Personality Development In Childhood Research Paper

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To understand personality development in childhood, we first define personality, and how it is structured. Then we discuss how the definition is typically translated into research, noting some curious omissions and quirks in the literature. Next, we consider the raw materials of personality and how they are changed over time. Once this is completed, we discuss outcomes of research on personality development in children.

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1. Personality Development As The Organization Of Individual Differences

First, perhaps the most basic question is what is personality? Common personality characteristics can be shared by groups of people—say, women, Russians, three-year-old boys—but usually we think of personality in terms of defining aspects of individual persons. In modern theory, personality is concerned with the organization of each person’s unique configuration of individual differences. When personality is defined this way, rather than one difference at a time (e.g., introversion), it is possible to recognize that over time conflict within a person may occur due to competing and sometimes incompatible needs. The self-organization of the diverse elements that live under a common skin is motivated by the need to resolve intrapersonal conflicts and to adapt, or adjust, to the world beyond the individual. For example, we would expect an intelligent, introverted child to make compromises in the service of social adjustment different from those made by a similar child who is intelligent and extraverted. Personality is concerned with the accommodations and compromises each individual must make among the competing demands of these differences. The adjustment processes occur over time, and involve genetics, maturation, and learning. In this light, personality development in childhood can be seen as one segment in a life-long process that leads to the formation of a stable adult personality structure. Common but untested assumptions are that processes of personality development are more dynamic in childhood than in adulthood, and that personality structure is more fluid and open to change in the former than in the latter. Personality development does not necessarily stop after childhood, but that period is regarded as a time of special sensitivity for the formation of the broad structure.

Second, we need to recognize how the definition of personality is typically translated into research. There are historical traditions and precedents in the personality development literature that influence the way professionals engage in research in the area. For example, the personality literature does not usually regard individual differences in ability in general, and intelligence in particular, as part of its domain, despite the illustration given in the preceding paragraph and the obvious importance of intelligence to adaptation. Similarly, differences in attachment are not well integrated into the rest of the personality development literature, despite the importance of attachment processes for adaptation. For another (but related) example, readers will sometimes encounter a distinction between ‘personality development’ and ‘emotional development.’ Some early writers used the term emotional development to focus on attachment and the psychodynamic approach to personality development, and to separate it from other kinds of personality development. Detailed historical analyses make some of these oddities understandable, but such analyses are beyond the scope of this review. The point here is that definitions must be translated into measures and procedures, and historical precedents can lead to potential biases in the translation.

Third, developmental processes for each individual occur within a specific historical time, kinship system, social learning environment, and cultural context. Some aspects of personality are tied directly to such contextual factors (e.g., parental divorce), and leave residues. These life experience-based residues represent a legitimate aspect of personality. In the past, residues of experience relevant to personality have been conceptualized mainly in terms of ‘learning,’ or ‘socialization.’ More recently, another approach has emerged. Residues of experience relevant to personality can be conceptualized in cognitive and information-processing terms. For example, cultures differ in the ways they teach children skills. In some cultures, mixed-age peer groups engage in competitions, with older peers teaching younger children. In those cultures, substantive knowledge acquired during peer interactions in certain domains is fused to specific beliefs about peer relations and social interaction that is missing in other cultures.

Fourth, given the potentially powerful influence of social learning and sociohistorical contexts, it is a major challenge for personality development theory to identify panhuman substantive dispositions. That is, in the past the majority of researchers have assumed that (a) personality development in all human children can be characterized by individual differences in a small set of enduring characteristics; and that (b) these characteristics induce the children to respond in consistent ways over time and across settings. These two assumptions may not be justified, and at the least they need to be evaluated empirically. Phrased more positively, personality development theory needs to integrate findings of cultural diversity and variation in children’s personality with the assumptions about the nature and assumed roles for panhuman dispositions. To accomplish this task, researchers must select a small number of dispositions and enduring characteristics from the vast array of human differences that will prove to be important for theory or for life outcomes. Ideally, the ones chosen for attention in childhood will be broad in scope, related to competence in adulthood, and likely to become part of later personality structure. On an a priori basis, we might expect all cultures to be concerned with the development characteristics associated with success in the two major domains of ‘love’ (sex roles, reproduction, kin relations) and ‘work’ (reliability, rule compliance). It is possible, of course, that each culture will encourage the development of somewhat different configurations of characteristics within these two major domains, based on the ecological and social structures within which they live.

