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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 characteristics—choleric, 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.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie