Temperament And Human Development Research Paper

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Because temperament refers to the early-appearing dispositions upon which personality is based, it can be studied in infants and nonhuman animals as well as older children and adults. It offers an important place to begin in understanding human development. Rather than seeing individual differences in personality and social behavior as solely the result of socialization, temperament research identifies basic dispositions toward affect, arousal, and attention that will be further shaped by experience in development.

1. A Definition Of Temperament

Temperament has been defined as constitutionally based individual differences in emotional, motor, and attentional reactivity and self-regulation, demonstrating consistency across situations and relative stability over time (Rothbart and Derryberry 1981). The term ‘constitutional’ stresses links between temperament and biology. Over the long history of the study of temperament, individual differences in temperament have been linked to the constitution of the organism as it was understood at the time. The term ‘reactivity’ refers to the latency, rise time, intensity, and duration of responsiveness to stimulation. The term ‘self-regulation’ refers to processes that serve to modulate reactivity; these include behavioral approach, withdrawal, inhibition, and executive or effortful attention.

2. History Of Temperament Research

Temperament study has an ancient history: individual differences in temperament were described in the fourfold typology of the Greco-Roman physician Vindician, who linked temperamental characteristics to Hippocrates’ model of the humoral constitution of the body (Diamond 1974). The term ‘temperament’ derives from the Latin temperamentum, a proportionate mixture, denoting the relative preponderance of one or more of the body humors. In Vindician’s typology, the melancholic person, quiet and moody, was seen as having a predominance of black bile; the choleric person, touchy, aggressive, and active, a predominance of yellow bile; the sanguine person, sociable and easygoing, a predominance of blood; and the phlegmatic person, calm and even-tempered, a predominance of phlegm. Ideas about the fourfold typology of temperament persisted throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and were found in the writings of Immanuel Kant.

Early in the twentieth century, major schools in Europe and the UK contributed to temperament research (Rothbart 1989). An Eastern European tradition began with I. P. Pavlov’s observations of individual differences in his dogs’ behavior in the laboratory. On the basis of the dogs’ reactions, Pavlov and his followers posited characteristics of the nervous system, including strength or weakness of excitation and inhibition, and nervous system lability. This was nevertheless a conceptual nervous system; the nervoussystem characteristics were based on behavioral observations. Work in Eastern Europe continued in Nebylitsyn’s studies of individual differences in the laboratory, with adults as subjects. In the late twentieth century, due to a lack of consistency across stimulus modalities and response systems in the laboratory, questionnaire assays of individual differences have been undertaken.

In Central Europe, research on temperament in The Netherlands was to become highly influential. Heymans and Wiersma, in 1908, asked 3,000 physicians to observe a family (parents and children) and to fill out a temperament personality questionnaire on each person. When the more than 2,500 responses were analyzed, three factors were identified: activity (the tendency to act out what is thought or desired), emotivity (the tendency to show body symptoms, to be fearful and shy), and primary vs. secondary process (the tendency to react immediately or in a postponed and more organized way). This research, which involved a wide range of subjects, was followed by European research on temperament in early development, with intense longitudinal observation of infants. Wallon in France and Meili in Switzerland investigated infants’ muscle tension and emotionality, and Meili reported stability across time in infants’ irritable or anxious responses to standardized stimuli. Meili’s contributions showed a similarity to later research in the USA on temperamental emotions and behavioral inhibition (G. Balleyguier, personal communication, September 8, 1996).

In the UK, factor-analytic studies of individual differences in temperament and personality were carried out using adults’ self-reports. Early work yielded factors of introversion–extraversion, emotional stability–instability (later called by Eysenck ‘neuroticism’), and volition or will (Rothbart 1989). Eysenck added a physiological base to the temperament factors by relating them to cortical excitation and inhibition, and the functioning of the limbic system. Still later, Gray revised Eysenck’s theory by positing individual differences in behavioral activation and inhibition, as well as tendencies to fight and flight. He also related these individual differences to an underlying neurophysiology. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Gray’s theory was one of the major psychobiological models of temperament, along with models put forward by Panksepp, Cloninger, DePue, and Zuckerman.

