views updated May 08 2018



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scientific medicine in the seventeenth century as an explanation for differences in human temperament, but it has not been replaced by any single universally accepted theory of personality either.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


views updated May 21 2018


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


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views updated May 29 2018


The word "temperament" is used frequently in everyday speech. People will refer to another person, or even an object, as "temperamental." To social scientists, temperament is not a set of behaviors per se; it is not an ability, such as thinking, or a set of actions, such as playing. Instead, temperament is a behavioral style. It is not what a person does, but how that person does it. It is not that the boy cries, but that he cries frequently. It is not that the girl walks, but that she walks quickly.

In 1987 a prominent cognitive psychologist, Robert McCall, created a definition of temperament that included elements common to the four main theories of temperament at the time. According to McCall, temperament is defined as biologically based individual differences in reactions to the world; these reactions are relatively stable across development. Temperament is not personality but is one of the bases of later personality differences. Personality characteristics include traits and behaviors that are acquired after infancy and some that are not influenced by biological factors. Habits, goals, and self-perceptions are aspects of people's personalities, but they are not temperament traits. Given the complexity of the definition, it may be helpful to discuss the three elements common to all temperament characteristics: (1) the individual differences are present at birth, (2) the differences are inherent in the person, and (3) the differences are stable across development.

Three Common Elements of Temperament Characteristics

The first factor common to all temperament characteristics is that these individual differences are present at birth. Sigmund Freud was the first psychologist to discuss personality development. The purpose of his theory, however, was to explain the common human experience. Freud argued that all children were born with biological drives (e.g., hunger, thirst) that need to be satisfied in order to ensure personal survival. Three mental structures (the id, the ego, and the superego) emerge during childhood and struggle with each other to create the individual's personality. According to Freud, personality differences are not present at birth. Instead, these differences emerge during childhood as each child resolves internal conflict in different ways and in different family contexts. By adolescence, children have developed unique coping styles that are stable into adulthood. Temperament researchers, on the other hand, argue that differences in reactions to the world are present at birth. In addition, few believe that children are constantly struggling to resolve internal conflict during childhood. Children are born with unique behavioral styles that influence their development from the womb until death.

The second element common to all temperament characteristics is that these differences are inherent in the person. Temperament is a biologically based reaction to the world. This does not mean that all temperamental differences are genetically inherited. This is the foundation of Arnold Buss and Robert Plomin's EAS theory of temperament, with EAS standing for the traits found to be heritable during infancy (emotionality, activity, and sociability). Other researchers, however, also include prenatal influences on children's behavior. The idea that traits are biologically based does not mean that these characteristics are resistant to environmental influences. All temperament theorists argue that social experiences can and will change a child's temperament. Inherent simply means that these behavioral styles are not due to parenting. Infants' unique reactions to the world have biological roots. For instance, many children born to mothers addicted to drugs have very difficult temperaments; these children cry often, are hard to console, and do not like to be held. Their behavior is thought to be due to the influence of the drugs on the developing fetus in the womb. Other children may inherit from their parents a tendency to be emotional or shy.

As early as 1699, the philosopher John Locke maintained that children are born with different behavioral tendencies. He also believed that the environment was the strongest force in development. To Locke, social experiences, not temperamental differences, shaped behavior across development. This was the predominant view of children's development until the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess published their classic books about the role of temperament in parent-child relationships and children's social and emotional development. Thomas and Chess argued that children's behavioral problems do not always stem from bad parenting. Instead, some children come into this world with temperament styles that make disciplining them a challenge. Even competent, caring parents may have difficult children and these parents need help learning how to manage their sons and daughters.

Other child psychologists at this time also asserted that children are born equipped with behavioral biases and abilities that affect later development. The cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget described infants as active participants in their own experiences who are motivated to learn how to adapt in their environments. By the end of the 1980s, the child was no longer seen as a piece of clay to be molded into an obedient citizen, but as a force to be guided into a competent adult. It was in this intellectual context that the notion took hold that children are born with unique temperament characteristics.

