Brief History of Temperament Concepts

Almost since writing began, authors have been aware of the reality and importance of temperamental differences, portraying their characters with different "temperaments".

How we explain temperament has a shorter history.

We trace the formal study of temperament back to early medieval physiology, which in turn employed concepts from Greek philosophy. A person's temperament was presumed to depend on the proportion of four bodily fluids (humors) present in the system: blood (cheerfulness), phlegm (sluggishness or apathy), black bile (gloominess) and yellow bile (anger).

Later in the middle ages, explanations of temperament took a more judgmental, religious turn. The depressed, angry, "bilious" child was more likely to be seen as wicked or "possessed".

But by the 17th century, individual differences had lost their innate nature. The empiricism of John Locke emphasized the role of the environment, of sensory experiences. The baby's mind was believed to be a 'tabula raza' (blank slate). People who reacted differently in the same situation did so because different experiences during their lifetimes taught them to see that situation differently.

Invoking external forces to explain temperament differences continued into the 19th Century. Freud's physiological training helped him to conclude that constitutional differences played some role, but psychoanalytic theory primarily attributed individual differences in behavior to drives or unconscious motivations.

In the early 20th century, behaviorism continued this emphasis on external forces. Behavior was primarily learned, not innate. Positive or negative reinforcement schedules were the method of transmission. Slowly, though, a variety of events changed this perception. Scientists studying animal behavior found temperament hard to ignore, particularly when confronted with the variety of behavioral styles that remained stable across generations of laboratory animals. And clinicians found that "difficult" children often came from "good" families or (even harder to explain) apparently well-adjusted children often arose out of the most chaotic, tortuous conditions.

Drs. Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas are the clinician- researchers who, through their New York Longitudinal Study, deserve the credit for finally turning the light back onto temperament in child psychiatry and psychology. Starting in the 1950s, their study of 131 children from birth into their thirties confirmed the importance of early temperament differences particularly in the way those differences matched up with or "fit" the child's environment. Today, due primarily to their efforts, there is no longer a question whether temperament concepts are relevant.

© 1996-2018, The Preventive Ounce, a Non-profit organization