Temperament 101

In last month's essay I wrote about identity foreclosure - a psychological phenomena involving the failure of a human being to develop to become who he or she is organismically supposed to become. One reader commented that they wished I had focused on the biological side of the story more than I did - they were more interested in the idea of how a chemical imbalance could produce a personality rather than how a cultural influence could. And that side of the story is pretty fascinating too. So this month's essay is about how biological forces shape people into who they are.

What is Temperament?

First we need to define what is meant by the term 'temperament'. Temperament is the biologically granted part of a person's personality. It is present from birth and is thought to reflect the contribution of genetics. Temperament is akin to instinct. You can see it at work in babies. Some babies are calm and peaceful and placid, while others are colicky, easily upset and easily frustrated. Such differences are thought to be the result of different biological wiring within the babies and not from differences in their environments.

Human beings share a common core of emotional wiring. Available evidence suggests that human beings (and probably most mammals) are wired to experience a small set of different emotions, including happiness, anger and disgust. Although different cultures will vary in terms of what emotions they glorify and what emotions they discourage, all cultures are observed to show the same basic range of core emotions. The core set of emotions is thought to be hard-wired into people; regardless of context or culture, people from all different places express the same emotions in the same way. The work of Paul Ekman offers a fascinating insight into this biological basis of emotion. Long ago Ekman developed a facial muscle coding system which can be used with remarkable accuracy to predict what someone is feeling based on observation of how their facial muscles change while they are talking with you. Sincere smiles (sincere happiness) can be distinguished from false ones (where someone wants to appear happy but really is not), for example, using this system.

Although we all have the same range of emotions available to us, we don't all express those emotions at the same rates. Some of us are mellower than others. The individual differences in how mellow, how reactive someone is, are another way of thinking about what temperament is.

Personality and Neuroticism

For years psychologists have argued about how to best describe differences in personality. Personality, defined by dictionary.com as “The totality of qualities and traits, as of character or behavior, that are peculiar to a specific person”, is the product of the interaction between a person's temperament and their experience. Temperament alone does not account for personality, but it does function as the basis and starting place for where someone's personality begins. Experience can alter personality, but only so far.

A popular personality theory suggests that people can be differentiated on five major dimensions of personality. This model, not surprisingly, is called the “Five Factor Model”. The idea with the five factor model is that if we rate someone's personality on five major dimensions, we will have described most all of the important things that make them different than other people in terms of how they behave and are likely to behave.

The five factor model's first and largest factor (or dimension of personality) is called “Neuroticism”. This is not Freud's neuroticism which described a state of someone having minor mental illnesses, but rather instead describes how emotionally stable someone is likely to be. Some people are born basically emotionally stable - it takes a lot of environmental stress to get them going. Other people are born more labile (emotionally unstable and easily upset). Such other people are very reactive to the environment and will react emotionally, getting angry, anxious or depressed in accordance to their environment. So the thinking goes, people who are born with higher levels of neuroticism (higher emotional instability) are more vulnerable to developing disorders of emotion such as anxiety disorders or depression.

Besides Neuroticism, the five factor model (at least the one put forth by researchers Costa and McCrae) also contains four other factors: Extraversion (which describes whether people are inclined to want to isolate or be social), Agreeableness (which describes differences in someone's disposition to be friendly or gruff), Conscientiousness (which describes whether someone is likely to be responsible or not) and Openness to Experience (which describes how willing someone is to try out new ideas or experiences). To one degree or another, temperament is thought to strongly influence each of these personality factors, genetically pushing us to become one sort of person or another.


At this point we should talk about vulnerability, specifically, whether or not having a particular temperament (and thus a particular personality style) makes one more or less vulnerable to getting diseases of one sort or another, mental and physical both.

Scientists have a fancy name for the idea that temperament can create vulnerabilities to mental illness: “diathesis-stress”. Diathesis means “vulnerability”. The idea with a diathesis-stress model is that someone gets a disease because they: 1) were more vulnerable to that disease than someone else in the first place, and 2) they got stressed out and that activated the vulnerability to produce an illness. So it is not enough to just be born with a temperamental vulnerability. Illness occurs, it is thought, when vulnerability meets stress.

Being a “Neurotic” person (high on the personality dimension of “Neuroticism” is thought to be a diathesis for disorders involving depression and anxiety. Being highly neurotic is a double edged sword. It makes people more interesting and more driven sometimes, and by virtue of being more driven, more successful. (Scratch the surface of a 'Type A' personality and you will find some sort of proto-pathology there - either Neuroticism or a variety of obsessionality) - but Neuroticism also seems to set people up to become disabled or ill sometimes.

How, For Example, Neuroticism Might Pave The Way For Anxiety Disorder

I want to give an example of how having a diathesis like being high-neurotic can possibly lead to 'mental disorders' but to do that I'll need to digress for a moment.

The normal healthy brain and body are biological systems that exist in exquisite and subtle self-correcting balance. These are self-regulating systems that use 'negative-feedback' to keep all the various part of the system within normal parameters - to keep any part from getting out of control. When I say negative feedback I don't mean that such feedback is bad or negative; rather it is called 'negative' feedback because it functions to keep systems under control and constant. Feedback that makes things go out of control is called 'positive feedback' These are terms and concepts that are drawn from cybernetics theory circa 1960.

