A Poodle is not a Doberman, a Doberman is not a Schnauzer and a Schnauzer is not a Bassett Hound yet all Poodles are very similar to other Poodles, just as all Dobermans, Schnauzers and Basset Hounds are very similar to other Dobermans, Schnauzers, and Basset Hounds. This may seem like a no-brainer thing to say but, as was discussed in chapter two, an amazing number of people believe that a dog’s personality and behavior are solely the result of how a particular dog is raised. If that were the case, it’d be possible to raise or train a Poodle to behave like a Bassett Hound or a Doberman. Yet, as a result of their different DNA, these breeds are completely different in their temperaments.
Temperament, by definition, is the combination of inherited mental, physical and emotional traits that comprise an individual’s natural disposition.
An amazing study that was conducted from 1956 to 1988 by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess (an adorable married couple) made groundbreaking strides into 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, hence, are hereditary in nature. Thomas and Chess studied one hundred thirty-three children from infancy to adulthood for fifty years discovering that the temperaments of the individuals in their study could be divided into nine components or categories:
1. Activity level: Activity levels in different temperaments 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 temperamental feature 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 due to the fact that, if a person doesn’t need long or regular hours of sleep, that individual can undertake certain tasks or professions that don’t require a consistent amount of sleep each night.
3. Initial response to new people or situations: This component of temperament concerns an individual’s willingness to approach and explore in new situations or to otherwise be hesitant or reluctant with, instead, 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 temperamental component involves the ease or 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 aspect of temperament concerns the magnitude of individual’s response in both positive and negative situations. In other words, is the individual’s response calm and controlled or is it exaggerated and extreme?
6. Mood: This temperamental component refers to the inherited tendency of a person to embody a positive outlook and to therefore be content and happy for the most part or, instead, to possess a negative perspective that predisposes the individual to be primarily sad, frustrated and discontented. As hard as this may be to accept, DNA plays a pivotal role in whether we are inherently happy or sad throughout our lives.
7. Distractibility: This aspect of temperament concerns an individual’s ability to stay focused on a task in spite of distractions or to be constantly side-tracked whenever some kind of distraction occurs.
8. Persistence and attention span: This temperamental feature involves the capacity of an individual to stay focused on a task for extended periods of time or to have, instead, a tendency to lose interest easily or to quickly become bored and frustrated.
9. Sensitivity: This component of temperament concerns an individual’s sensitivity and response to their environment. In other words, what kind of response does a particular individual exhibit to various stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, crowded rooms, unusual textures or smell? Is that response exaggerated, moderate or mild?
Thomas and Chess discovered that, when all nine categories of temperament are 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 easily adapt to new situations and are, for the most part, cheerful. Individuals with easy temperaments don’t tend to get upset when they’re faced with new people or routines and they are quick to learn. In general, individuals with an easy temperament rarely cause problems. Thomas and Chess found that, as concerned the individuals in their study, approximately 40% of the individuals had an easy temperament.
Difficult, active or feisty: These individuals are much more intense in their responses to external stimuli and they’re easily agitated, frequently becoming loud and disruptive. Individuals with a difficult temperament are typically slow to adapt and may actually withdraw when they’re faced with new people and situations. These individuals tend to have a negative attitude and mood which leads to frequent bouts of frustration and anger. Difficult temperaments made up approximately 10% of the individuals in the New York Longitudinal 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 tendency to withdraw. They are extremely slow to adapt and are often possess a negative mood. Individuals with a slow-to-warm-up temperament are typically stand on the sidelines and are often the wallflowers in a group situation. They tend to be shy and quiet and rarely often offer up their opinions. Slow-to-warm-up temperaments made up approximately 15% of the individuals in the study.
The remaining 35% of the individuals in the study were a mixture of the three different types of temperament.
