Culture & Temperament

Are temperament differences universal?

If temperament is biologically based, is it found in all cultures?

Temperamental differences in behavior are found in all cultures but individual differences in behavioral style may have different implications in environments other than our own. Researchers have been actively studying these differences for many years. One early report that indicated the profound importance of temperament in some circumstances was recorded by Dutch psychiatrist Maarten DeVries. He visited an area of Africa beset by drought and determined that the infants who survived the period of shortage tended to be the intense negative babies who screamed loudly for attention. The 'easy' quieter infants were more likely to perish.

In the New York Longitudinal Study children were considered 'difficult' if they were arrhythmic, withdrawing, nonadaptable, emotionally intense and negative in mood. But this American formulation may not fit every culture. Scientists Charles Super and Sara Harkness and colleagues have studied temperament in cultures around the world. Their findings suggest that goodness of fit occurs in every society and that successful individuals find a 'niche' where their temperament features are advantageous or promoted by their culture. Each society has values that it promotes over others; individuals whose temperament is consistent with these values are seen more positively than individuals whose traits are less consistent.

In a recent study Drs. Super & Harkness and colleagues examined temperament and behavior with 304 families in Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the US. They verified that eight of the nine NYLS characteristics could be reliably measured in each country, and that each characteristic had core set of behaviors recognized as such by parents in all sites. Adaptability and mood were nearly universally correlated with the judgments of 'difficult,' while the other six temperament traits showed greater variability from place to place in their contributions to 'difficulty.' The cultural variation was meaningfully related to other aspects of family life in the seven research sites, "underlining the importance of culture's role in regulating individual differences in development."