Diatheses to mental illness stop normal negative feedback processes from working to keep brain systems under control. Let's take the example of neuroticism for example and how being highly neurotic can lead to anxiety problems. When you are highly neurotic, you are more jumpy and more reactive to danger cues in the environment. Your being jumpy has evolutionary goodness in that your ancestors who correctly jumped to get out of the way of danger were more likely to reproduce than their laid-back brothers and sisters who didn't jump. Being jumpy has worked so well for your ancestors that you've been blessed with an excess of it. You jump to all sorts of threats, including those which aren't actually real.

People who are biologically predisposed to jump at any and all threats (real and imagined) need to develop a strategy for handling their excessive reactivity. Some highly neurotic people get very good at denial and distraction – so as to minimize the amount of threat-information to which they have to pay attention). Other highly neurotic people get good at being hypervigilant – becoming super-sensitive to any and all threats so as to maximize the amount of threat-information they deal with (after all – any threat you miss could be the end of you – so you better catch them all!). These two coping strategies are commonly referred to as Repression and Sensitization, respectively.

Both repression and sensitization are strategies for managing threat related information. Repression seeks to minimize emotional reactivity by ignoring the signs that would trigger it, while Sensitization seeks to manage reactivity by learning as much about danger as possible so as best to react appropriately towards it. Both repressors and sensitizers are highly anxious sorts of folks (at the biological level), although only the sensitizers will look the part.

Being a “sensitizer” can lead towards the development of an anxiety disorder in that a tendency to always being on the lookout for danger can lead one to overreact, or to react strongly to false alarms. Panic attacks can be so overwhelming that they become in-of-themselves perceived as a dangerous event; no one who has been through one ever wants to go through it again. People experiencing panic attacks or similar anxious reactions may avoid exposing themselves to places and situations where they have had those attacks or reactions. In some cases, this process can result in the development of agoraphobia, social phobia, or similar disorders. In this sequence, a temperamental disposition (e.g., “Neuroticism”) leads to the development of a cognitive coping style (e.g., “Sensitization”), which leads to the experience of anxiety. People lacking in the basic neurotic temperament don't deal have to cope with excessive reactivity and thus are less likely to develop anxiety problems.

You might think that it's dumb to be a Sensitizer if you could be a Repressor, but that might not be the case either. While Repressors don't present with anxiety disorders, they do seem to suffer from increased cardiac risk, etc. Repressors' cultivated dissociation that helps them avoid acting reactively also leads them to avoid dealing with their bodies in a way that encourages them to take good care of themselves. Repressors sometimes avoid acknowledging health problems until late in the game and thus are sometimes less likely to benefit from what help may be available.

Having a diathesis for one or another disorder is not freakish; it is the normal state. We all have individual differences, and thus we all have differential dispositions or vulnerabilities to get ill in different ways. Everyone is vulnerable to becoming ill with the flu, but when it comes to anxiety, we have more subtle diatheses - not everyone is equally succeptible to developing an anxiety disorder.

Transmission of Vulnerability

Diatheses for various mental illnesses (including Depression, Anxiety, Alcoholism and Schizophrenia) seem to run in families and to be inherited from generation to generation. Some of these temperamental diatheses are very likely genetic. Other diatheses are cultural and passed via parents and family teaching them to children in their care.

Schizophrenia offers a good example of how a diathesis can run in families but not develop into full blown psychosis in every case. There is almost certainly some sort of genetic disposition that creates a diathesis for schizophrenia that is biologically transmitted from one generation to another. However, being 'loaded up' with such a disposition or diathesis for schizophrenia doesn't mean that one will express it by becoming ill with schizophrenia. There are lessor forms of schizophrenia that can be expressed instead – such as the personality disorder forms of schizophrenia (Schizoid and Schizotypal personality disorders) where a 'break with reality' never quite occurs, but odd beliefs and/or odd social behavior may be observed. Still others who carry the disposition may never really express any signs of Schizophrenia, but may pass it on (as one does eye color) to their children.

Activation of Vulnerability

Stressors in the environment are thought to function as releasers of hidden diatheses. Drug use by people who have diatheses for schizophrenia is a good example. Drugs like Marijuana which for most people only produce a 'high' state, seem to cause a relative few other people to get pushed over an 'edge' into psychotic states. Here, the drug doesn't 'cause' psychosis, but rather seems to release a latent disposition for it in some vulnerable people. The same type of effect can happen when vulnerable people mess with drugs that alter the brain systems implicated in schizophrenia (e.g., dopamine and related systems and drugs that manipulate them like Cocaine and Amphetamine).


So this has been a short introduction to the power of biology to influence identity, personality and vulnerability to mental illness. As the biologically given side of personality, temperament is the basis for organismic self-valuing and (when combined with a hostile culture; identity foreclosure) (both terms described in last month's essay) in that it determines what people will hunger for. Temperament also seems to be a primary basis of vulnerability for (but not the cause of) a variety of disorders, mental and otherwise. Temperament is the platform on top of which personality and mental illness play out.

