A Poodle’s not a Doberman, a Doberman’s not a Schnauzer and a Schnauzer’s not a Bassett Hound but all Poodles are quite similar to one another, just as all Dobermans, Schnauzers and Basset Hounds are very similar to other Dobermans, Schnauzers, and Basset Hounds. This may, at first, seem like a no-brainer thing to say but, as was mentioned in chapter two, many people believe that the way a dog behaves is primarily the result of how the dog is raised. If that were the case, a Poodle could be raised or taught to behave like a Bassett Hound or a Doberman but, as we all know, these breeds are completely distinct in their temperament and behavior as a result of their different DNA (most especially, their different inherited temperaments.)
By definition, temperament is the combination of inherited mental, physical and emotional traits that comprise an individual’s natural disposition.
An amazing study done from 1956 to 1988 by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess (an adorable married couple) made groundbreaking strides into the identification of the various components of the human temperament. The study, known as the New York Longitudinal Study, not only delineated the areas of behavior that constitute temperament but it demonstrated that these traits persist throughout an individual’s life. Thomas and Chess studied one hundred thirty-three children from infancy to adulthood for fifty years. They ultimately discovered that the temperaments of the people in their study could be divided into nine components or categories:
1. Activity level: Activity levels can be high, medium or low and refer to both physical and mental activity. Certain individuals are born with such high activity levels that they’re constantly busy (almost to the point of being frantic) in their pursuit of both mental and physical stimulation. At the other end of the spectrum are individuals who appear so calm and relaxed that they can seem indifferent or detached. The degree of activity that each of us exhibits from birth has a dramatic impact on how we’re perceived and it also greatly influences the paths that we select for ourselves throughout our lives.
2. Regularity or rhythmicity of bodily functions: This refers to whether an individual has predictable times of sleep, appetite and bowel movement or is a person that’s completely random and unpredictable in those areas. This is actually more significant than it might at first seem. For instance, if a person doesn’t need long or regular hours of sleep, that individual will be better suited for certain tasks or professions that don’t require a consistent amount of sleep each night.
3. Initial response to new people or situations: This involves an individual’s willingness to approach and explore in new situations or to otherwise be hesitant or reluctant with an inclination to withdraw. This trait identifies an individual’s ability to take risks and to be able to interact and socialize with others.
4. Adaptability: This has to do with the ease or the difficulty with which an individual adjusts to new situations. This ability or lack thereof determines an individual’s capacity to handle or cope with life’s challenging scenarios.
5. Intensity: This concerns an individual’s degree of response in both positive and negative situations: is the response calm and controlled or is it exaggerated and extreme?
6. Mood: This refers to the inherited tendency of a person to embody a positive outlook and to be generally content and happy or to instead have a negative perspective that predisposes the individual to be primarily sad or discontented. As hard as this may be to accept, it appears that we’re programmed by our DNA to be either happy or sad.
7. Distractibility: This has to do with an individual’s ability to either stay focused on a task in spite of distractions or to constantly get side-tracked whenever a distraction occurs.
8. Persistence and attention span: This involves the capacity of an individual to stay focused on a task for extended periods of time or to instead have a tendency to lose interest easily and to quickly become bored and frustrated.
9. Sensitivity: This identifies an individual’s response to their environment. Does a person have an exaggerated response or a mild or moderate response to various stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, crowded rooms, unusual textures or smell.
Thomas and Chess also found that, when all nine categories of temperament were taken into consideration, temperament could be broken down into three main groups:
Easy or flexible: These individuals are mostly positive, regular in their bodily functions and respond to external stimuli with a low to moderate level of intensity. There individuals adapt easily to new situations and are, for the most part, cheerful. They don’t tend to get upset when faced with new routines or people and they are quick to learn. In general, individuals with an easy temperament rarely cause problems. Thomas and Chess found that, of the individuals in their study, about 40% had an easy temperament.
Difficult, active or feisty: These individuals are much more intense in their responses to external stimuli and they get agitated easily, frequently becoming loud and disruptive. They are slow to adapt and may even withdraw when faced with new people or situations. They typically have a negative attitude and mood leading to frequent bouts of frustration and anger. This group made up about 10% of the individuals in the study.
Slow-to-warm-up or cautious: These individuals have low levels of activity and, as a consequence, they respond to new situations with hesitancy or withdrawal. They are slow to adapt and often are somewhat negative in their moods. These are the people that one frequently sees on the sidelines: they’re the wallflowers in a group situation. They are shy and quiet and they don’t often offer up their opinions. This group made up about 15% of the individuals in the study.
The remaining 35% of the individuals in the study exhibited a mixture of the three types of temperament.
It’s fascinating to think that whether we have a positive or negative outlook on life is a consequence of our genetics. Most of us have been told that we should be able to control whether we’re happy or sad and, consequently, we frequently blame ourselves if we’re not happy all the time. In truth, temperament is what dictates out individual mood. That’s why some people are miserable even when they have been given everything while some people are happy and optimistic even when life has repeatedly kicked them in the teeth. The truth is that it’s senseless to blame ourselves if we are individual that’s prone to being a bit sad or morose since that’s simply a reflection of the temperament that we were born with.
