helen_fisher's picture
Biological Anthropologist, Rutgers University; Author, Why Him? Why Her? How to Find and Keep Lasting Love
Temperament Dimensions

"I am large, I contain multitudes" wrote Walt Whitman. I have never met two people who were alike. I am an identical twin, and even we are not alike. Every individual has a distinct personality, a different cluster of thoughts and feelings that color all their actions. But there are patterns to personality: people express different styles of thinking and behaving — what psychologists call "temperament dimensions." I offer this concept of temperament dimensions as a useful new member of our cognitive tool kit.

Personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: those of "character;" and those of "temperament." Your character traits stem from your experiences. Your childhood games; your family's interests and values; how people in your community express love and hate; what relatives and friends regard as courteous or perilous; how those around you worship; what they sing; when they laugh; how they make a living and relax: innumerable cultural forces build your unique set of character traits. The balance of your personality is your temperament, all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. As Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, put it, "I am, plus my circumstances." Temperament is the "I am," the foundation of who you are.

Some 40% to 60% of the observed variance in personality is due to traits of temperament. They are heritable, relatively stable across the life course, and linked to specific gene pathways and/or hormone or neurotransmitter systems. Moreover,   our temperament traits congregate in constellations, each aggregation associated with one of four broad, interrelated yet distinct brain systems: those associated with dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen/oxytocin. Each constellation of temperament traits constitutes a distinct temperament dimension.

For example, specific alleles in the dopamine system have been linked with exploratory behavior, thrill, experience and adventure seeking, susceptibility to boredom and lack of inhibition. Enthusiasm has been coupled with variations in the dopamine system, as have lack of introspection, increased energy and motivation, physical and intellectual exploration, cognitive flexibility, curiosity, idea generation and verbal and non-linguistic creativity.  

The suite of traits associated with the serotonin system includes sociability, lower levels of anxiety, higher scores on scales of extroversion, and lower scores on a scale of "No Close Friends," as well as positive mood, religiosity, conformity, orderliness, conscientiousness, concrete thinking, self-control, sustained attention, low novelty seeking, and figural and numeric creativity.  

Heightened attention to detail, intensified focus, and narrow interests are some of the traits linked with prenatal testosterone expression. But testosterone activity is also associated with emotional containment, emotional flooding (particularly rage), social dominance and aggressiveness, less social sensitivity, and heightened spatial and mathematical acuity.  

Last, the constellation of traits associated with the estrogen and related oxytocin system include verbal fluency and other language skills, empathy, nurturing, the drive to make social attachments and other prosocial aptitudes, contextual thinking, imagination, and mental flexibility.  

We are each a different mix of these four broad temperament dimensions. But we do have distinct personalities  People are malleable, of course; but we are not blank slates upon which the environment inscribes personality. A curious child tends to remain curious, although what he or she is curious about changes with maturity. Stubborn people remain obstinate; orderly people remain punctilious; and agreeable men and women tend to remain amenable. 

We are capable of acting "out of character," but doing so is tiring. People are biologically inclined to think and act in specific patterns — temperament dimensions. But why would this concept of temperament dimensions be useful in our human cognitive tool kit? Because we are social creatures, and a deeper understanding of who we (and others) are can provide a valuable tool for understanding, pleasing, cajoling, reprimanding, rewarding and loving others — from friends and relatives to world leaders. It's also practical. 

Take hiring. Those expressive of the novelty-seeking temperament dimension are unlikely to do their best in a job requiring rigid routines and schedules. Biologically cautious individuals are not likely to be comfortable in high-risk posts. Decisive, tough minded high testosterone types are not well suited to work with those who can't get to the point and decide quickly. And those predominantly of the compassionate, nurturing high estrogen temperament dimension are not likely to excel at occupations that require them to be ruthless. 

Managers might form corporate boards containing all four broad types. Colleges might place freshman with roommates of a similar temperament, rather than similarity of background. Perhaps business teams, sports teams, political teams and teacher-student teams would operate more effectively if they were either more "like-minded" or more varied in their cognitive skills. And certainly we could communicate with our children, lovers, colleagues and friends more effectively. We are not puppets on a string of DNA. Those biologically susceptible to alcoholism, for example, often give up drinking. The more we come to understand our biology, the more we will appreciate how culture molds our biology.