2. Four Perspectives On The Substance Of Personality And Development

To investigate the substantive nature of personality development, some further ‘simplifying’ assumptions are required. There have been four major perspectives on the identification of substantive characteristics in personality development (see Caspi 1998). The first major perspective is the most direct approach to childhood personality because it accepts it as a biological ‘given.’ It involves temperament, and focuses on childhood and infancy. Temperament, an important concept in developmental psychology, refers to early appearing, stable individual differences derived from the constitutional or biologically determined makeup of individuals. It represents the presumed biological, emotional core around which later personality coalesces. For example, children show important individual differences in fearfulness or motor activity, and these may have heritable components. These are the kinds of differences that warrant attention developmentally because in theory they could constrain ontogenetic processes, and the kinds of experiences individuals accumulate as they move through life. Thomas and Chess (1977) stimulated modern interest in childhood temperament when they identified nine categories of differences based on clinical experiences with very young children. Examples are ‘activity level’ and ‘persistence.’ Second-order constructs were proposed to reduce the nine dimensions to three (‘easy,’ ‘difficult,’ and ‘slow to warm up’) based on factor analyses. Subsequent research showed that the original nine dimensions could not be recovered from item-level factor analyses. Instead, five to seven factors appeared. We will return to this perspective later.

Second is the social–cognitive process perspective of Mischel (1999). Researchers could identify individual differences in an enduring skill or tendency in children that could shape the ways children interact with their physical and social environments. These skills need not necessarily be conceptualized as traits. The cumulating effect of the skill on the child’s outcomes could in theory have important long-range consequences (e.g., Kochanska et al. 1998). For example, the skills associated with delay of gratification are potentially relevant to both ‘love’ and ‘work,’ so they represent an especially good substantive characteristic to investigate as an aspect of personality development. Consistent with this perspective, Mischel et al., (1988) found that preschool children who are skilled in delay of gratification appear to interact systematically with the environment in ways that allow them to achieve tasks more efficiently than their peers. Over time and settings, these skilled children accumulate accomplishments that allow them as adolescents to have higher social competencies and educational levels, and eventually as adults to achieve higher socioeconomic standing than other adults.

Third is the ‘developmental targets’ perspective (Caspi 1998), which is perhaps a meta-perspective because it can include both dimensional and typological theories under its umbrella. The goal here is to identify developmental antecedents of dispositions that are parts of stable adult personality structure. For example, extraversion and neuroticism are two major dimensions in adult personality structure, and represent developmental targets. It is important to know how these dimensions are formed developmentally. High levels of fearfulness or motor activity in childhood may be antecedents of adult neuroticism or extraversion, respectively. Once an empirical relation is demonstrated, then theoretical process mechanisms could be offered to explain how motor activity may be transformed or channeled into the targeted difference (e.g., extraversion). In effect, adult personality structure provides the target end states, and research is directed to finding its precursors. This approach requires knowledge of major, reliably appearing, and enduring adult personality structures (e.g., extraversion, neuroticism), but also empirically established antecedents that are not associated uniquely with configurations of sociohistorical events or cultural practices. (Of course, researchers (e.g., Elder 1999, McCrae et al. 1999) are interested in these sociohistorical and cultural patterns as a special class of personality phenomena.) Until recently, there was no consensus on the nature of adult personality structure, much less antecedents, that could meet these criteria, so personality development based on developmental targets was inhibited.