Every one of the nine aspects of temperament contains traits that are hardwired by our DNA. As a result, we aren’t going to be able to change or control these traits with a mere snap of our fingers. It doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to be a happier person or a more focused or relaxed person. For those of us who weren’t born to be particularly happy, focused or relaxed all the time, we need to be compassionate towards ourselves instead of being constantly critical.
As temperament is inherited, it’s part of the “nature” or internal aspect of ourselves while the environment in which we live (external forces) constitutes the “nurture” aspect of ourselves. External variables include socialization, socioeconomic status, training, education, family, and of course, all the other stressors that pop up in our lives each day like never ending whack-a-moles.
There’s an analogy that can be helpful when we try to wrap our minds around the intricate interplay of temperament (nature) and environment (nurture) and that’s looking at our lives as a landscape. The nature or genetic aspect of a landscape would include the type of soil present, the vegetation that would grow naturally, whether the terrain is flat or mountainous, if water is available (lakes or streams) and, finally, the type of climate that typically prevails (desert versus forest versus plains.) All these intrinsic characteristics are going to stay constant for the most part and, as such, they represent the nature aspect of the individual: the framework that was there from the start.
When external influences (nurture) begin impacting the original framework of a landscape (nature), those external forces can either be benign, beneficial or harmful. Staying with the landscape analogy, a benign or beneficial external force might involve the land being irrigated or fertilized for crop cultivation or the land being designated as a park or preserve. At the other extreme, a harmful or damaging external force might involve the land being razed for strip-mining or covered with concrete in preparation for a new shopping mall. Those kinds of changes would definitely have a negative impact on the original landscape. Clearly, there’s no doubt that nurture (everything external to us) can seriously impact nature (our inherited selves) for either better or for worse.
The landscape analogy above is a great one for examining the temperament of human beings because, similarly, the external factors in our lives can be either beneficial or harmful as concerns how they impact our individual temperaments. It’s been said that “nature is the canvas upon which nurture paints” though this statement isn’t precisely true when it comes to the temperament of human beings. Even though the temperament (the inherited and unchangeable part of ourselves) of a human being serves as the canvas upon which all kinds of external circumstances play out in our lives, temperament is not placid and passive like a canvas. Temperament is, in fact, an extremely powerful and dynamic force in and of itself that is capable of creating its own positive or negative impact on the environment!
There are countless times when a landscape (our inherited temperament) simply refuses to be manipulated by the external forces around it. A perfect example of this would be the desert. The desert, uncooperative and stubborn by nature, is not going to allow itself to be easily transformed into anything other than itself. Efforts to grow something that’s not native to the desert will typically be doomed to failure. Trying to manage the desert’s intense heat is nothing less than a nightmare while the endless sand that’s a part of every desert is one most difficult features of the desert to control as it persistently finds its way into our food, mouths, beds, and shoes.
It’s a mistake to minimize the influence of nature (DNA) as many temperaments are just as stubborn and unrelenting as the desert! Simply observe a parent or teacher trying to make a hyperactive child sit still or observe someone who’s terrified of crowds and loud noises try to sit through a circus or rock concert. Temperament is always going to affect our reality because temperament is a part of our genetics and, as such, it defines us and will always be an integral part of who we are.
It’s always difficult differentiating the impact that DNA has on our lives from the impact that our environment has on our lives. There are opinions on both sides of the nature versus nurture debate. Contrary to popular belief, there are studies that show that, when it comes to rearing our children, what we do as parents has less of an impact on how our children turn out than we might like to believe. One of the most dramatic of these studies was the Minnesota Twin Family Study that was discussed in the last chapter. The Minnesota Twin Family Study clearly demonstrates that the temperament, attitude and interests of identical twins raised apart were no different from those of identical twins raised together. In other words, temperament, attitude and interests (which together comprise a majority of our personality) are dictated by our DNA and, even having completely different parents and homes FAILED to change the fact that identical twins who were separated at birth still exhibited the very same temperament, attitude and interests that identical twins who were raised with the same parents and home.
In the January 2014 issue of Parents Magazine, Dr. Bryan Caplan, Ph.D. went so far as to state that, based on the studies of identical twins, “the long-term effect of parenting on children is, in fact, close to zero.” My first response like many of us who are parents was a disbelieving, “Are you kidding me?! How can that possibly be true?!” Not only is such a statement nearly impossible to swallow but such a statement completely goes against everything that we parents hold dear: that we have the ability to mold our children.
Though I’m definitely a believer in the importance of genetics, I would never go so far as to discount the influence of environment on a child’s development, much less say that we parents have zero influence on our children. Proof for this point of view can be found in a January 2015 National Geographic article titled “The First Year.” In this article, several different studies are sited as evidence for just how important it is for infants to receive an abundance of human interaction so that they can develop “normally.” The article referenced the infamous Romanian orphanages where, from the 1960s to the 1980s, thousands of infants and children experienced horrific neglect, receiving almost no attention other than to be fed and bathed. As a result of this neglect, these children were horribly stunted in almost every single aspect of their development, including language, emotional development and social and behavioral skills. Other studies in the National Geographic article illustrate that even the frequency with which a child is spoken to and the number of different words used makes a dramatic difference in the child’s IQ and performance in school.
