Becoming Who We Are

Temperament and Personality in Development

By Mary Klevjord Rothbart ’62 | June 1, 2012

An emerita distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, and the winner of the American Psychological Foundation’s 2009 Gold Medal Award for life achievement, Mary Klevjord Rothbart is considered by many to be the world’s foremost expert on temperament. In 1982, she introduced the Infant Behavior Questionnaire, based on parents’ reporting on their own children, which is now among the most widely used measures of infant temperament.

Rothbart encapsulates what she calls “the learning of a lifetime” in this treatise on inborn personality traits and how they persist, develop, or diminish in the face of varying parenting styles, social mores, and other life circumstances. As any observant parent knows, even newborns vary in how readily their emotions, motor activity, and attention are aroused (which Rothbart calls “reactivity”), and in how much control they exercise in dealing with this arousal (which Rothbart calls “self-regulation”). Rothbart describes these infantile temperamental differences as the building blocks of future personality traits such as conscientiousness, sensation seeking, agreeableness, openness to experience, and shyness.

Recent decades have seen a wealth of longitudinal studies of temperament from infancy to adulthood. Drawing on research from China, Australia, France, Greece, Japan, the U.S., and half a dozen other countries, Rothbart cites evidence that some traits show strong persistence over time, including extraversion and social inhibition. The ability to delay gratification at age  four (“you can have one cookie now, but if you wait, you can have two”) turns out to be highly predictive of future academic competence and adult goal-setting skills, regardless of intelligence.

Intended for researchers and students in clinical psychology, Becoming Who We Are deals forthrightly with the methodological challenges involved in charting human behavior, and also includes a brief survey of the neurological research into human and primate temperament. At the same time, it is sufficiently nontechnical to offer rich insights to any reader, but especially to parents and teachers. 

—Reviewed by Angie Jabine ’79

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