Jun 15, 2010

The Dynamics of Temperament

After a year-long hiatus I have resumed reading Neurodynamics of Personality. The chapter titled “The Dynamics of Temperament” was quite interesting. Here I will post some excerpts with my comments below.

Psychological theories of temperament view it as a biologically based set of personality traits, present from infancy, that forms a sort of template for the development of personality... It is ordinarily thought to include such traits as extraversion or introversion, “neuroticism,” activity level, level of arousal, emotional reactivity, predominant mood, speed and capacity of information processing, ability to regulate one’s own behavior, and the capacity to deal with novel situations.

While research on personality traits as dimensions of temperament has been productive, we believe that it may be useful to shift the emphasis somewhat from traits to the subcomponent neural processes that determine those traits...

(This is what I have come to think about socionics, too.)

Temperament has a strong biological component, reflecting heritability and early developmental influences (including intrauterine and perinatal factors). At the extremes of temperament (e.g., marked shyness or gregariousness), it is likely that constitutional factors so dominate the picture that, barring exceptional experience, certain predispositions will have a strong and decisive influence on behavior and character that endures throughout the life of the individual. However, experience may modify certain aspects of the expression of temperament, and experience certainly accounts for much of the variability among persons with essentially similar temperamental styles. For example, research has demonstrated the importance of “goodness of fit” between the temperament of the child and the environment provided by the parents.

The text goes on to summarize how successful personality development depends on an adaptive interaction between the individual and parents who are able to successfully deal with the child’s temperament, and on an adaptive relationship with the world at large, particularly as the child moves through school and into the adult world and must adapt to different environments that are more or less compatible with his or her temperamental characteristics. More on this below.

Temperament and dynamics

Temperament acts as a fundamental organizer for emergent psychological experience by affecting the probabilities associated with the activation of various neural networks. We are in fundamental agreement with Zuckerman’s (1995) conclusion that “we do not inherit personality traits or even behavior mechanisms as such. What is inherited are chemical templates that produce and regulate proteins involved in building the structure of nervous systems and the neurotransmitters, enzymes, and hormones that regulate them. We are not born as extroverts, neurotics, impulsive sensation seekers, or antisocial personalities, but we are born with differences in reactivities of brain structures and levels of regulators” (pp. 331-332).

Temperament as a process is always undergoing modifications and shifts (albeit often subtle) as ongoing adaptation occurs... Many different streams of processing contribute to the expression of temperament at each moment...

The probability is greatest that an individual’s temperament would occupy a more or less predictable region of the temperament phase space -- a shy child is likely to be shy most of the time.

Temperament may be more “noticeable” among those in one of the tails of the distribution, but temperament (or, more precisely, its subcomponent processes) influences even those who lie closer to the mean, whose expressions of temperament do not have a visible or defining “signature” such as hyperactivity.

Temperament and environment

This section talks about how one’s environment can interact with temperamental styles to contribute to the development of more or less adaptive personality traits.

[Speaking of a boy diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)] Parents, teachers, and peers may find him exasperating, and the behavioral style he acquires in turn may lead to the development of a conduct disorder or antisocial personality. If his parents and siblings are able to deal with him in a positive, adaptive manner, the outcome may be positive, but an active, agressive, energetic style is likely to dominate his personality. In the same way, the biologically shy child is likely to remain shy. If raised in a stern environment or exposed to physical and emotional abuse, such a child may develop a very avoidant personality style. If a child like this is treated sensitively and manages to avoid being traumatized, he or she may show a very successful adaptation in life.

Temperament, because it influences the probabilities of behaving in certain ways, can lead to a significant shapin gof the environment. Thus, temperament can have a significant effect on one’s learning history. A corrolary is that temperament not only affects the kind of environment the person encounters, it also affects how and what a persona learns from his or her experience. Distractability, for example, may lead one to overlook the details of certain transaction and may interfere with learning from those encounters. For the shy person, a single experience of interpersonal failure may provide an education that lasts for a lifetime. To a natural extrovert, the same sort of interpersonal failure may have little or no lasting effect.

On the “goodness of fit” between child and environment:

[Quoting Thomas and Chess (1980)] [This] goodness of fit results when the properties of the environment and its expectations and demands are in accord with the organism’s own capacities, motivations, and style of behaving. When this consonance between organism and environment is present, optimal development in a progressive direction is possible. Conversely, poor fit involves discrepancies and dissonances between environmental opportunities and demands and the capacities and characteristics of the organism, so that distorted development and maladaptive functioning occur.

An infant’s temperament expresses itself in interaction with an environment that is first and foremost on interpersonal environment... It is an infant’s caretakers who first experience their child’s termperament and whose responses will influence how and in what way this temperament is brought into some sort of alignment with the demands of the environment.