In the USA, there were multiple contributions to the study of temperament. Allport used temperament in his trait-based theory of personality, and Cattell and Thurstone carried out early factor-analytic research on temperament and ‘vectors of mind.’ These would later be followed by research on the Big Five personality factors in adults (Digman 1996). Nevertheless, in early research on child development, temperamental dispositions were rarely discussed. Instead, sociallearning theories stressed the importance of reward and punishment in shaping behavior and accounting for individual differences. The study of cognitive development would also become much advanced before the study of emotional development and temperament became popular. Only in the late twentieth century did research grow and flourish in temperament and development. This renewed interest has been linked to the realization that the direction of parent–child influence is not only from parent to the child, but that the infant and the young child also bring much to shaping the interaction (Bell 1968). Interest in temperament has also been linked to advances in neuroscience, with knowledge of individual differences in temperament providing links to genes and neural networks, as well as to social interaction.

3. Current Research

In the USA, the New York Longitudinal Study (NYLS) by Thomas, Chess, and colleagues formed the basis for much of the recent research on temperament in children (Thomas and Chess 1977). Parents of infants between the ages of two and six months were interviewed about their children’s behavior across a wide variety of situations. A content analysis of interview information on the first 22 infants yielded nine dimensions of temperamental variability: activity level, rhythmicity, approach-withdrawal, adaptability, threshold, intensity, mood, distractibility, and attention span-persistence. The goals of the NYLS were chiefly clinical, and no attempt was made conceptually to differentiate these dimensions from one another. Nevertheless, numerous parent-report questionnaires were developed based on the nine NYLS dimensions.

As a result of more recent research, however, major revisions to the NYLS list have been proposed (Rothbart and Bates 1998). Both factor-analytic research using NYLS items, and research following a more rational approach such as that of Rothbart, have identified a shorter list of temperament dimensions. These dimensions include positive affect and approach (extraversion or surgency), fearfulness, anger frustration, attentional orienting, and executive attention (effortful control). These dimensions are particularly interesting because they are evolutionarily conserved affective-motivational and attentional systems. They serve adaptive functions, and can be seen in nonhuman animals as well as in the human species (Panksepp 1998).

In factor-analytic studies of parent-reported temperament in childhood, three to four broad factors are frequently found (Rothbart and Bates 1998). The first of these is surgency or extraversion, which includes activity level, sociability, impulsivity, and enjoyment of high-intensity pleasure. The second is negative affectivity, including fear, anger frustration, discomfort, and sadness, and the third is effortful control, including attentional focusing and shifting, inhibitory control, perceptual sensitivity, and low-intensity pleasure.

Current research on temperament in childhood makes use of parent-report questionnaires, laboratory assessments of children’s behavioral and psycho- physiological responses to standardized stimuli, and observations of children’s behavior in the home or school. With this information, it has been possible to study the development of temperamental systems, and to relate temperamental functioning to other important outcomes. These include the development of empathy and conscience, the development of behavior problems, children’s adaptations to the classroom, their susceptibility to drug and alcohol abuse, and their accident-proneness.

Developmental research also indicates that the emotional systems of temperament and reactive attentional orienting are in place before the development of executive effortful attention (Rothbart and Bates 1998). In the newborn, individual differences in irritability and orienting can be observed, and by two to three months, infants demonstrate clear positive responses to stimulation. Early forms of what will later be called extraversion or surgency are present in the smiling and laughter and rapid approach of infants, and measures of approach tendencies and smiling and laughter at this early age predict children’s extraverted tendencies at seven years. Throughout early development, children who are more extraverted also seem to be more susceptible to anger and frustration.

At four months, individual differences in infants’ distress and body movement to stimulation predict later fear and behavioral inhibition. By six months, it is also possible to predict seven-year-old children’s parent-reported frustration and anger by the infant’s responses to toys out of reach or behind a plastic barrier. Infants’ behavioral approach tendencies are also manifested at six months in their latency to reach and grasp objects.

