- We are all born with inborn behavioural tendencies that have been termed temperament
- These tendencies are a result of genetics and pre-birth experiences
- Our temperament remains relatively stable throughout life
Throughout history, there have been many patterns of behaviour that have served humans' survival as a species; attracting mates, steering clear of danger, defeating enemies, making and helping friends are just a few. And it makes sense that throughout evolution these tendencies that served our ancestors so well were passed down through generations via genetics. This has resulted is differing degrees of a variety of common human behavioural characteristics in all of us. These inborn tendencies, also contributed to by intrauterine (pre-birth) factors, have been termed temperament.
What is temperament?
Temperament describes aspects of our inborn characteristics that remain relatively stable throughout life. It is thought that this occurs for 2 reasons:
First, our temperamental features are not as changeable by life experiences because of their genetic contribution.
And second, our temperament contributes to the type of life experiences we have throughout life which tends to reinforce these traits.
What are the temperamental characteristics?
Perhaps the most widely referenced set of temperamental characteristics are the following grouped by renowned temperament researchers Thomas and Chess:
1.) Activity which refers to physical energy
2.) Regularity which refers to the level of predictability in a child’s biological functions, such as waking, becoming tired, hunger, and bowel movements
3.) Initial Reaction which refers to whether a child tends to approach or withdraw from new people and environments
4.) Adaptability which refers to how a child tends to adapt to adjust to change over time
5.) Intensity which refers to how strongly a child tends to experience positive and negative responses
6.) Mood which refers to how happy a child’s general disposition is
7.) Distractibility which refers to how a child’s attention tends to wander
8.) Persistence and Attention Span which refers to how well a child tends to stick at tasks
9.) Sensitivity which refers to how easily a child is bothered by changes in the environment
Easy, difficult, and slow to warm up…
In their longitudinal studies on temperament, Thomas and Chess found that most babies could be classified as easy, difficult, or slow to warm up. The majority fall in the category of easy with these babies presenting as generally happy, adaptable and less intense. Difficult babies tend to be intense, highly sensitive, and unhappy, and slow to warm up babies tend to be less active and tend to withdraw from situations with which they are not familiar.
The work of Jerome Kagan…
Harvard temperament researcher Jerome Kagan focused his studies on a few specific characteristics. Regarding what he termed ‘reactivity’, four-month old babies who became agitated and distressed at the presentation of unfamiliar events (high-reactives) were more likely than low-reactive babies to be afraid of novel situations at around 20 months. Followed through their teenage years, high-reactives were generally more subdued in unfamiliar situations and generally anxious, and showed higher levels of central nervous system activity.
But in a vital finding that supports the importance of life experiences in impacting responses to temperament, those high-reactive babies who were found to have had appropriately nurturing experiences throughout childhood, were less likely to behave anxiously even if they still experienced high physiological signs of anxiety. This suggests that through optimal life experiences, these babies were able to learn how to respond and cope adaptively to internal reactiveness over time. In other words, they became less affected by their reactiveness over time.
What to remember as caregivers
Temperamental tendencies in children tend to evoke responses in adults that reinforce those tendencies. This then intensifies the inborn trait over time. For example, a parent of an anxious high-reactive child who responds with high levels of fear to unfamiliar surrounds as an infant can easily fall into the trap of not exposing the child to unfamiliar circumstances. But repeated tolerable levels of this exposure is the very thing that will be required for this child to learn that i.) There is little need to fear these situations, and ii.) The feeling of fear can be tolerated.
Or similarly a moody baby is more likely to evoke frustration in parents, which will then create a self-fulfilling prophecy of what the infant learns about how people react to him.
Nature x nurture…
So every child is born with temperamental tendencies that result from a combination of her specific genetic mix and pre-birth experiences. This temperamental template then contributes to the experiences that she will experience throughout life. It is these features that serve as the first developmental constraint that will influence the cascade of experiences that will shape her developing brain throughout life. To find out how our brain is remodelled through experience see Our Plastic Brain.
(1) Kagan, S; & Snidman, N. (2004). The Long Shadow of Temperament. The Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College.
(2) Thomas, Chess & Birch (1968). Temperament and Behavior Disorders in Children. New York, New York University Press.