Character and Temperament

PTP4 Excerpts - Emotions



Temperament vs. Personality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .305
The Nine Temperament Traits. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .307
The Four Temperaments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .308  
     Historical Background . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 309    
     The Nine and the Four . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 310
The Four Temperaments and the Big Five . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .316
From Temperament to Character . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .321  
     Psychology as Self-help . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 322

     “The fundamental distinction we made in the preceding chapter between character and personality applies equally to temperament. Like personality, temperament refers to innate, biologically determined predispositions, while character refers to dispositional traits acquired through habitual, voluntary action. This means that, as with personality, we are not responsible for our temperament and hence cannot be held morally liable for it. Therefore, its conflation with character in the Big Book and the 12&12 notwithstanding, it cannot be the proper subject of our moral inventory in Step 4. 

     That said, temperament is worth our attention as we work that Step. For the same reasons we gave regarding personality, it needs to be taken into account as we take inventory. Though generally seen as a component of personality broadly speaking, temperament is a distinct concept, and though as in the case of the Big Five personality traits it also interacts with character, it does so in ways that are also distinct. Hence, understanding what temperament is and how this interaction occurs can add to the accuracy and the utility of our personal assessment. This is what we propose to explore here. 

Temperament vs. Personality

     We will start again with a standard dictionary definition of our subject. According to this, temperament refers to, A. A particular individual’s characteristic way of thinking, behaving, or reacting: a nervous temperament; B. According to medieval physiology, the physical and mental characteristics that distinguish a human being as determined by the relative proportion of the four humors.1 We will take each of these definitions in turn, beginning with the first, which reflects the current understanding of the concept. We will then proceed to the second, which references the original understanding, that of the Four Temperaments. 

     Notice that definition A introduces a new element that is absent from the definition of personality given in the previous chapter. This is the idea of “reacting.” This is accompanied by an example that suggests that, in some individuals, temperament may manifest itself in a “nervous” disposition, as in “a nervous temperament.” Standard synonyms for nervous are anxious, worried, edgy, jumpy, panicky, tense, and uneasy; standard antonyms, calm and relaxed. Unlike the wide range of individual differences which the Big Five identifies with personality, then, temperament describes a narrower range of differences more specifically related to predispositions which are of a reactive and affective nature. This emphasis is corroborated by our dictionary of psychology’s complementary definition, which refers to temperament as one aspect of a person’s make-up distinguished by inclinations toward specific patterns of mood shifts, emotional reactions, and sensitivity levels that result from stimulation.

     The dictionary makes a related observation which further helps to identify what is distinctive about temperament as a constituent part of personality. This is the tendency to view temperament as a genetic disposition because of observable differences among newly-born infants, particularly to certain stimuli, such as loud noises, bright lights, abrupt movements, touching, and physical contact.

     This tendency reflects the fact that, historically, temperament research has focused primarily on the earliest observable differences, which are among neonates. By contrast, personality research has focused on differences that emerge later in life (as with the B5). How the two are related remains an open question. On one widely shared view, temperament is considered the inborn form of human nature and personality the emergent form, with the latter developing in the subsequent interaction of temperament with environment. As one proponent of this view has it, temperament is a product of our genetic endowment. It both influences and is influenced by the life experience of each individual person, and one of its results is the adult personality. 

     On this scheme, temperament is primary, personality secondary, the one foundational, the other derivative. Exactly what constitutes environment and what is genetic, however, is subject to debate. For one thing, environmental influences can be very subtle (e.g., the different ways a mother may interact with her male and female infants). For another, they can start in utero (connected with the mother’s diet and other lifestyle choices, for instance). It follows from the latter that traits can be innate and inherited without being necessarily genetic. 

     Since the environment is nevertheless significantly more circumscribed in neonatal and early childhood than in later experience, its influence on temperament is proportionately more limited. Indeed, in contradistinction to the numerous types of environmental effects on personality we referenced earlier (familial, social, economic, cultural), in temperament the environment consists largely of sensory stimulation, and what defines it is mostly the child’s affective reaction to it. This would suggest an additional distinction, namely, that temperament plays more of a formative function in behavior, while personality plays more of an integrative one. 

. . .

From Temperament to Character

     We have discussed temperament and personality at some length. The reasons we have given for doing this need repeating. The first, we said, is to dispel any misunderstanding that might arise from the Big Book’s and the 12&12’s conflation of these two concepts with that of character, which is clearly the intended subject of Step 4. As we have shown, a searching and fearless moral inventory is not an assessment of our temperament or of our personality, since, by their own account, these are not moral concepts and as such do not lend themselves to a specifically moral assessment of our person, our emotions, and our actions. 

     The second reason is to clear up any confusion which might arise from our exposure to temperament and personality as alternative explanations for the patterns of human behavior and emotion which our inventory is designed to examine. The patterns distinctive of temperament and of personality are not equivalent to those distinctive of character, even if similar or identical terms are sometimes used to describe them. The former are the products of nature and nurture, the latter of choice. 

     The third reason is to show that, though different from character and not the proper subject of our inventory, our temperament and personality need to be taken into account in that inventory. They are the foundation upon which our character is built, making it commensurately easier or harder to practice vice or virtue, to do right or wrong, good or ill. As our discussion of some of their distinctive traits suggests, knowledge of our individual temperament and personality can help us get a better understanding of our native strengths and weaknesses, their relation to our defects of character, and their role in the correction of these defects. This doesn’t require that we subscribe to any particular taxonomy or model. We need only identify those traits that seem to describe our own natural tendencies to one degree or another. The tables in this and the previous chapter provide several lists which can help us do that.

     Knowledge of our temperament and personality traits would be a pointless academic exercise if we could not apply it in a practical way to foster those traits which are conducive to our wellbeing and mitigate those which are not. That, we have argued, is the fatal flaw with personality as an essentially reductive, biologically determined concept. It is also with that of temperament, which is similarly conceived. The descriptive models built on them only provide us with information. They do not tell us how we can use that information to change. They can’t, given that they are morally neutral and therefore agnostic on the questions of what constitutes the good and happy life, the kind of person we need to be to attain it, and how we can go about becoming that person. These, of course, are the central questions which the concepts of character and virtue address. They are the central questions in Step 4 and the rest of the Steps and the spiritual and moral principles underpinning them. 

. . .

     On the integrated view of the three concepts we have developed in this and the previous chapter, temperament, personality, and character represent at their most basic level three types of dispositions that consistently induce a person to see, care, think, feel, and act in certain established ways. Those that we are born with constitute our temperament, those that are consequently formed in the early stages of our development shape our personality, and those that are subsequently formed as the result of the moral choices we make in later stages create our character. These choices may be influenced in varying degrees by the other two sorts of dispositions, but they are not necessarily determined by them. 

. . .

     But in making a searching and fearless moral inventory we are not examining and trying to change our temperament or our personality. We are examining and trying to change our character, the deeply ingrained moral habits that governed our actions and our emotions and which brought so much harm to us and so many others. We are starting upon a process whose goal is a spiritual and a moral transformation that will extend through the rest of our recovery and, by the grace of God, change our lives and the lives of others for the better."

– From Part III: Character Defects, Chapter 15: Character and Temperament, pp. 305–306, 321–322, 327, 328

For more PTP4 Excerpts, please click on link.