Discover the meaning and origins of temperaments.
We humans come in all shapes and sizes, both physically and psychologically. Some of us get irritated quickly, and others can’t be bothered by anything. Some of us look for an opportunity to chit-chat with the stranger sitting next to us on a long flight. Yet, some of us pretend to sleep so that we can avoid talking to our seatmates. Whatever you think is a natural way to behave might be completely strange to someone else.
Typically, our behavioral and emotional inclinations are apparent even as infants. You might have noticed this phenomenon with the small ones in your life or overheard others label their children, siblings, or other young relatives as shy, sensitive, easy, or difficult. These labels are just a few examples of temperaments.
Temperament is one of the many factors that influence our behaviors. Roughly, we can define temperament as the collection of our behavioral tendencies that determine our emotional and behavioral reactions to what’s happening around us. In short, temperament is the unique dispositional makeup of an individual.
So, what do we mean by a collection of tendencies or dispositional makeup? Our temperaments are multidimensional, consisting of several independent behavioral traits, such as sociability, emotionality, reactivity, attention, and persistence. We all have distinct inclinations for each trait, and the overall combination of our inclinations makes up our unique temperaments.
Let’s take sociability and emotionality, for instance. A person may be shy or outgoing, which is independent of whether they are sensitive or impassive. As you can imagine, a shy and sensitive person may perceive and react to a situation differently than her shy and insensitive friend or an outgoing and sensitive cousin. Therefore, the unique combinations of our personality traits provide the nuances of our emotional and behavioral reactions.
We still use temperaments as a way to describe people’s behavioral and emotional inclinations. Yet, our understanding of temperaments has come a long way since antiquity. Psychologists define temperaments as “psychological tendencies with intrinsic paths of development” that reflect the personality traits of the five-factor model (McCrae et al., 2000).
So, if temperaments reflect the traits of the “big five personality traits” or other personality models, then are the concepts of personality and temperament interchangeable? Although some equate them or think of temperament as an element of personality, others acknowledge these two terms as related (yet distinct) concepts (Strelau, 1987).
Simply put, temperaments are our innate tendencies or our natural ways to feel and behave. In other words, temperaments are the collections of traits we are born with. Therefore, there is very little we can do to change our temperaments. Personality, however, encompasses the characteristic behavior and thought patterns of an individual that may be shaped and molded by our social interactions, education, economic status, and other circumstances and major events throughout our lives. Hence, one may think of temperament as reflecting the “nature” origin of our behavior, whereas personality incorporates “nurture” into how we act and think. Here is a brief video that explains temperament and personality.
- Activity level: This temperament refers to how active a person is. For instance, some individuals feel the need to move constantly. These high-activity individuals tend to move from one physical activity to another. As children, they may have trouble sitting still in class and fidget with their pencils. In contrast, low activity individuals tend to enjoy calmer activities.
- Biological rhythms: This temperament is associated with the regularity of fulfilling biological needs, such as eating and sleeping. People with regular rhythms tend to stick to routines and have predictable daily patterns. On the other hand, people with irregular rhythms might forget to eat a meal, feel sleepy sometime during the day or not feel sleepy past their bedtime.
- Sensitivity: Sensitivity refers to the intensity of the perception of certain stimuli. For instance, highly sensitive people may be bothered by many sounds, textures, and bright lights that others don’t even notice.
- Intensity of reaction: This temperament is associated with how strongly a person reacts to something. High-intensity individuals tend to have powerful reactions to even the slightest situations and create drama. In contrast, low-intensity individuals respond to even a major event as if it isn’t a big deal.
- Adaptability: Adaptability indicates whether someone can easily adjust to changes in their environment. Highly adaptable individuals can handle unexpected changes with ease. However, slow to adapt individuals may need additional time to feel comfortable with the same change.
- Approach/withdrawal: Similar to adaptability, this temperament refers to how people tend to approach new situations or changes. People with an approaching style can easily meet new people or try new things. Yet, withdrawing individuals may hang back, observe, and assess the new situation or people before joining in or taking action.
- Persistence: This trait focuses on how long someone is willing to try and stick to a task. Persistent individuals tend to do whatever they can to reach the finish line. People with low persistence can be overwhelmed by the slightest challenge and give up easily.
- Distractibility: This trait refers to whether a person tends to be distracted easily. Highly distractible people have difficulties paying attention to a task for long periods. They may also find it challenging to focus on a task when there are distractions in the environment. On the other hand, people with low distractibility can be absorbed in what they are doing, even in the loudest places.
- Mood: Mood indicates the direction of our feelings. People with positive moods tend to see things from a brighter perspective and appear generally cheerful. In contrast, people with negative moods may have a gloomier attitude.
Temperaments are essential behavioral characteristics that make us who we are. Since temperaments are the behavioral inclinations we are born with, there isn’t much we can do to change them. Yet, knowing our temperaments may allow us to understand our strengths and weaknesses better. Similarly, understanding the temperaments of our loved ones can help us set realistic behavioral expectations.
- McCrae, R. R., Costa, P. T., Jr., Ostendorf, F., Angleitner, A., Hřebíčková, M., Avia, M. D., Sanz, J., Sánchez-Bernardos, M. L., Kusdil, M. E., Woodfield, R., Saunders, P. R., & Smith, P. B. (2000). Nature over nurture: Temperament, personality, and life span development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 173–186.
- Strelau, J. (1987). The concept of temperament in personality research. European Journal of personality, 1(2), 107-117.