The fourth perspective could be regarded as a specialized typological version of the case outlined in the preceding paragraph. It is the person-centered, categorical approach of Block (1971). Unlike the researchers who assume personality is structured in terms of continuous underlying dimensions, the typological approach assumes that persons are better characterized as belonging in discrete categories depending on the configuration of attributes. Based on extensive empirical data on personality descriptions of persons as they moved from early adolescence to adulthood, Block had trained clinical judges sort descriptions into piles (Q-sorts), using a continuum from least characteristic to most characteristic. This Q-sort technique is person centered because each attribute is compared with other attributes in the same person. Statistical analyses can then be used to identify clusters of persons with similar Q-sort configurations. At least three adult types were found, and can be described as (a) ego-resilients, who are well functioning in all major domains; (b) over controllers, who were shy and lacked many interpersonal skills; and (c) undercontrollers, who were hostile, disagreeable, and showed little concern for others. These types could be regarded as developmental targets for developmental research. Longitudinal research with children (Hart et al. 1997) showed that three personality types could be replicated, suggesting avenues for theories of personality development. The largest category (egoresilients) represents persons who are well adjusted; the other two smaller categories represent persons whose adjustment suffers from either overcontrol or undercontrol. At the least, such outcomes suggests that personality development should focus substantively on resilience and control. What is less clear is whether these types represent good developmental targets, in the sense of discrete natural classes, or are unique configurations of persons along some other underlying dimensions. It also is not clear whether these types represent the personality development of females as well as they do males (Caspi 1998).

3. Personality Development And The ‘Big Five’

Let us move our discussion from perspectives to further research. In a series of pioneering papers in personality development, Digman and his colleagues in Hawaii began investigating the structure of child personality in teachers’ ratings. Digman selected his variables to cast a wide net, and in some studies included assessments of intelligence, peer ratings, and various aptitude and personality batteries. He appeared to have no overriding theoretical agenda. At the time much of his data were collected, Digman (1994) suggested that he was an advocate for a model of child personality that included no less than ten factors. When his data were analyzed, however, a five-factor solution was reliably found (e.g., Digman and Inouye 1986). Digman recognized that the pattern he found in the child personality data was consistent with a similar pattern found in adults (e.g., Digman 1990). Perhaps the developmental targets approach could be useful after all. The time was ripe for a union between personality development researchers and researchers working with adult personality structure.

The number five seems to have a certain magical quality for personality researchers. The five-factor model, or the more descriptively accurate label ‘Big Five’ (BF) approach, currently occupies center stage in adult personality research. When people are given enough time and freedom to express their evaluations of others, five broad dimensions reappear reliably. These five dimensions are abstract ‘supertraits’ that summarize lower level patterns of individual differences. A useful mnemonic for remembering the dimensions of the BF is the acronym OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (The memory aid does not convey the relative size or importance of these dimensions: extraversion and agreeableness are probably larger factors than the others.)

Two leading temperament researchers, Halverson and Kohnstamm recognized the need to bring child personality development researchers together with leading researchers working on the structure of adult personality, and they organized a conference. Papers presented at this meeting, and a few others, were published in a subsequent milestone volume entitled The Developing Structure of Temperament and Personality from Infancy to Adulthood. The chapters in Halverson et al. (1994) suggested possible links among temperament differences in infants and toddlers and later personality structure in children and adults. Contributors to the Halverson et al. (1994) volume showed how aspects of temperament might be linked to BF personality structure. For the personality development researchers, temperament was the focal concept because in developmental psychology, it refers to early-appearing, stable individual differences derived from the constitutional or biologically determined makeup of individuals.

Prior to the Halverson et al. (1994) syntheses, the temperament researchers and the BF researchers were like two separate, isolated tribes. Temperament research was conducted largely as a kind of developmental psychology. Temperament was conceptualized as biobehavioral individual differences in young children, and not as personality structure, per se. Because young children cannot provide verbal self-reports, temperament researchers were usually forced to rely on objective measures and ratings by expert observers. In contrast, BF research was conducted largely as personality psychology, conceptualized as the structure of individual differences in adults. Because adults can provide verbal self-reports, BF researchers rely much more on self-reports than on objective measures or expert ratings for their data. Some BF researchers seemed mildly interested in the temperamental antecedents of the structure, but others most emphatically were not (see Hofstee 1991, p. 185). Many of the contributors to the Halverson et al. (1994) volume were internationally recognized authorities on temperament, and their suggestions about links between early-appearing, emotional dispositions and later BF personality structure gave credibility to the general line of thought.

