Some to be more uninhibited. But all

Some personality traits are with us from birth.

In this lesson, we’ll examine what temperament is, what it can tell us about how a person is likely to turn out, and look at Jerome Kagan and Mary Rothbart’s theories about infant temperament.

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Kara has a baby girl, Tanya, and she loves to watch Tanya look around and explore the world. Kara can remember when Tanya’s older brother, Jim, was a baby, and she’s amazed at how differently Tanya and Jim react to the world around them.

For example, Jim was always a fussy baby. If a light shone in his eyes or he heard a loud noise, he would cry and fuss until Kara picked him up and comforted him. But if Tanya has a light in her eyes or hears a noise, she’ll wiggle around a little to see if she can find out what is causing the stimuli.Kara is observing her children’s temperament, or personality traits that are innate.

Innate traits are the ones that we are born with and have little or nothing to do with our environment. Think about Jim and Tanya: they are being raised by the same people in the same environment, so the differences in their personality are just part of who they are, which makes it part of their temperament.Because temperament is something that we’re born with, it can be measured in infants, like Tanya. Even though she can’t talk yet and hasn’t really developed what most people think of as a personality, she already has a temperament, which can give insights into what she might be like as she grows.Let’s look closer at two researchers in the area of temperament, Jerome Kagan and Mary Rothbart, and their findings on infant temperament.


Kara has noticed how different her children are from one another.

If a loud ambulance drives by the window with lights and sirens flashing, Tanya will calmly look over and try to see what all the fuss is about. But when Jim was a baby, an ambulance like that would make him so scared that he would cry and fuss until Kara could calm him down.Psychologist Jerome Kagan calls an infant’s level of response to stimuli reactivity. To help you remember reactivity, think of the word ‘react.’ An infant who cries and gets upset in response to stimuli, like Jim, has high reactivity. In contrast, a baby who stays relaxed in response to stimuli, like Tanya, has low reactivity.

Kagan noticed that babies vary in their reactivity from a very early age. Even infants only a few hours or days old seem to have a preset level of reactivity as part of their temperament. In other words, Tanya has low reactivity because that’s just who she is and who she’s always been.Kagan also noticed that reactivity in infants is related to their personality when they are older. A baby, like Jim, who is highly reactive as an infant, is likely to be inhibited, or scared of new things and situations, as an adult. In contrast, a baby, like Tanya, who has low reactivity as an infant, is likely to be uninhibited, or open to novelty and secure in new situations, as an adult.

Of course, things can happen to change that; a baby who has low reactivity could have a traumatic event occur to them that leads to their being inhibited in adulthood, and a baby who is highly reactive can be nurtured to be more uninhibited. But all things being equal, Tanya is likely to be less inhibited as an adult than Jim is.

Rothbart’s Three Factors

Jerome Kagan isn’t the only psychologist who has studied temperament in infants. Psychologist Mary Rothbart has identified three factors that she thinks make up most infant’s temperaments.1.

Surgency, or extraversionThis is the extent to which a baby will seek stimulation. For example, Tanya loves stimulation: flashing lights, music or noise, new and exciting things. All of these make her very happy. She is very high in surgency.Jim, though, was never that way.

He was content to stare up at the ceiling for hours on end and didn’t really seek out stimulation. He was low in surgency.Rothbart has found that surgency is linked to the types of issues that kids will have when they are older. Those high in surgency, like Tanya, are likely to act out and have behavioral issues. Those low in surgency, like Jim, on the other hand, are likely to have internalized issues, like low self-esteem.

2. Negative affectAffect is the psychological term for feelings, so negative affect is simply negative feelings, like fear, sadness, and anger. Negative affect is often seen as how easily a child can be calmed.For example, Tanya doesn’t get upset easily, and when she does, holding her or speaking to her in a soothing tone calms her down within a minute or two. But Jim always took a long time to calm down when he was upset.The way older kids feel is sometimes linked to the type of negative affect they have in infancy. For example, infants who experience frustration often end up with anger issues later in life, and infants who are timid and fearful often end up with anxiety issues.

3. Effortful controlThis is the degree to which the infant can focus his or her attention or make plans. For example, Jim wasn’t ever good at focusing his attention on something, and he was always being distracted by things going on around him.Tanya, though, has no trouble tuning things out to focus on what she wants to focus on. She’s much higher in effortful control than Jim is. Not surprisingly, Rothbart has found that infants high in effortful control, like Tanya, end up with more self-control when they are older.

Lesson Summary

Temperament is personality traits that are innate. Psychologist Jerome Kagan has studied infant reactivity and its relationship with adult inhibition. Meanwhile, psychologist Mary Rothbart has identified three temperament factors that can predict what an infant will be like later in life: surgency or extraversion, negative affect and effortful control.

Learning Outcomes

Once you have completed this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain why a person’s temperament can be studied during infancy
  • Discuss how infant reactivity is related to the level of inhibition later in life
  • Recall and define Rothbart’s three factors of infant temperament

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