The onset of fear or behavioral inhibition in the last quarter of the first year of life appears to work in opposition to the infant’s approach tendencies, so that some infants who formerly rapidly approached novel objects are now slowed in their response to novel stimuli, and may not approach at all. They may also show distress to possibly threatening objects. As with approach tendencies, individual differences in fear related behavioral inhibition show considerable stability across childhood and even into adolescence (Kagan 1998). Longitudinal research has reported stability of fearful inhibition from two to eight years, and from the preschool period to age 18.

Fear-related control of behavior can be seen in the early development of conscience (Kochanska 1997). Fearful children are more likely to show early signs of conscience. In addition, fearful children whose mothers use gentle discipline, presumably capitalizing on the child’s tendency to experience anxious states, develop highly internalized conscience. More fearful infants also later tend to be empathetic and susceptible to guilt reactions. Fear can thus be seen as a basic control mechanism that is importantly implicated in socialization.

Beyond the inhibitory control provided by fear, a later-developing attentional system makes a crucial contribution to socialization. As executive or effortful attention develops in the second or third year of life and beyond, individuals can voluntarily deploy their attention, allowing them to regulate their more reactive tendencies (Posner and Rothbert 2000, Ruff and Rothbart 1996). In situations where immediate approach is not allowed, for example, children can limit their attention to the rewarding properties of a stimulus, thereby resisting temptation and delaying gratification. Similarly, when faced with a threatening stimulus, children can constrain their fear by attending to environmental sources of safety as well as threat. In both of these examples, individual differences in attention allow children to suppress their more reactive tendencies, take in additional sources of information, and plan more efficient strategies for coping. These capacities have been referred to as effortful control, and they refer to temperamental characteristics that are distinct from extraversion/surgency and the negative emotions. Research indicates some stability of individual differences in effortful control during childhood. For example, the number of seconds delayed by preschool children while waiting for rewards that are physically present has predicted children’s parent-reported attentiveness and ability to concentrate as adolescents.

In older children and adults, temperament is often studied through self-reports, allowing analysis of internally experienced feelings as well as behavior. The self-report method is also frequently used in the study of adult personality. In adult research, highly differentiated scales assessing temperament have been factor analyzed, yielding factors very similar to those found in Big Five or Five Factor Model research on adult personality (Rothbart et al. 2000). The Big Five personality factors have been derived from research using trait-descriptive adjectives, following the hypothesis that significant individual differences will be represented in the lexicon, that is, in the words people use to describe others and themselves. The Five Factor Model emerged from factor analyses of large numbers of personality self-report items. There is now considerable agreement for five broad factors of per sonality derived from this method, including extraverversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.

In research using adults’ self-reports to scales assessing temperamental reactivity and self-regulation, three resulting factors are similar to those found in children and to measures of the Big Five personality factors. These include temperamental surgency or extraversion, positively related to personality extraversion; negative affectivity, related to neuroticism; and effortful control, related to conscientiousness. In addition, self-reported temperamental orienting to external and internal stimuli is related to personality openness to experience, and temperamental affiliativeness to personality agreeableness. Thus, the structures emerging from temperament research— using basic psychological processes of affect, arousal, and attention—and from personality research—using a lexical or personality-scale analysis—are closely related. Because temperamental individual differences are based upon fundamental psychological and neural processes and are present early in life, these findings suggest that early temperamental predispositions may form a core around which the later-developing personality will be built.

As noted above, temperamental systems are evolutionarily conserved. It is interesting that recent research has attempted to apply ‘personality’ constructs to studies of nonhuman species. A review of factors identified in studies of twelve nonhuman species has found support for factors of extraversion, including energy and enthusiasm; neuroticism, including negative affectivity and nervousness; agreeableness, including altruism and affection; and openness, including originality and open-mindedness (Gosling and John 1999). These are seen in the chimpanzee, monkey, hyena, dog, and cat. Several species tested did not give evidence of attentional openness, and evidence for individual differences in conscientiousness was reported only in chimpanzees. It seems likely that these studies, although labeled studies of personality, are getting at the evolutionarily conserved temperamental systems studied in human temperament research. In addition, since not all capacities appear to be shared across species, especially conscientiousness or effortful control, we can recognize important phylogenetic differences in temperament. For example, the capacity for effortful control, when linked with language, provides opportunities for self-regulation of reactive systems in humans that are not present in other species.