The authors go on to discuss how a fussy baby’s temperamental development may benefit more from a relaxed, unanxious mother than from an anxious one.

Children who are temperamentally biased in one way or another may require more active engagement with caregivers to help compensate or correct for their innate dispositions... Different temperaments make different demands on caregivers, and different caregivers will show considerable variability in their aptitude and motivation in responding appropriately and adaptively to the child’s temperament.

Temperament can also be influenced to some degree by the child’s developing capacity for reflective self awareness. Thus, for instance, a shy person can deliberately behave in ways that stretch her behavioral repertoire or at least minimize its influence. Presumably such learning across time can, in some cases, become stable enough that the temperamental influence recedes in large areas of behavioral functioning. Nonetheless, under stress, one might expect the basic temperament to be more visible in such people. The disorganized, distractible child can develop neural networks associated with organizational habits if given adequate support in doing so. The establishment and activation of these networks over time changes the likelihood of their subsequent activation. Thus, procedural learning may shape the expression of temperament.

The fit between child and environment is never perfect. Winnicott (1960) suggested that this is not a bad thing, because a hypothetical “perfect fit” between an infant and its caretakers (where “perfect” is defined as total maternal attunement and adaptive responsiveness to her infant’s needs) would undermine a child’s spontaneous exercise of its adaptive capability (apart from being impossible). Within limits, imperfect fit leads to the exercise of these capabilities providing much of the scaffold for subsequent personality development. Thus Winnicott was led to observe that what was necessary to support normal developmental processes was a “good enough” fit between an infant and his or her parents.

Temperament can lead to psychopathology when a child has unhelpful or incompetent training experiences (bad fit). The shy child who is ridiculed or unsupported by the parents may go on to become pathologically shy, whereas another equally shy child who is supported and encouraged may develop an adaptive behavioral style.

...In some cases the constitutional imperative associated with a given temperament may be so pronounced that there is an increased likelihood of psychopathology. Temperament in such cases can be considered dynamically as leading to psychopathology by reducing behavioral plasticity.

Psychopathology also can result when an individual’s temperament is somehow not adequately and constructively accommodated by his or her life structure. Thus a distractible person who becomes an accountant or air traffic controller may experience stresses that could lead to pathology. Similarly, a gregarious person who finds him- or herself working alone may suffer as a result. Life structures that don’t conflict with pronounced temperamental variables are likely to be less pathogenic.

Finally, if a society is unable to provide appropriate niches that can accommodate people with varying temperaments, psychopathology can be the result. A border collie bred to walk great distances while herding sheep will develop neurotic symptoms if forced to live in an apartment in the city. Similarly, highly active children may become symptomatic in environments requiring long periods of sustained attention. Different societies are more or less successful in providing the variety of niches within which diverse temperaments can find expression.

Temperament and a bit of socionics (my comments)

Temperament (as described in this article) and socionics are clearly related, but not equivalent. Different people of a single type seem to share a certain general temperament footprint, but specific levels of traits differ from person to person. Some people carry one or more “extreme” type traits, while others seem to have no pronounced temperamental style. Extremes are more common among males.

Variation in temperamental traits is essential to homo sapiens and other advanced species. It seems to me that the more extreme the trait, the greater the risks and the potential rewards to the individual. They remain in the gene pool because historically they have provided reproductive dividends. Some traits may be associated with higher rates of suicide, homicide, accidents, etc., but also with high reproductive success if the individual survives into adulthood, or with higher reproductive success of the person's relatives, who are likely to be carrying genes for the trait as well.

Human populations need scouts, impulsively aggressive types, loners and independent thinkers, melancholics, hyperactive types, and of course large numbers of generally conservative people who easily become attached to the conditions they grew up in and are resistant to change. Take away too much temperamental variation, and societies become inflexible, static, and vulnerable to change. Most of the time what the scouts and explorers have to say is not very important, but occasionally it is very important. Most of the time violent types are a pain to live with, but they sure scare the hell out of your enemies. And so on.

Feel free to discuss the quotes and any connections to socionics or personal development.


aestrivex said...

nice theoretical models, but (at least from your excerpts) still no specifics or actual evidence on what the neuronal correlates of these temperamentally relevant traits are.

Rick said...

I agree. I have also been somewhat disappointed with the book for the same reason. I suppose it would be a bestseller if it had the specifics...

Here is the Amazon.com description and book reviews for some more information on the book' contents:


aestrivex said...

as we have discussed over this topic in the past, from what i have studied of the biology of personality, "the specifics" that so far have been uncovered make little to no sense, and are nothing remotely as comprehensive as to explain the predominance of temperament traits, let alone something unmeasurable like IM elements.

(perhaps the lone exception i can think of is eysenck's classic finding about extroversion and cortical responsiveness, but there as well i suspect the picture is incomplete and that aspect deals with a very specific piece of extroversion).