One idea reinforced at this conference was that some aspects of temperament provide the developmental substrates for later, major dimensions of personality. One route is to link temperamental characteristics in infants and young children to each of the major BF dimensions. In theory, temperamental differences in activity at infancy could be linked positively to extraversion, and negatively to conscientiousness (e.g., Caspi 1998). Another route is to suggest ways that temperaments lay a functional foundation for later personality dimensions. For example, infants show temperament-related differences in reactions to frustration. Some infants become so upset when frustrated that they appear to be unable to respond adaptively to the frustrating event, whereas other infants seem be modulate their emotional reactions and deploy attention in adaptive ways. Ahadi and Rothbart (1994) suggested that a kind of superordinate temperament called ‘effortful control’ (EC) might regulate reactions to frustration. Furthermore, processes underlying EC might lay a functional foundation for both conscientiousness and agreeableness. This provocative idea suggests that (a) temperamentbased processes like EC are related to perceptual processes of attention; (b) seemingly different dimensions of adult personality may be related through their common functional connection to the control of frustration; and (c) two of the major dimensions in the BF may have a common developmental substrate, and may differentiate over time into functionally separate self-regulatory systems. The implications for the socialization of emotions, achievement, and social skills are great (e.g., Kochanska et al. 1998).

In 1998, Kohnstamm et al. delivered some hard evidence in Parental Descriptions of Child Personality: Developmental Antecedents of the Big Fi e? (Kohnstamm et al. 1998). They offered a seven-culture study of parents’ description of their children’s personality. The seven countries involved were Belgium, China, Germany, Greece, The Netherlands, USA, and Poland. The book’s title expresses the continuity beginning with early temperament research, on to Digman’s pioneering work, through the Halverson et al. (1994) meeting of the minds, to the massive cross-cultural data set presented in this book. Rather than relying on top-down, theorist-imposed descriptors in existing temperament or personality measures, contributors to the Kohnstamm et al. volume asked parents to use their own words to characterize their children. The explicit assumption was that people in all seven countries frequently mention those characteristics that they think are most important or basic. In all seven countries, parents described children between the ages of two and 13 years. The descriptions were collected during face-to-face interviews by teams native to each country’s language and culture. Using elaborate coding manuals, descriptions were categorized into units, which were inspired by the BF, with subcategories or facets derived mostly inductively. In addition, responses were coded as positive or negative. For example, in coding the extraversion descriptions, Kohnstamm et al. used 1A (sociability), 1B (dominance, leadership, assertiveness) and 1C (activity, pace, tempo). In this system the positive–negative poles are added so that 1A+ would include ‘enthusiastic,’ whereas 1A- would include ‘tendency to shut self off.’ After training, coders’ agreement over the main categories was between 80 and 90 percent.

In theory, most cultures have a stake in supporting positive relations among people and controlling conflicts. It is reasonable then to expect persons in all cultures to recognize differences associated with harmonious relations, and to socialize children accordingly. It is telling, perhaps, that the B5 dimensions that focus on interpersonal relations, extraversion and agreeableness, together account for approximately half of all parental descriptions of children. None of the other three dimensions rival either of the two interpersonal dimensions in terms of proportions of descriptions. Extraversion is one of the core concepts of trait psychology, and some form of it is measured in all widely used personality measures. In every country except Greece, extraversion was the single most frequently mentioned category at 28 percent of the descriptors (In Greece, agreeableness and extraversion were equal in importance.)

As a distinct aspect of personality, agreeableness is less well understood than extraversion. In part this may be due to an undifferentiated understanding of social behavior, which includes both social impact (extraversion) and motives to maintain positive relations with others (agreeableness). Eysenck (1994) emphasized the former aspect of social behavior in his trait model. As a consequence, personality researchers interested in the dispositional foundations of social behavior focused on extraversion at the expense of agreeableness. If agreeableness is related to ‘love,’ and to motives to maintain positive relations, then it is not difficult to see potential developmental continuities, particularly links to interpersonal conflict, and to childhood problems like difficult or disruptive behavior and antisocial tendencies. Data from the Kohnstamm et al. book show that in parental description, agreeableness is a large dimension, accounting for from 17 percent (China) to 26 percent (Greece) of all descriptions.

