Individual differences

Children differ in their personality, character, or temperament. European psychologists have always emphasized these individual differences and adduced evidence that many were based on biologically determined ways of responding to the world. While the three-factor structure of personality developed by Eysenck evolved into the 'big five' structure of today, an issue remained as to how one could demonstrate continuity in personality from a very early age. The same issue bedevilled studies seeking to establish continuity in differences in intellectual functioning—simply put, little babies show such a different repertoire of behaviour from mobile talking preschool children that it was impossible to test the same behaviours at different ages.

In part, the problem was solved in the New York Longitudinal Study(16) by looking at differences in style of behaviour rather than differences in content or topography. By avoiding talking of biologically based personality, the findings reawakened interest in the genetics of individual differences. Through a mixture of observation and exhaustive interviews with mothers, they originally developed nine different categories of behavioural style or temperament ( Table 1).

Table 1 Temperamental characteristics

In the original sample of 78 babies, the investigators were able to demonstrate considerable individual differences in temperament. There was good inter-rater reliability in making these judgements, and direct observations agreed well with reports from parents. The temperamental characteristics were found to be stable over both the short (2-year) and medium term, and even predicted reasonably well into late childhood.

Three broad types of temperament were characterized: children who were regular, predictable, and showed generally positive reactions—the easy babies, those who were almost the opposite, whom Chess called the 'mother killers', and a sizeable minority who were 'slow to warm up' to new situations but who adjusted eventually. The difficult children were over-represented in those who developed behavioural problems in later childhood.

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