In psychology, temperament is defined as the innate characteristics a person is born with, which act as the “nature” element of a personality, along the famous nature-nurture spectrum of human development.
Key insights from the psychological study of temperament show us that:
- Temperament Impacts Personality: Temperament, consisting of the biologically and in-born dispositions of a person, is believed to be a fundamental influence on personality development.
- Temperament is Non-Deterministic of Personality: Other factors also impact our personalities. As a child develops, cognitive skills (e.g. self-control) as well as environmental influences (e.g. experience and training) also feed-into personality.
So, temperament as a biological factor plays a part in personality development, but is not entirely deterministic. As Paris, Ricardo, & Rymond (2019) argue:
“personality development begins with the biological foundations of temperament but becomes increasingly elaborated, extended, and refined over time.” (p. 148)
Why Study Temperament in Psychology?
The main trajectory in temperament research is the study of temperament in childhood, asking questions such as:
- How best can we support babies, toddlers, and children with different types of temperaments?
- What are the different types of temperaments?
- How does temperament affect personality development?
- How much does temperament affect personality, as opposed to non-biological factors?
Types of Temperament
There is not one taxonomy of temperaments. In fact, there are many. But the first major study of temperament was the 1956 New York Longitudinal Study by Thomas, Chess and Birch (1968).
The Thomas, Chess and Birch study evaluated the temperament traits of 141 children, based upon interviews with the children’s parents.
The researchers asked questions based on 10 dispositional factors:
- activity level
- regularity of biological functions
- approach/withdrawal (how children deal with new things)
- adaptability to situations
- intensity of reactions
- response threshold (how intense a stimulus has to be for the child to react)
- attention span
(adapted from Paris, Ricardo, & Rymond, 2019, p. 146)
The scholars realized that there were three archetypes of infant temperament based on the data. Repeatedly, parents’ responses on the above 10 factors tended to cluster into one of three types.
And so, the first taxonomy of child temperaments was craeted:
|Type of Temperament||Percent||Features|
|Easy||40% of children||Adaptable, calm, easy to soothe, positive affect (generally happy)|
|Slow-to-warm-up (Cautious)||10% of children||Low activity level, sanguine, slow to adjust to change, negative affect (generally moody)|
|Difficult||15% of children||Cries frequently, negative reactions to new situations, has trouble adapting to routine, negative affect (generally moody)|
Their research also found that these three types of temperament tended to be stable through childhood, meaning children keep their temperament over time, and that the three categories were evident in similar ratios spanning multiple cultural groups.
Genetic vs Environmental Influences
It is difficult to pin-down genetic and biological features influencing personality (i.e. ‘temperament’) versus environmental ‘nurture’ factors.
One key scholar of temperament research, Mary K. Rothbart, made this point when defining temperament. In her definition, temperament refers to all those personality factors present prior to the development of complex cognitive and social skills.
here, we can see why temperament research tends to focus on babies – this is when, according to psychologists, we’re able ascertain temperaments as opposed to personality factors developed through environmental factors.
Through her research Rothbart (2004) argued that there are three dimensions of temperament, as opposed to environmental factors:
- Surgency/extraversion: This refers to sensation-seeking behaviors. Children high in surgency/extraversion are believed to have positive affect, be vocal, smiley, and laugh a lot. They tend to have high self-esteem, but often quick to misbehave.
- Negative Affect: These children demonstrate high levels of fear, frustration, sadness and anger. If their anger is a dominant trait, they may act out a lot (i.e. have externalizing tendencies) whereas if their fear is dominant, they tend to be withdrawn (internalizing tendencies). Shyness and low self-esteem are common.
- Effortful Control: This predicts a child’s focus, restraint, delayed gratification, and planning tendencies. A key finding from Rothbart’s effortful control research is that it tends to predict a person’s ability to apply a moral code to their behaviors.
Implications: Focusing on “Goodness of Fit” for Parents and Teachers
In my opinion, the main practical implication of temperament research is through “goodness of fit” research.
Goodness of fit refers to how well an environment (including the parents) fit with the child’s temperament.
As Hipson & Seguin (2017) point out:
“Optimal outcomes are most likely to occur when a child’s temperament matches the demands of the environment, otherwise known as a good fit.”
Goodness of Fit at Home
One way we can look at goodness of fit is to examine how a parent’s and child’s temperaments may or may not line-up.
If a parent’s temperament is “easy” and a child’s is “slow to warm up”, we may come across a scenario where the parent gets frustrated
In other words, an “easy” parent needs to understand that their slow-to-warm-up baby needs time to adjust to new surrounds and not be impatient with them – it’s their temperament to be cautious.
Similarly, the “easy” parent of a difficult child may need to be aware of the importance of maintaining consistent routine, ensuring they don’t change the routine without good reason.
Goodness of Fit at school
At school, a highly sociable child (high in surgency/extraversion) will need a different type of classroom than a child lower on this spectrum, or a child who is slow to warm up to such environments.
Let’s use the taxonomy from Thomas and Chess (2013) to exemplify the scenario of a substitute teacher entering a classroom for the day:
|Temperament||Response to a Substitute Teacher|
|Easy||Will happily adapt to the change, likely talk to the teacher to try to get to know them.|
|Slow to warm up||Will be quiet and reserved until they break the ice with the teacher, after which they may start to open up.|
|Difficult||Will struggle with the change of routine and may be defiant or withdrawn throughout the day.|
Of course, this scenario ignores the other all-important environmental factors of personality that may dampen or amplify these various temperamental traits.
Nevertheless, understanding that not all children respond similarly to a particular environment can help us to attempt to adjust, adapt, and differentiate our environments and expectations of children, based upon their temperaments.
Conclusion (And a Criticism)
A key implication of research into temperament in psychology is that parents need to understand their child’s temperament in order to act and react in ways that are most beneficial to the child.
Creating the ideal environment, especially at home, can help to promote the best possible developmental outcomes.
The idea is to achieve a “good fit” between temperament and environment which, theoretically, should influence behavior and developmental outcomes positively.
But, I am hesitant (and perhaps even critical) of this research on temperament because it places significant focus on the genetic and biological basis of personality, and in my opinion as a social psychologist, it is far too far down the “nature” spectrum of understanding personality, failing to account for the enormous impact “nurture” can have on who we are, who we will become, and just how much we can all change over time.
 Paris, J., Ricardo, A., & Rymond, D. (2019). Child Growth and Development. Santa Clarita: College of the Canyons.
 Thomas, Chess & Birch (1968). Temperament and Behavior Disorders in Children. New York: New York University Press (Source)
 Rothbart, M. K. (2004). Temperament and the pursuit of an integrated developmental psychology. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (1982-), 492-505. (Source)
 Hipson, W. E., & Séguin, D. G. (2017). Goodness of fit model. Encyclopaedia of personality and individual differences. Basel, Switzerland: Spring International. (Source)
 Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (2013). The New York longitudinal study: From infancy to early adult life. In The study of temperament (pp. 39-52). Psychology Press. (Source)
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]