The third component of all definitions of temperament is that behavioral styles are relatively stable across development. Temperament characteristics can and will change in response to parenting and other social forces. The idea is that the early roots of adult personality can be seen from the beginning. Several studies have included groups of individuals who were followed from birth to adulthood. The findings from these studies regarding stability are mixed. Children's temperament traits do appear to be quite stable through infancy and into childhood. Jerome Kagan and his colleagues studied two extreme groups of children from infancy to adolescence. Members of the first group, behaviorally inhibited children, were very shy and fearful in unfamiliar situations. Members of the second group, behaviorally uninhibited children, were very gregarious and assertive in novel settings. The researchers found that the inhibited children were at greater risk for later social and emotional problems compared to the uninhibited children.

Others have found that children who withdraw from situations or who throw tantrums have more marital and work-related problems in adulthood compared to other children. Temperament measures are good tools to help uncover early adjustment problems. Predicting adult personality from infant temperament, however, is not as easily achieved for those in the middle range compared to those at the extreme ends. Some children change in response to their experiences with their parents, teachers, and peers. In addition, children begin to exert conscious control over their behavioral tendencies during childhood. Part of healthy development is learning how to adapt to the demands of different contexts. Some active children learn restraint and some emotional children learn peacefulness.

Measuring Temperament

While researchers tend to agree on the basic definition of temperament, they differ on the types of temperament styles they investigate. According to McCall, most temperament studies focus on four dimensions: activity, reactivity, emotionality, and sociability. Activity is the intensity and rate of a child's movement and speech. How much does the child move around during play or at her desk at school? Reactivity is the intensity of a child's approach or withdrawal from a situation and how long the child is interested in and stays in the situation. How much does a child withdraw from novel toys or new situations? Emotionality is the degree to which a child expresses negative or positive emotions and how often she expresses them. Does a child get upset easily or become angry quickly? Sociability is the tendency to initiate social contact and the preference to be with others. Is the child friendly?

Not all temperament characteristics fit neatly into these four dimensions. Shyness, for example, has been investigated as an aspect of reactivity (i.e., the tendency to withdraw from new social situations) and as the opposite end of sociability (i.e., the tendency to not want to be around people). While many researchers have focused on one or more of these dimensions, others have categorized children based on combinations of traits and styles.

Thomas and Chess divided children into three categories based on nine temperament dimensions: activity level, approach-withdrawal in new situations, adaptability, threshold of responsiveness, intensity of reactions, quality of mood, distractibility, persistence, and rhythmicity of biological functions (e.g., sleeping, feeding, needing to be changed). They were interested in the "goodness-of-fit" between the children's characteristics and their social environments. Forty percent of the children in their study were classified as "easy" babies. These children adapted easily to new situations, were sociable and playful, and had regular biological functions. These children were not too reactive or emotional, and so they were easy to parent. Another 15 percent of the babies fell into the "slowto-warm-up" category. These children withdrew from new situations somewhat, took a little longer to adapt to environments, and were less active. They needed more attention and time compared to easy babies, but they adapted to their surroundings without too much trouble. About 10 percent of the infants were classified in the "difficult" temperament category. Children with difficult temperaments were very emotional, had irregular biological functions, and had intense negative reactions to new situations. These children were the most difficult to parent and required a great deal of effort, time, and patience. The remaining children fell into more than one category or could not be classified.

Dimensions of temperament are measured in a variety of ways. Parents are interviewed about their children's behavior at home, and teachers are interviewed about the children's behavior at school. Depending on the dimension being assessed, these adults may be asked about children's reactions to new toys or people (i.e., reactivity) or about their energy levels (i.e., activity). Parent and teacher reports of children's behavior may be limited to that context and influenced by their own perceptions of the world (i.e., they may be biased). So, scientists also use behavioral and observational methods to assess children's temperament. Activity level in infancy, for example, can be measured using a device that measures the number of times a baby's arms and legs move. Most of the time, trained researchers observe the children at home, at school, or in a novel environment (e.g., a playroom in a researcher's laboratory). Coders look for visible signs of the child's underlying temperament style. For example, a child who approaches an unfamiliar student on a school playground and talks to the new child would be coded as high in sociability.

Some dimensions of temperament have to be assessed in specific contexts. Reactivity and shyness, for instance, must be observed in novel situations because the behavior of interest may not appear in familiar contexts or may appear for only some children. For example, children who are withdrawn in unfamiliar situations are considered temperamentally shy. Children who are withdrawn in both familiar and unfamiliar situations, on the other hand, are considered anxious and possibly at risk for developing an anxiety disorder. Sometimes children's behavior is ambiguous, so researchers will measure changes in children's physiology as well. Shy children, for instance, tend to experience a higher heart rate when they are in new situations compared to when they are at home. Children are also asked to report their perceptions of their temperament style after around the age of eight. This is when most children are able to report their own behaviors and preferences in a reliable manner. Few studies, however, include self-report measures because most temperament studies focus on children in infancy and early childhood.

Biological Factors

Since theorists have argued that temperament has biological roots, many studies have focused on genetic and neurological correlates of different behavioral styles. Most (if not all) temperament dimensions appear to be moderately heritable, with shyness showing the highest heritability. That is, the more closely people are genetically related, the more alike they are in temperament. Much of the evidence supporting this conclusion comes from twin studies, which compare the behavioral similarity of monozygotic (identical) twin pairs to dizygotic (fraternal) twin pairs. Monozygotic twins inherit identical genotypes because they develop from the same fertilized egg. In contrast, dizygotic twins inherit, on average, 50 percent of their segregating genes. If genetic differences across people are associated with temperament differences across people, then identical twin similarity should be twice as high as fraternal twin similarity. Plomin and others found that this is true for temperament characteristics such as emotionality, activity level, sociability, and shyness.

Interestingly, some studies show that identical twins are more than twice as similar as both fraternal twins and other pairs of relatives (e.g., parents and their children and biologically related siblings). How could this be? David Lykken and his colleagues hypothesized that temperament (and personality) differences are associated with genetic effects that do not run in families. These genetic effects are the result of complex interactions across loci at the level of the genome and across behaviors at the level of the developing person. Only identical twins inherit all the genes associated with these higher-order interactions, and so they will be much more similar to each other compared to other pairs of genetically related relatives. Some social scientists maintain that high identical twin similarity on temperament measures is due to monozygotic twin assimilation effects (i.e., parents treat identical twins more alike compared to fraternal twins) or to measurement problems (i.e., measures are not sensitive enough to detect moderate to low fraternal twin or sibling similarity). Still, few researchers would argue that temperament is completely determined by the environment.

During the 1990s, the search for biological correlates of temperament differences expanded to include investigations of brain activation patterns. Scientists found brain activation differences between children who approach new situations (i.e., behaviorally uninhibited children) compared to children who withdraw from novel contexts (i.e., behaviorally inhibited children). Even though temperament styles appear to be linked to genetic, physiological, and neurological processes, temperament researchers still consider environmental factors to be very important.

Environmental Factors

Thomas and Chess argued that children's temperament characteristics interact with parenting to produce children's positive or negative adjustment. Their concept of the goodness-of-fit between the parent and the child is similar to the notion of attachment developed by John Bowlby. Attachment is the dynamic relationship between the child and the caregiver. Human infants are born vulnerable and need the security of a consistent, attentive, warm caregiver in order to feel safe enough to explore the world. Caregivers give children verbal and nonverbal clues about the nature of the environment and provide them with a secure base to return to when they feel anxious or threatened.