Human development is a complex interplay of nurture and nature and neither one should be minimized. As was mentioned in previous chapters, it’s never going to be easy to appreciate the impact that DNA has on our lives because it’s not something we can see or experience. Environmental influence, on the other hand, includes everything we’ve ever experienced in our lives. Though the debate will continue on for decades to come, this book is simply an attempt to remind us that our DNA has much more of an impact on our temperament, attitude and interests than we might ever initially believe.
One place where where the influence of DNA on temperament and attitude can be seen on a daily basis is at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, a place where babies to teenagers experience the challenge of cancer and its treatment. My heart will always have an abiding reverence for the miracle of St. Jude’s and, in honor of what they do, I’ve been a monthly donor for more than forty years. As a donor, I receive monthly mailers that detail the struggles of individual children but it was the television specials that St. Jude used to air forty years ago that offered me the best insight into how different temperaments and attitudes impact the manner in which individual children handle their diagnosis and treatment. I can still vividly remember the story of one particular child named Holly. Holly was an unbelievably strong and resilient child and, as I watched the story of her life, I alternated between awe and devastation as she endured the ravages of her illness and its treatment. It wasn’t until the very end of the show that viewers were told that, despite Holly’s incredible bravery and strength, she hadn’t been able to survive her cancer.
The children of St. Jude’s are beyond brave in their struggle to live. They endure repetitive blood tests, x-rays, MRI’s, spinal taps, surgery, month long stays in a hospital bed, mouth sores, hair loss, vomiting from toxic but life-saving medications, blood transfusions, bone marrow transplants, weakness, fatigue: the list goes on and on and it’s impossible to wrap one’s mind around how they’re able do it at all.
What impacts the challenges of a child fighting cancer (beyond what’s there to begin with) is that child’s temperament, especially if they have a sensitive and fragile temperament. Having an overly sensitive temperament can make it that much more difficult for a child to cope when it comes to all the unfamiliar people, the constant pain, the months away from home and the exhausting demands of repetitive testing and treatment. Children with overly sensitive temperaments suffer to a greater degree than those who are not so sensitive. The misery that a child with a sensitive temperament experiences is not only hard on the child but it’s also hard on all the people who must care for them, including the child’s parents and family members who are completely powerless to help them. Temperament colors any experience we have and, depending on our temperament (easy, difficult or slow-to-warm-up), the result can be light and cheery or dark and depressing.
Fragility of temperament is also something that’s seen frequently in dogs. There are certain breeds that will cower and tremble even at the most ordinary of circumstances. Dogs with overly sensitive temperaments (a “difficult” or “slow-to-warm-up” temperament) will frequently panic whenever they’re left alone (even in the comfort of their own home!) These extremely sensitive dogs will chew and shred anything that they can get their mouths on in a desperate attempt to escape their aloneness. Other circumstances that will frequently push a sensitive dog over the edge are lightning and thunder and unfamiliar people or places (such as a visit to the veterinarian’s office!)
In contrast to these overly sensitive dogs, dogs with an easy temperament take life in stride no matter how loud, wild or crazy the environment becomes. Blessed with a happy-go-lucky attitude, these dogs simply roll over and yawn whenever a child decides to crawl all over them. They merely sigh as rubber bands and barrettes are affixed to their fur or they’re stylishly outfitted with various articles of clothing. A dog with an overly sensitive temperament couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be able to tolerate this kind of interaction and would either run and hide or growl and snap.
Since temperament dictates experience, a certain set of circumstances that might be devastating for one individual (human or dog) can be handled with ease by another. Temperament is as unchanging and inescapable as the desert is dry or the rainforest is wet. That’s why it’s pointless to blame ourselves for the content of our temperament. It’s no different than trying to blame ourselves for the color of our eyes. Neither is of our doing.
What’s important to remember is that blessings exist inside of every temperament.All of us tend to be critical of certain aspects of our temperament and whatever it is that we don’t like about ourselves is what forever grabs and holds our attention. But, for each trait that we hate about ourselves, it we only looks more closely, there’s a positive component to that trait that we’re overlooking. For example, people who despises their shyness may be completely overlooking the fact that being shy allows them to be incredibly good listeners. For people who feel that they’re too outgoing and too vocal, they’re often not aware of the fact that their gregariousness puts people at ease, especially those individuals who are shy and less forthcoming. What’s considered to be positive or negative is completely relative much of the time.
The path to peace lies in being able to accept who we are as a genetic being. Each of us is born with our own temperament, attitude and individual interests and these are dictated by our DNA. There’s nothing we can do to change who we are so we might as well try to see ourselves in a positive light: appreciating what we like about ourselves and trying to be as kind and compassionate about the things we don’t like about ourselves.
In the next chapter, we’ll discover how variation is to be expected in ourselves and in life in general as we explore the concept of a bell-shaped curve. We’ll also look at the process of genetic recombination which guarantees that each of us (except for identical twins) is as unique as a snowflake. Woof!