Temperament is innate, a direct result of genetics. No, research has not identified the genes responsible for it, but we know it is wired in our DNA. Temperament is the natural way we interact with one another and our environment. Since we examined the overall effect in K is for Keirsey, let’s look at it before it changes with our character and what we learn.
You know from the first few moments of a newborn’s life, there are certain things about the child you cannot deny. The baby will either be excitable or sleep through a civil defense siren. It will coo at strangers or will cloud up and rain on Granny’s parade. This is the rawest sign of temperament. It is not tempered with the concepts of character which will be learned later.
During the 1950s, a lot of research into temperament was happening. Keirsey was busy creating kidneys. Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess were busy with children. No, they were not both the parents of a particular child. They were setting out on the New York Longitudinal Study (NYLS), which followed babies through 17 years to study how their temperaments served to predict future behavior and whether or not temperament was diverted by learned character traits.
What the study ultimately revealed was nine specific dimensions on which temperament could be measured, which were set into a classification continuum by Herbert Birch. Together, Thomas and Chess published NYLS findings in 1968.
1. Trifling or Tedious?
Physical activity is the first trait. This answers the question: Can you sit still? People with a low activity level can survive in the most structured environments (think IRS cubicle farm). High activity level people do better in more physical environments (think professional sports).
Regularity or rhythmicity is the predictability of biological functions. (Think blue light bio-clock.) Are you the kind of person who absolutely needs lunch at 12:00 noon? Are you the one who can sleep any time of the day or night with the same restfulness?
High rhythmicity people have very structured internal clocks (think set your watch by what time they arise in the morning). Those with a lower regularity rating tend to service bodily functions more haphazardly (think has no idea when they will be hungry).
Initial reaction is gauged as approach or withdrawal and refers to reactions to new people or environments. Bold people approach new things and people, while timid or cautious people withdraw to observe before bounding into new situations.
Adaptability is the next trait. After the first take, how long does it take to acclimate to a change in surroundings (people or place or condition)? More adaptable people fall right into the new routine after a change. More rigid people take longer to grow comfortable and adept in new situations.
A person’s intensity is noticeable. How intensely do you react? When something is funny, the more intense person will unabashedly laugh, with included, even seemingly exaggerated, body language gestures. The less intense person may only smile or may not even change expression to show merriment.
One of the only traits to be predominantly one or the other is mood. Mood refers to overall happy or unhappy demeanor. (Think optimist versus pessimist.)
Distractibility is the tendency to be sidetracked from an activity. Are you one who can stay on task with chaos around you? Or are you one who “Squirrel!”
Attention span and persistence are very measurable traits. How long will you stay at a task, even when frustrated?
Sensory sensitivity is the final trait in the mix. Sensory threshold or threshold for responsiveness refers to how easily you are disturbed by environmental changes. Does your train of thought derail at sudden noises, bizarre textures or changes in lighting?
Those with a low threshold are immediately bothered by the air conditioning blowing on them. Those with a high threshold are not upset by the thunder and lightning outside the window.
Knowing that being too far to one end of the continuum on any one of the nine traits can be cause for alarm (especially in very young children), weighing them all together produces one of three profiles. Children will keep these profiles stable throughout childhood until pre-puberty when character-building (through choosing learned responses) changes the way they express themselves.
Thomas, Chess, Birch, Margaret Hertzig and Sam Korn found 65% of all babies fell into these three categories. The remaining 35% showed significant traits from two categories, with a negligible number showing traits in all three.
Slow to warm up: These babies withdrew from new people and environments and had lower activity levels. Although they accepted new routines, they had lower adaptability. 15% of babies fell into this category.
Difficult: These babies were irregular (bodily functions, especially eating/sleeping), cried more, were irritable and fussy and tended to be very emotional. 10% of babies fell into this category.
Easy: 40% of babies fell into this category. They fell into regular schedules, adapted to environmental change readily and were generally happy with positive moods and emotions.
Although temperament plays a large role in our relationships as children with our parents, caregivers, peers and authority figures, we can adapt to our environment to abandon the intensity of our original traits. However, vestiges of the original traits will still be dormant under our conscious choices to leave them behind or adopt more moderate levels.
Learning to recognize the differences in temperaments is instrumental to easing the pain of parenthood, especially when Child and Parent are of differing or opposite temperaments.
Making small concessions to accommodate temperament can ease or prevent problems arising from the differences. This is exercising parenting psychology.
By knowing our own temperaments, we can better gauge our reactions to the people and events around us.
The New York Longitudinal Study was just one of many long term research projects into temperament around the globe. There are varying other theories which bear both striking similarity and stark contrast to the Thomas-Chess synopsis. Just a few include Mary Rothbart, Rudolf Steiner, Kagan and John Bates.
Where do you stand on Thomas & Chess’ temperament scales? Can you think of a way to overcome temperament differences between you and (Mate, Child, Co-Worker)? Did you already know temperament began before character?
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(c) Ann Marie Dwyer 2012
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