Mary Ainsworth advanced the attachment literature by creating a laboratory measure of attachment called the Strange Situation. During this procedure, the child and caregiver are separated and reunited several times in a laboratory playroom. During the separation episodes, the child is left alone with a strange adult or in a strange room for short periods. The level of distress the child exhibits after the caregiver returns is the index of the strength of the attachment relationship. Securely attached infants will become upset during separation, but can be easily consoled by the caregiver when reunited. Insecurely attached infants will show one of two different reactions to the situation. In one group, the insecurely attached infants showed little distress when left alone and freely interacted with a stranger. In a second group, the infants were very distressed when left alone and could not be comforted by their caregivers upon their return. Many temperament researchers have pointed out that the Strange Situation is not equally strange (or scary) for all children. Very emotional or shy children may react strongly to the novel context, while very sociable children may show no distress at all. Some researchers even contend that Ainsworth's measure of attachment is really assessing temperament styles. Attachment researchers counter that the procedure measures the relationship between the caregiver and the child, which is partly a reflection of how well the caregiver copes with the child's unique behavioral style.

Many social scientists believe that temperament and parenting are both related to children's development, but in different ways. For instance, in a study of more than a hundred infants, Grazyna Kochanska found that differences in the mother-child relationship predicted whether children were securely or insecurely attached, while the children's temperament style predicted which type of reaction they displayed in the Strange Situation.

In another study, Kochanska found support for Thomas and Chess's goodness-of-fit concept. Two different parent-child relationships when the children were toddlers predicted the development of conscience in children when they were five years old. Fearful children did better with mothers who used gentle discipline, while fearless toddlers did better with mothers who were very responsive. To Thomas and Chess, healthy development occurs when parents are able to work with a child's temperament and influence their child's reactions to the world. Socialization happens and parenting is important, but each parent-child relationship will be unique because each child is unique.

It is important to note that Thomas and Chess's studies in the 1960s and 1970s were based on the ideal characteristics for an infant reared in Western society. Culture also plays a role in the fit between the child and his environment. For instance, Mary Roth-bart and others have found that parents in the United States and the People's Republic of China described their children using the same dimensions. Chinese infants, however, were lower in activity level compared to American children, a finding that has been replicated in other studies. In addition, the implications of certain temperament styles for children's development differ across cultures. Shyness or behavioral inhibition is associated with adjustment problems in the United States and Canada; the same temperament style, however, is associated with healthy development in China. What is considered a difficult temperament style depends on the culture, context, and characteristics of the family.



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Buss, Arnold H., and Robert Plomin. Temperament: Early Developing Personality Traits. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1984.

Cole, Michael, and Sheila R. Cole. The Development of Children, 4th edition. New York: Worth Publishers, 2000.

Goldsmith, Hill H., Arnold H. Buss, Robert Plomin, Mary K. Roth-bart, Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, Robert A. Hinde, and Robert B. McCall. "Roundtable: What Is Temperament? Four Approaches." Child Development 58 (1987):505-529.

Kagan, Jerome. Galen's Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature. New York: Basic, 1994.

Kochanska, Grazyna. "Multiple Pathways to Conscience for Children with Different Temperaments: From Toddlerhood to Age Five." Developmental Psychology 33 (1997):228-240.

Kochanska, Grazyna. "Mother-Child Relationship, Child Fearfulness, and Emerging Attachment: A Short-Term Longitudinal Study." Developmental Psychology 43 (1998):480-490.

Lykken, David T., Matt McGue, Auke Tellegen, and T. J. Bouchard. "Emergenesis: Genetic Traits that May Not Run in Families." American Psychologist 47 (1992):1565-1577.

Rothbart, Mary K., Stephan A. Ahadi, and David E. Evans. "Temperament and Personality: Origins and Outcomes." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, no. 1 (2000):122-135.

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



views updated Jun 11 2018






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.

Rothbart, Mary K., and Douglas Derryberry. 1981. Development of Individual Differences in Temperament. In Advances in Developmental Psychology, vol. 1, eds. Michael E. Lamb and Ann L. Brown, 3786. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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

Samuel P. Putnam


views updated May 21 2018


In common usage, temperament means an innate leaning or predisposition toward characteristic modes of behavior, e.g., a natural leaning towards cheerfulness. Historically, the term has usually denoted a set of physical or physiological factors underlying and causing typical patterns of psychological response. It was supposed that the human body was made up of several components present in varying proportions; as one or another element assumed preponderance, it would affect not only the total physical ensemble, butbecause of the dependence of mind on bodypsychological dispositions as well. Temperament may be defined as an entitative habit by which several physiological or physical elements of human nature are variously proportioned among themselves, resulting in different characteristic psychological tendencies or leanings.