Advances in neuroscientific imaging technology and in our knowledge of brain networks underlying the emotions and attention have been an additional source of information for students of temperament and development. There is now detailed knowledge of networks subserving fear as well as both reactive orienting and effortful attention (Rothbart and Bates 1998). Because imaging studies allow researchers to identify tasks that activate these brain networks, it is possible to adapt these tasks to children of different ages in order to study the development of a temperamental system (Posner and Rothbart 2000). This marker-task approach has been used in the study of the development of attentional orienting and effortful control, but it is likely that marker tasks can be used to assess many additional individual differences. In late twentieth-century research, marker tasks of effortful attention in the laboratory were positively related to parents’ reports about children’s ability to control attention and emotion.

4. Methodological Issues Or Problems

The usual issues and concerns about psychological measurement apply to the study of temperament. Because the focus of study in temperament is individual differences, it is important to design measures that will demonstrate variability. It is also important that the tests are reliable, giving consistent measurement, and valid, reflecting something meaningful about the child’s dispositions. The latter is often demonstrated in a psychological measure’s convergence with other measures.

In temperament research, researchers have often been skeptical about using parents as informants about their children’s behavior. It has been felt that parental biases or lack of knowledge will yield measures that are invalid, with direct observation seen as a preferable method. However, considerable evidence indicates convergence between parent report and observational measures (Rothbart and Bates 1998). In addition, laboratory observations have their own limitations. For example, it is difficult to collect extensive information about children’s emotionality in the laboratory when one emotional experience has carryover effects on another. Fearful children may also behave differently in a strange laboratory situation than less fearful children, because expressions of temperamental dimensions are not independent of one another.

5. Probable Future Directions Of Theory And Research

Temperament is a basic integrative construct within psychology, and improvements in temperament concepts and methods will be critical to advances in understanding development. One goal will be a thorough understanding of the basic processes of temperament, including the components of positive affect/approach, fear, frustration, affiliation, and attention, and how they develop. Understanding the affects and attention will benefit the understanding of temperament, just as temperament analyses will benefit our understanding of the affects and attention. Many advances will come from areas of affective and cognitive neuroscience, where much progress has been made in understanding the emotions and attention. Progress in the study of brain structure and its relation to molecular genetics will also be of great importance.

At the same time, improved assessment methods are needed at multiple levels: measures of behavior in the laboratory, including marker tasks for the development of brain structures, behavior in naturalistic daily contexts, physiological measures, informant reports, and self-reports. Increased use of the laboratory, using marker tasks, brain imaging, and recording, is likely to provide further links with underlying neural systems. Questionnaire measures involving self- report will continue to be important.

To further understanding, it will also be necessary to continue to develop the theory of temperament and its development. Because temperament encompasses organized systems of emotional and attentional processes, rather than separate traits, studies of relation-ships among temperament variables allow a much richer view of development. In this approach, continuity and change within systems, as well as developmentally changing links among the systems, must be considered. Studies of developmental pathways between early temperament and later personality outcomes will be complex, because childhood and adult individuality unfolds in the context of social relationships, and continuity and change cannot be understood without considering the developmentally changing impact of social experience. To understand developmental pathways, it will be necessary to disentangle complex interaction effects among early temperament predispositions, socialization processes, relationships, and culture.

Because of those complexities, temperamentally different children may arrive at similar or equivalent outcomes via different pathways. Pathways of temperamentally different children may converge over development. For example, Kochanska (1997) has found that fearful toddlers whose parents used gentle discipline, and fearless toddlers whose parents capitalized on positive motivation in a close relationship, attained comparable levels of conscience. Temperamentally similar children’s developmental pathways may also diverge as a result of different experiences within relationships or varying cultures.

We have entered a very exciting era in developmental psychology. With support from flourishing neuroscience, genetics, developmental psychopathology, and behavioral research in development, the twenty-first century promises to offer new understanding of the uniqueness of pathways of individual growth. Temperament research will make major contributions to this understanding.


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