are both personal and consistent. As an individual develops, it is his or her temperament that helps to orient that development, influencing the growth of both intellect and character along particular lines.

While the possible varieties of temperament are almost limitless, psychologists have identified a number of dimensions — including relative ego strength, radicalism–conservatism, dominance– submissiveness, and extroversion– interoversion — that they believe characterize important aspects of an individual's temperament. Research on temperaments has generally been oriented toward determining whether a functional unity exists within a given constellation of behaviours, so that it can be demonstrated that a recognizable style of action persists from one domain to another. Since the 1950s to 1960s, psychoanalytic ego psychology, personality psychology, and cognitive psychology have all become more interested in the phenomena associated with temperament, seeking to identify and understand individual differences or cognitive styles that are consistent across settings. It remains the case, however, that the term itself has fallen largely into disuse, especially within professional circles.

John Carson

See also personality.

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temperament. Adjustment in tuning (i.e. ‘tempering’) of mus. intervals away from ‘natural’ scale so that such pairs of notes as B♯ and C, or C♯ and D♭, are combined instead of being treated individually. This leaves neither note accurate but sufficiently so for the ear to accept it. In kbd. instr. this avoids unmanageable number of finger-keys. The pf., organ, and other fixed-pitch modern instr., are tuned to equal temperament, in which each semitone is made an equal interval, making it easy to play in any key and to modulate. Before equal temperament (which was introduced for pfs. in Eng. in 1846 and for organs a little later), the commonest system was mean-tone temperament, which left certain keys tolerable, others less so, and some unusable. The untempered scale is known as just intonation. Instr. such as the vn. family can have no system of temperament, the player determining the pitch and checking it by ear. Some 20th-cent. composers have restored 12-note scale to just intonation. Others have used microtonal scales in just relationship. Still more have used ‘prepared’ instr. producing unexpected pitches, or elec. systems, or computers.

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temperament, in music, the altering of certain intervals from their acoustically correct values to provide a system of tuning whereby music can move from key to key without unacceptably impure sonorities. It is particularly necessary for keyboard instruments, the pitches of which cannot be varied in performance. Many systems have been devised, going back to the late 15th cent. "Just Intonation" refers to systems in which some fifths are tuned unacceptably small so that others may be pure. "Temperament" refers to systems that distribute the impurities throughout the tuning. Of these, "Equal Temperament" divides the octave into 12 equal half-steps, leaving all intervals except the octave slightly impure. (see tuning systems).

See S. Isacoff, Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle (2001).

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tem·per·a·ment / ˈtemp(ə)rəmənt/ • n. 1. a person's or animal's nature, esp. as it permanently affects their behavior: she had an artistic temperament. ∎  the tendency to behave angrily or emotionally: he had begun to show signs of temperament. 2. the adjustment of intervals in tuning a piano or other musical instrument so as to fit the scale for use in different keys; in equal temperament, the octave consists of twelve equal semitones.

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"temperament." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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