Temperament: A Reliable Indicator of a Baby’s Personality?


How can you define a person? Such a question is pivotal in the study of Personality and Developmental Psychology.

It’s also a question mooted by parents and relatives of small children, keen to notice tell-tale signs on the adult they will, in time, grow into.

One such concept, which originates more than two millenia ago, is that of temperament.

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Temperament, as first presented to us by the Greek Philosopher Galen, is a classification of human behavioural styles, determined – he said – by one’s pre-dominant body fluid.

Galen’s Four Body Fluids

Those with a predominance of Blood were said to be sanguine, warm and affectionate.

Black Bile predisposed a person to melancholia, whereas those with a predominance of Yellow Bile were prone to irritability and aggression.

Galen’s fourth fluid, Phlegm, was predominant in those unexcitble souls who were characteristically slow to respond.

Food for thought… something to get you juices flowing.

But apparently the ancient and medieval worlds were generally phlegmatic about Galen’s temperaments and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the batton was picked up again and temperament was once again placed under the limelight.

Modern Day Research on Temperament

Thomas and Chess (1963, 1977) investigated the question of temperamental permanence in a study of 138 individuals, collecting data from birth through to adulthood.

Observing the individuals as babies, Thomas and Chess reasoned that there could be 9 dimensions of temperament, exhibited through the infant’s Primary Reaction Patterns:

Activity Level; Regularity; Approach-Withdrawal; Adaptability; Response Threshold; Intensity; Mood Quality; Distractibility; and Attention-Span collectively contributed to an infant’s classification as:

Easy, Difficult or Slow-To-Warm-Up.

Can Your Temperament Change?

But where does this temperamental style come from, and is there much we can do to change our style?

The highest heritability estimates – that is to say, the chances that temperament is genetically passed down the generations – are in the region of 0.6; a factor greater than chance, but still leaving lots of room for life experience to get a piece of the action.

And this is supported by the very modest correlations of temperament over time, ranging for 0.2 to 0.4.

Absolute stability of any trait is a rarity, and in the case of temperament the results can only be described as, well, somewhat temperamental.

So, whilst some psychologists suggest that certain temperamental dimensions found in pre-schoolers can hint at Big Five Personality Characteristics in later development, there is a strong case supporting those other psychologists who advise that temperament is another of those biological biases that act out some pre-disposition within the framework of a particular environment.

In other words – to return to Thomas and Chess (1977) in conclusion – “an individual’s temperamental characteristics match the characteristics of the environment in which the individual lives”.

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About Daniel Edward 65 Articles
Daniel set up Psychology Unlocked in 2016 to support Psychology students in higher and further education. Daniel has a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Psychology, Politics and Sociology from the University of Cambridge.