Temperament 101

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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.

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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 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.

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