Because the Kohnstamm et al. work is massive, it is possible to give only a flavor of the findings for some of the other ‘lesser’ personality dimensions. Of the remaining dimensions, openness seems to be the largest category in free descriptions, but with major cultural differences. Data from the Kohnstamm et al. book show that parents in the USA make use of openness descriptors almost twice as often as do parents in all other countries except Germany. Further data focus on emotional stability (positive pole) and neuroticism (negative pole). Like extraversion, neuroticism is easily linked conceptually to early appearing temperaments (e.g., ‘adaptability,’ ‘quality of mood’). Given the long history of research and theory on the dimension, and the applied importance of this dimension for mental health and child guidance clinics, many professional psychologists will be surprised to learn that across all seven countries, fewer than 10 percent of all parental descriptors fell into this category. One conclusion is that on a worldwide basis most parents are not concerned about negative emotionality, anxiety, or self-confidence in their children. These qualities may be taken for granted, which is not the same as being unimportant.

Previously, we suggested that all cultures should be concerned with the development of characteristics associated with success in the domain of ‘work,’ and this concern would be related to evaluations on conscientiousness. Nevertheless, if there is an enigmatic domain of personality development (at least as it appears in parental descriptions of children), it is conscientiousness. As a total category, proportions of parental descriptions were low but highly variable by culture, ranging from 7 percent (USA) to an outlier of 19 percent (China). Chinese parents used almost three times as many descriptors of diligence, and twice as many descriptors of carefulness, as did US parents. Closer inspection shows that Chinese parents’ descriptors were drawn from the low end of the dimension (e.g., not diligent), after the child was older than three years of age. What is enigmatic, perhaps, is the low proportion of conscientiousness descriptions relative to the increasing importance of the dimension with age of child in five of the seven countries studied. The outcomes for conscientiousness may reflect cultural differences in the value of education, and in the values of modesty and humility. Chinese parents seem to stress achievement motivation more than parents in the USA, and as a result may have been more critical. Describing one’s own children in very positive terms may be especially unseemly for Chinese parents.

4. Future Directions

In the broad-brush overview presented here, it is possible to see the recent advances in theory and research on personality development in childhood. The advances are due in part to (a) efforts to find points of convergence, and to synthesize different perspectives on personality development; (b) the discovery of certain empirical regularities, both within cultures and across them; and (c) more sophisticated research techniques that permit the consideration of several variables at a time. In particular, we see increasing awareness that both culture-based, social learning environments and dispositional characteristics contribute to the personality development process. Important questions and issues remain, however, for the future.

We began this research paper with a modern definition of personality as a structural integration of individual differences. Personality development theory and research have only begun to deal with the issue of organizational structures. Theoretical accounts of the development of personality structure are rare, but rarer still as systematic empirical evaluations of such theoretical accounts. So far, the best available research has demonstrated empirical links of variables taken one at a time, which is no small achievement. This is some distance, however, from the theoretical description of personality as a structured integration. Furthermore, it could be argued that much of the personality development literature has yet to move from the assessment of reliability to the assessment of validity. Still missing from the personality development literature are systematic demonstrations of predictive validity to theoretically important external criteria. Mean differences in frequencies in personality descriptions across cultural groups or sex do not guarantee corresponding differences in overt behavior, or the prediction of overt behavior by personality. For example, Greek parents may use more agreeableness words to describe their children than do US parents, but do agreeableness differences predict choice of conflict strategies in a more differentiated way for Greek children than for US children? In a related vein, linking infant and toddler characteristics to later childhood personality is also promising, but it is not clear how (or even whether) early characteristics are foundational developmentally for later personality structure (but see Kochanska et al. 1998, Rothbart and Bates 1998). That is, early appearing temperaments and dispositions, and life experiences like parental divorce, may precede later personality, and may even predict later personality patterns. Such connections may not be causal or developmental in nature (e.g., Lewis et al. 2000). Is childhood in fact an especially formative period for personality development, or just another way station for the unfolding of a maturation-based personality system? Alternatively, is childhood just another social ecology to which each child must adapt, but with no long-term consequences for personality development? These questions go to the heart of personality development because they address the question of the origins and maintenance of continuity in persons across time. On an optimistic note, these limitations are less obstacles than incentives for future work on personality development in childhood.


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