  • John

    I think the behavior of people is not born into them, it is learned in life. People learn from the experiences in their life. Even if people are born with "bad genes" if they are in good environments they tend to have no problems in life. Sometimes bad things happen, but generally the rule is you are what your environment makes you, you learn and become who you are from there.

  • Anonymous-1

    I very much liked the clear descriptions of much in your essay. The blending recognition of both nature and nurture was appropriate.

  • Anonymous-2

    This essay was very informative. Though I did not catch last month's essay about environment, I do believe that culture and environment plays a bigger part in a person's personality. This essay does clarify the significance of biology (genetics) to environment (culture). - Good Job Essayist

  • Jerry Flattum

    Let's assume you can prove I am who I am because of genetics. Now what? Am I blessed or cursed? Being blessed speaks for itself, but if I'm cursed--if I'm genetically inferior,so to speak--what tools do I have to change it? I have another angle on this: I came to MentalHelp.net with the hopes of understanding why people treat other people so badly? What makes people think they are better than others? What makes people selfish, greedy, cold and cruel? Is that genetic? And again, even if it is, how do you combat big egos (those who feel superior to you)? Email responses are welcome.

  • Anonymous-3

    Very interesting topic! My son, his father and my son's great grandfather all have/had the same anti-social temperament. While others in the family were much more mellow and outgoing - these 3 have had their struggles to control repetitive, impulsive, angry - violent behaviors, . My son's temperament began to show itself when he was 3-4 months of age - also showing an extraordinary physical strength unlike my older son (calm, cheerful) did at that age - as did his father and greatgrandfather. All 3 were characterised by the same mannerisms (walking, talking, body language,etc.) and thinking processes ending with same outcomes. My son was raised apart from his father, seeing him only on weekends with myself having sole custody thus more influence. Even though much of my son's behaviors and thought processing has been changed with, mildly put, "hard work" - it is still more first nature for him to use negative reactions/responses first(although more mellow then when he was a young child) and then concientiously choose to change his thinking and actions. My son was the only one of the 3 who received any ongoing successful treatment. Great grandfather passed on with his temperament raging. My son's father seems to be more mellow during mid- life but succumbing to mental illness holding onto his mindset. I would see this as more genetic than environmental or learned behaviors.

  • Mia

    When I was a baby I was predisposed to pout and frown at people from my hi-chair..was very shy...I have always had trouble with friendships, etc. and now can see the whole thing happening with my nephew.

  • Megan

    I agree that people's genetics make them who they are, maybe more then the environment, however they both play a major part. The important thing is to be knowledgeable about anxiety and depression and where it stems from. Knowing this information will better able you to recognize and treat it. I thought this was a very well written article. The information in the aricle was very accurate and clearly written.

  • Anonymous-4

    i disagree... Biology is a little part of it, but environment is a much bigger part!!!!

  • Anonymous-5

    I believe people are affected HUGELY by their environment which contributes to their state of mind. Example: when you go on vacation to a beautiful, clean, nicely decorated condo, with a beautiful view, pool, ocean, strangers that are all friendly and non-judgemental, and you don't have to perform.....get the point? or this: you just got a good report back and none of your recently pansies died... or this: your mother in law invites you over for Sunday dinner--you don't have to cook or clean up MY POINT: Control your environment and the people in it by being in as much positive condition as possible, which includes your bringing your own efforts to the situations and seeing them as good challenges. I, myself, am not going to be bad-terpered because I feel fat today--I will just have to go on that diet and stop using something else as a reason to carry around a negative outlook. What do ya'll think of this now? Let's vote on this: yay or nay

  • Johanna

    I believe physical strength and stamina can altered by disciplined repetition, therefore, should that not be true mentally as well? Haven't we seen first hand genetics predisposing a particular physical build--painfully thin,... snuggly rounded. It is the mental attitude encouraging the effort of endurance, our willful motivation towards gradual, disciplined change, superseding a defeatist attitude we are haplessly victimized by genetic sludge.

    How,with occasional clarity of self-awareness, is the (radically profound) realization we have been building our character and personality from infancy (and likely before birth...) to emotionally and physiologically choose the direction our lives will take. How we feel about our personal self worth-- our habitual choice of limitations and goals (like a daily exercise) is set by our learned, endlessly repeated internal dialogue directly reinforced by the reactions/observations/personal feedback from the dynamics of our interpersonal family relationships. Parents and family have snugly embedded these, they're later reinforced by peers and personal relationships. Are we reflecting/reinforcing signals and attitudes we recieve? Do we lead an inevitable journey to an absurdly routine morph into the parents, partners we admantly swore we'd never become?

    Why is a certain kid always picked on and teased?

    Why do some people seem to breeze through difficulties?

    Why are some personalities shunned and avoided?

    Labeled The Bitch/The Abuser/The Pariah?

    Why should it be easy to change a behavior typecast on you, seemingly defining the person you are? What a process of evolution it must require!

    I can only hope you knights of the p. medical field are dedicated to the patients' noble evolution in this daunting process.....