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Know Thyself: Bring Back Temperament

Appreciating our individual differences helps us and our loved ones.

Source: johnhain/Pixabay

In spite of statistical support, does anyone really think of themself in terms of OCEAN — Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism? These “Big Five” labels have become so dominant in adult personality research that a recent APA Keyword database search found that APA no longer assigned the term “temperament” its own independent meaning but had folded it into “Personality” for “search” purposes. The unique utility of the nine temperamental dimensions originally defined by Thomas, Chess and Birch risks being lost!

Empirical support for OCEAN is undeniable. Costa and Macrae’s stable constructs have statistical reliability as well as antecedents and consequences — that is, validity. But these terms remain concepts and, as such, only represent responses to measures on personality tests. They do not point to our individual differences in quite the same way that “Temperament”, with its intuitively obvious nine dimensions, can. I argue that the innate, biologically-based tendencies first observed systematically by the NYU researchers more than seventy years ago can be a more useful way of understanding oneself and those who are close. Think about yourself and someone you love as you read these descriptions:

  • Activity level. How much do you crave physical movement? How difficult is it for you to be still? To mobilize yourself when you have been resting? Do you meditate best while running, doing a walking meditation, or sitting on a cushion? Do you find yourself drawn to work that allows you to move around, to relationships in which you share physical activities? Do you go stir-crazy following surgery when your movements are restricted or during a turbulent long-distance flight with the seat-belt sign permanently switched to “on”? We can train ourselves to be more physically active or at least see ourselves as such, especially now that we know the benefits to health and well-being, but an innate temperamental preference for more or less movement makes it harder for some people than others. Similarly, people who find it hard to sit still can develop a certain amount of self-discipline or a list of work-arounds for their tendency to hyper-activity, but they are unlikely to voluntarily choose a sedentary beach vacation rather than an opportunity to hike or bike, ski or climb.
  • Approach/Avoidance. How do you react to what is new to you? Just like one baby may be eager to taste a new food or explore a new room, another may recoil from novelty and seek what is familiar. I am an Approacher — give me an opportunity to discover and I feel the urge to jump into it. I have learned to restrain my enthusiasm, especially since I am a bit of a Non-Adapter (see below.) Once I bit into an Easter Egg on an elaborate cruise ship centerpiece display, thinking it was chocolate. Plaster. I cracked my front tooth. That was one-trial learning to slow down in my enthusiasm. Avoiders are naturally more cautious, getting to know a new situation or another person over time before diving in. They prefer to revisit sites they have loved and return to favorite restaurants.
  • Adaptability. Once you have encountered something new, how quickly do you adapt? The independence of these domains — Adaptability and Approach/Avoid — is critical, even though they inevitably interact. By knowing that I am an Approacher but can be slow to adapt, I have learned to restrain my impulses, unless it is truly important to me and I know there is a Choice Point at which I have to take the risk. Setting my recently completed memoir on the road to publication, thus entering a whole new industry when I was a decade into retirement, was that kind of a risk. Then again, so is the story that I told in my book! For those who are highly adaptable, the opposite can be true. A friend of mine who adapts beautifully and quickly tends to dislike new situations. Anticipation of and the initial three days of each change of residence or new job have seen her acutely uncomfortable. Yet over the years, as she came to understand that she was a natural Avoid-Adapter, she realized that the discomfort would be quite temporary, that she would thrive quickly, and that the adjustment phase was simply part of her temperamental journey into the unknown. She now embraces novelty.
  • Sensitivity, or sensory threshold. We vary in the extent to which we are aware of changes in our environment, whether they are to our senses or the more elusive energy that surrounds us. Some people notice the tiniest differences in the amount or quality of light or sound, the taste of different varieties of strawberries, the ingredients in a perfume or in the sweat thrown off by anxiety, the feel of a fiber or fabric against their fingers. This innate ability to recognize subtle differences is not the same as the strength of a reaction to them. The reaction itself stems from a more global tendency, i.e., intensity.
  • Intensity. We vary in the extent to which we use our energy in expressing our emotions. One person can be loaded with strong responses to whatever they encounter. Another person can respond far more placidly, with arousal being far less dramatic and much quieter. This tendency to react to one’s world with strong or far more limited responsiveness can, of course, be affected by our lives. According to Sylvan Tomkins, novelty, complexity and duration of information are the qualities that drive emotional responses. We can train ourselves to manipulate those qualities and thus tone it down, perhaps with the help of meditation or therapy, or we can learn to dial intensity up, especially when our past experiences have exposed us to encounters that signal danger or opportunity.
  • CadreLuxe/Pixabay
    Source: CadreLuxe/Pixabay
    Mood. Our baseline disposition is independent of intensity. Some people are cheerful and others are more serious. Many positive people are just born that way, just as others are naturally more restrained. The explosive field of Positive Psychology has shown us the utility of a positive approach to life and given us many ways to reinforce and expand it. At the same time, a less enthusiastic person may be reflecting a genetic heritage or cultural legacy. Can you withhold judgments of another person based on quality of mood and, instead, explore these responses more deeply?
  • Rhythmicity. Some people are born with their biological clocks set to timers. Sensitive to their own circadian rhythms, they feel needs like those for sleep and nourishment at regular intervals. Others are far more flexible in meeting the demands of their biological cravings. Knowing your own style and that of a loved one can be very useful, especially when in a new situation, such as traveling. Indeed, the importance of maintaining regular times for meals and sleep and even of following a predictable schedule, can be the key to successfully sharing any experiences with a person who has a high level of rhythmicity. On the other hand, people like the now legendary Ruth Bader Ginsburg, can successfully follow irregular eating and sleeping patterns, overriding biological cues in order to pursue goals. In a couple, a person with a high need for rhythmicity and a partner whose cyclical needs are less demanding each do well to appreciate and honor the style of the other.
  • Distractibility. Some people find it easy to focus, to ignore pop-up ads on the sides of computer screens, to take no notice of people who enter a room while they are engrossed in a one-on-one conversation. Others find their attention diverted ever so easily. They have natural peripheral vision and take in changes in their environment naturally with an easy ability to “break set” or shift to another channel. They make excellent drivers, responsive partners, and alert professionals as long as they are not being distracted by screens or internal urges. Their ability to shift gears renders them responsive. However, their less distractible partner can make them feel crazy when he or she does not respond to what feels like an interruption or, worse, experiences it as an intrusion.
  • Persistence. Separate from distractibility, persistence is the ability to stay with a challenge regardless of frustration or other reasons that may cause a less persistent person to pull away and ask for help or turn attention elsewhere. This “attention span” can be molded, but a component of it does seem to be hard-wired, built into the baby. Those with long persistence naturally find their way into what Csikszentmihalyi labeled “flow” experiences. They can easily ignore external demands like time and internal ones like hunger when they are immersed in an activity that engages them completely.
Source: CadreLuxe/Pixabay

These nine temperamental dimensions are present in all of us at birth. Their combinations render us unique. Each temperamental quality has a spectrum; the more moderate degrees in the middle are generally easiest on both the person and those close to them.

Where do you fall on each domain? Where do those you love fall? Have you been aware of differences between you? Have they caused conflict? How do you accommodate them? DO you have tips you could recommend to others?

Copyright 2018 Roni Beth Tower


Costa, P.T. & McCrae, R. R. (1992) Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 663-665.

Thomas, A., Chess, S. & Birch, H. G. (1970). The origin of personality. Scientific American, 223. 102-109.