Classical Theory of Temperament. The notion of temperament is first proposed in the Hippocratic collections, a series of medico-philosophical treatises composed in the course of two or three hundred years at the height of the Greek classical period (see hippocrates). The famous physician Galen (c. a.d. 130201) systematically proposed the theory in the form it was to keep, more or less unchanged, for the next 1,500 years. According to this systematization, four humors were present in the human body: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Every man has all these humors, but in varying proportions. An excess of blood makes one cheerful, unstable, quick, and sociable; it gives him a sanguine temperament. An excess of phlegm makes one torpid, weak, steady, and apathetic; he has a phlegmatic temperament. An excess of black bile makes one morose, misanthropic, and sad; it characterizes the melancholic temperament. And an excess of yellow bile makes one passionate, irascible, domineering, and tenacious; it produces the choleric temperament.

Medieval View. St. thomas aquinas accepted the four temperaments of classical theory and speculated about the roots of temperamental differences (In lib. de memor. 8.401, 403, 406; Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 156.1 ad 2). In the context of hylomorphism, he held that such differences would fundamentally affect the body, which is complex and can be variously disposed, and would then affect the soul, insofar as the soul is proportioned to the body as form to is matter (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 46.5, 48.2 ad 1, 51.1, 63.1; In 1 anim. 2.22; In 2 sent. 32.2.3; In 4 sent. 44.2.1). Temperamental differences would make some men prone to chastity, others to lust; some to courage and irascibility, others to timidity and mildness; some would be temperamentally more scientific and prudent, others more affectionate and sociable; still others, morose and easily depressed. These differences, he held, were inheritable, and therefore innate.

Modern Variations. This classic division of the four temperaments, with some modifications by various authors, persisted in essentially the same form down to the 17th century. Advances in physiological science then led to the rejection of the theory of the four humors. In spite of this, however, the fourfold division of sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic continued to be employed as designations of psychological types in common parlance, literary usage, and even in scientific writing. I. Kant, W. Wundt, J. Herbart, O. Külpe, H. Ebbinghaus, and J. Spurzheim, among others, set themselves to the task of restating the classic theory. Thus Wilhelm Wundt (18321920), the father of experimental psychology, devised a system of interlocking temperamental characteristics, based on the traditional division. The sanguine man was emotionally quick and weak, affectively cheerful, oriented to the present, and active. The choleric man was emotionally quick and strong, affectively somber, oriented to the present, and active. The melancholic man was emotionally slow and strong, affectively somber, oriented to the past, and passive. The phlegmatic man was emotionally slow and weak, affectively cheerful, oriented to the past, and passive. For Wundt, these were simply psychological clusters of traits without a physiological basis or cause [Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie, 5th ed. (Leipzig 190203) 3:637640].

Rostan and Sigaud. The theories of the French physician, L. L. Rostan [Cours élémentaire d'hygiène, (2nd ed. Paris 1828)] were adopted and presented by C. Sigaud in correlation with various physical types. The classical sanguine type was associated with a face whose central parts were predominant and a physically well-developed thorax. The choleric type he associated with a rectangular face and thorax. The melancholic type had a triangular face with the apex pointed down and a long, lean thorax; while the phlegmatic had a triangular face with the base down and a predominance of abdomen. These types Sigaud called respectively: respiratory, muscular, cerebral, and digestive, according to the organic systems preeminent in each. He believed these differences were caused by environmentrespiratory types developing in the mountains and sea coasts, muscular types in industrial towns, cerebral types in large cities, and digestive types in valleys (La Forme humain, Paris 1914).

See Also: habit.

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views updated May 23 2018


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.


views updated May 14 2018

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.


views updated Jun 08 2018

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.


views updated May 11 2018

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.