Measures of Temperament

Download PDF

The most commonly accepted measures of temperament stem from work done in the early 1950s by a group of researchers led by Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and Herbert Birch which focused on those traits which were easily observable, measurable, and could be tested in early childhood. According to the Thomas-Chess schema, there are nine different temperament characteristics:

Activity level

On one end of the spectrum, some people seem to be constantly moving, always staying busy while others on the other end of the range are more sedentary and prefer quiet activities. Do you learn by doing, experiencing? Do you prefer moving slower with more certainty?


A measure of the degree of concentration when one is not particularly focused on an activity. The more distractible a person is, the more likely that their activity will be interrupted by an external stimulus. For example, some people watching a television program are aware of everything going on in the room around them; others are so concentrated on the sound and sights of the story that it is difficult to get their attention.


The energy level of a response whether positive or negative. Some people react loudly and dramatically, whether they are happy or disappointed. Others withdraw and get quiet. While intensity can be exhausting, it is also an effective way of getting one’s needs met as evidenced by the old adage, “The squeaky wheel get greased.”


Also known as rhythmicity, this is a gauge of the regularity of biological functions like appetite and sleep. Some people prefer a constantly repeating pattern of meal times, for example, while others constantly vary meals and sleep times.

Sensory Threshold

A measure of sensitivity to external stimuli like sounds, tastes, touch, or temperature changes that is sometimes referred to as threshold of responsiveness. Do you startle easily, for example? Are you a picky eater? Do you prefer one kind of music to another? Are you aware of others’ feelings? Do you sometimes miss social cues or nuances from those around you? Your preferences are indicators of your sensitivity and acceptance of changes in your environment.


Initially titled initial reaction, this is a measure of how we approach new situations, enthusiastically or cautiously. Are you impulsive or more inclined to think before you act?


A measure of your reaction to change. Do you prefer routine or innovation? Does it seem to take you longer to adapt to new circumstances than other people? Are you ready for new challenges and enjoy being in new environments with different rules?


How much time are you willing to spend on a task before quitting in frustration? How long is your attention span? Do you keep going when asked to stop? Can you wait for a payoff when necessary? Do people call you stubborn?


How do you generally view the world, positively or negatively? Do you see a glass as half full or half empty? Are you generally a “serious”, thoughtful person, or more impetuous and fun-loving?
Since the early research, psychological scientists have continued to probe and redefine elements of temperament to better understand its effect upon personality and to help parents better understand how temperament can affect a child’s behavior. It is generally accepted that if parents work within the temperamental constraints of their child, the child might better understand themselves and reduce conflicts between persons of different temperaments.
Temperament is to personality as a foundation is to a house. Research tells us that genetic makeups make conclusions about tendencies, not destinies. Our actions and reactions to our environment determine where we go in life – we are not limited by our parents, but by ourselves. My brother and I, though coming from the same gene pool, made decisions which affected our lives and outlooks differently and set each of us on a unique path. It is important to remember that you control your own future and will make the life you live in the future by the decisions you make today and tomorrow.
Return to Main Article