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Temperament

Monday, January 11, 2010

A useful (and practical) way of looking at differences between people

 

One of the more useful analytical tools that have emerged in recent decades is the concept of temperament. It came out of an early research on attachment styles by Stella Chase and colleagues about 40 years ago. Like other aspects of personality structure, neuroscience is becoming more interested and invested in it as time goes by. Still, temperament is something we know little about.

 

Temperament refers to the innate traits we are born with. These traits do not reflect any kind of judgment on a person. Having one temperamental trait or style has nothing to do with how smart, good, creative, or anything else someone is. These are just tendencies we are born with.

 

There are nine traits or components to each person's temperament. (These traits are measured on a continuum. I'll describe the extremes to make my point.) 

 

1.    Activity Level

This is self explanatory. Think of someone who just can’t sit still compared to another who can for long periods of time. (People noticed this difference way before the ADHD diagnosis came about!)

 

2.    Mood

Low Mood (someone who is miserable starting the day) to High Mood (someone with a sunny and cheerful disposition for no apparent reason!).

 

3.    Approach

People who are Slow Approach tend to take their time observing a novel situation before taking action. Fast Approach people jump into new situations – which may look like an impulse-control issue.

 

4.    Sensitivity

This has to do with how we physically respond to external elements such as temperature, light, sound, etc. Think of how some of us cannot stand the feeling of a label on the inside of our shirt and those who don’t mind it.

 

5.    Adaptability

This has to do with how we are in transitions. A Slow Adaptable person takes her/his time while a High Adaptable one just jumps into a task if she/he finds it interesting. Think of those who make faces or throw tantrums during transitions compared to those who take them on smoothly.

 

6.    Regularity

Some people need more structure than others and are more regular in their basic needs: eating, sleeping, bowel movements, etc.

 

7.    Distractibility (also called Focus)

This is the ability to stay on task. Observe this difference between the efficient multi-taskers you know and those who can only focus on one thing at a time.

 

8.    Intensity

Think of the intensity of emotions and expressive styles in people. Compare a kid who turns blue over wanting a piece of candy to another one who calmly accepts a “no” from the mom. In artists compare, for instance, Led Zeppelin to Jason Meraz.

 

9.    Persistence

This relates to task-completion and how a person responds to it. Think of those who stay with something to the bitter (or sweet!) end and others who abandon projects half done.

 

By looking at these traits you see how some are incompatible with others. They also shed light on the adaptive (read “adaptability”) side of human nature. Most practically, note how acknowledging people’s different temperaments and temperamental styles of behavior minimizes the need for throwing labels at people and pathologizing their innate traits. This is especially important when we are dealing with children.

 


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