Rothbart’s Three Dimensions of Temperament

three young children

Temperament refers to the inherent traits that determine how individuals react to the environment. These traits are biologically based and observable from early childhood. Unlike personality, which can evolve over time influenced by various life experiences, temperament remains relatively stable and consistent.

Temperament qualities (such as neuroticism, sociability, impulsivity, etc.) are different patterns in behavior throughout a lifetime, but they are most visible and researched in children.

Psychologist Mary Rothbart made significant strides in understanding temperament dimensions through her extensive research and theoretical contributions. Rothbart identified three primary dimensions of temperament: Surgency/Extraversion, Negative Affectivity, and Effortful Control. She views temperaments as reactive dispositions that can be impacted by children’s environments.

Rothbart’s Dimension One: Surgency/Extraversion

Surgency/Extraversion, the first of Rothbart’s three dimensions of temperament, includes traits such as high activity level, impulsivity, and a tendency towards positive reactivity like smiling and laughter. Individuals scoring high in this dimension are typically sociable, enjoy new experiences, and seek out stimulation.

Activity level is a primary component and is reflected through frequent movement and engagement in activities. Traits of Surgency/Extraversion are observable in early childhood. Babies display this through behaviors like eagerness in new situations and vigorous motor activity.

Positive reactivity in this dimension is vital. It indicates a predisposition towards experiencing positive emotions, such as joy and excitement. Traits of Surgency/Extraversion have been extensively linked with constructs of personality development in later life, indicating their foundational role in individual differences.

Children aged 10 to 11 with higher levels of surgency/extraversion are more prone to acquire externalizing difficulties such as acting out, but less likely to develop internalizing problems such as shyness and low self-esteem.

Assessment of Activity Level

To evaluate activity level in infancy, several observational and self-report methods are used. Researchers often employ structured observational techniques, where infants’ reactions to stimuli are recorded. Common metrics include the frequency and intensity of movements.

Parental reports also serve as valuable tools. Questionnaires like Rothbart’s Infant Behavior Questionnaire ask parents to detail their infant’s typical responses in various contexts. These assessments help gauge how often and how energetically infants engage in activities.

Both methods aim to identify consistent patterns of behavior. Measuring activity levels in infancy is crucial as high activity levels often correlate with later traits of Surgency/Extraversion. Understanding these early behaviors provides insights into the developmental trajectories of personality.

Dimension Two: Negative Affectivity

Negative Affectivity includes a wide array of emotions, primarily negative ones. Anger, sadness, and fear are core components. These emotions can vary significantly in intensity and frequency among individuals.

It is also linked to responses to stress and frustration. Individuals high in this trait may exhibit stronger reactions to negative stimuli. Studies highlight that this dimension can be a predictor for conditions like anxiety and depression, providing insights into potential interventions.

Behavioral Correlates

Negative affect influences behaviors associated with different forms of psychopathology. For instance, it has strong connections to conduct disorder and other behavioral issues.

Anger and frustration is seen as early as 2 to 3 months of age. Children displaying high levels of this trait may show more aggression and oppositional behaviors.

It can manifest as difficulty in managing emotions, leading to outbursts and conflict. Understanding these patterns can help in developing effective behavioral interventions and support systems.

Research reveals that negative affect can also impact social interactions, affecting how individuals perceive and react to their environment. Behavioral monitoring and appropriate therapeutic approaches can mitigate some of these adverse effects.

Dimension Three: Effortful Control

Effortful control is characterized by attention concentrating and shifting, inhibitory control, perceptual sensitivity, and a low pleasure threshold. This aspect of temperament plays a crucial role in managing one’s emotions and behaviors through deliberate control processes.

Effortful control involves mechanisms that enable individuals to regulate their responses to external stimuli. It includes abilities such as attentional control, inhibitory control, and perceptual sensitivity.

  • Attentional Control: This is the capacity to focus and shift attention when needed, essential for tasks that require sustained concentration.
  • Inhibitory Control: Inhibitory control helps in suppressing inappropriate or impulsive responses, fostering deliberate and thoughtful actions.
  • Perceptual Sensitivity: It refers to the ability to detect subtle changes in the environment, which aids in making conscious decisions.

Development of Conscience

Effortful control develops over time, influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. One critical aspect is the emergence of conscience, which relates to moral understanding and the ability to discern right from wrong.

  • Parental Influence: Parental guidance and modeling significantly influence the development of conscience. Consistent discipline and nurturing relationships foster an environment conducive to moral growth.
  • Social Interactions: Interaction with peers and adults outside the family also shapes moral values. Positive reinforcement and observational learning from social contexts contribute to this development.
  • Cognitive Maturity: As children grow, their cognitive capacities expand, enabling more complex understanding of moral principles and enhanced effortful control capabilities. These elements help integrate control mechanisms with ethical values, forming a robust conscience.

Parental Influence on Temperament

Parenting style can greatly influence a child’s temperament. Authoritative parenting, which combines warmth and structure, tends to foster positive temperament traits like curiosity and emotional resilience. Parents who are consistently responsive and supportive can help children manage temperamental traits such as high reactivity or low attention span.

Conversely, authoritarian or permissive parenting can exacerbate negative temperamental traits. Strict, non-nurturing approaches may increase a child’s irritability and anxiety. Lack of structure or guidance can result in poor self-regulation and social difficulties.

Alice Schermerhorn and John Bates explored the intricate interactions that take place between children and parents as a result of both children’s temperament and parental behavior.  The most consistent data indicate that child negative reactivity and self-regulation both predict and are predicted by specific aspects of parenting behavior.

Goodness of Fit Concept

The “Goodness of Fit” concept, described by Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas in their pioneering temperament research, refers to how well a child’s temperament aligns with the parent’s parenting style and environment. Thomas and Chess, writing in 1999, said:

“goodness of fit results when the properties of the environment and its expectations and demands are in accord with the organism’s own capacities, characteristics, and style of behaving.”

In this view, a good fit can lead to harmonious parent-child relationships and optimal developmental outcomes. For example, a highly active child paired with parents who provide ample opportunities for physical activity tends to thrive.

In contrast, a poor fit can cause stress and conflict. Parents who fail to adapt to their child’s temperamental needs may inadvertently contribute to behavior problems. Recognizing and adjusting to the child’s temperament can mitigate these issues, fostering better psychological and emotional health.

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