It’s fascinating to discover that, whether we’re prone to a positive or negative mood, is a consequence of our DNA. Most of us have been taught that we should be able to control our moods and if we can’t control our mood, then there’s something wrong with us and we are to blame for not being happy all the time. This is such an unrealistic expectation for any human being. Even if we have an easy temperament and we’re predisposed to being mostly in a good mood, there are all kinds of forces bearing down on us in our struggle to survive, reproduce and build a familial unit and finally, to find purpose and meaning in our lives. All of those drives put stress and pressure on us that inevitably create fear, frustration, anxiety, sadness and hopelessness. There’s a lot to contend with in life that we are rarely consciously aware of because our drives to survive, reproduce and find meaning are mostly below the surface of our conscious awareness. On top of all those underlying drives and forces that motivate our behavior, we have our individual temperaments which dictate the nine components listed above. The temperament we’re born with is the temperament we’ll have until we die. We can try to modify it and deal with it but the temperament we were born with is simply a part of us.
The fact that our DNA dictates our temperament and our general mood makes sense if we think about the people in the world who are persistently unhappy no matter how much life seems to bless them. At the other extreme are the people we’ve known or have heard of who are persistently happy and optimistic even when life has repeatedly kicked them in the teeth. If we can find a way to accept that our moods are controlled by our DNA, we can hopefully quit blaming ourselves when we’re not constantly happy. Since mood is an inherited trait, it’s not something that we can simply change or control with the snap of our fingers.
Though each one of the nine components of temperament are hardwired by our DNA, it doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to be a happier person or a more focused or relaxed person if we work hard at it. Yet, it must be understood that, no matter how hard we may try to change who we are, it won’t be easy and it may be impossible the over all essence of who we are due to the influence of our DNA. For those of us who were born with a melancholy mood, an easily frustrated temperament, a tendency to be overwhelmed by environmental stimuli or who lacks the ability to stay focused when distracted, it’s important that we accept ourselves for who we are and try to cultivate some compassion and empathy towards ourselves (of anyone else who struggles with temperamental challenges.) We shouldn’t blame ourselves or anyone else for being born to be the person we were born to be. We all simply have to do our best to handle what we’ve been given by our DNA.
Since temperament is dictated by DNA, it’s been referred to as being the “nature” part of ourselves and includes all those characteristics that were inherited by our DNA. The external or outside forces that influence us are called the “nurture” part of ourselves. Environmental variables include everything outside of what we inherited from our DNA such as our socialization, our socioeconomic status, any education we receive, our families, etc.
An analogy that can help us to wrap our minds around the intricate interplay of our genetic selves (nature) and the environmental forces (nurture) that affect our lives from the moment we are born is the analogy of seeing our lives as a landscape. The nature or genetic component of a landscape would include the type of soil present, the vegetation that would grow naturally in that landscape, the terrain (whether it’s flat or mountainous), how much water is available (rain, lakes, streams), the climate that typically prevails (desert versus forest versus plains), etc. All these inherent characteristics of the landscape remain constant and, in our analogy, they represent the nature or genetic component of ourselves, our internal landscape present from the day we were born.
When external forces (nurture) impact the original characteristics (nature) of any landscape, those external forces can either be benign, beneficial or harmful. Staying with the landscape analogy, a benign external force could involve the landscape being designated as a park or preserve. For the most part, that will leave the landscape unchanged. A potentially beneficial external force might involve the landscape being irrigated or fertilized for crop cultivation. This will certainly alter the landscape but it wouldn’t be necessarily destructive. At the other extreme, a harmful or damaging external force could involve the land being razed for strip-mining or covered with concrete in preparation for a shopping mall. That kind of dramatic change would clearly produce a negative impact on the original landscape. As these examples demonstrate, there’s no doubt that nurture (everything external to ourselves) can dramatically impact nature (our genetic selves) in either a benign. positive or negative fashion.
The landscape analogy is a wonderful format for evaluating how our genetic selves (nature) are impacted by the external forces in our lives (nurture.) It’s been said that “nature is the canvas upon which nurture paints” though this statement doesn’t tell the whole story as concerns the interplay of nature and nurture in human beings. Though the genetic components of ourselves may serve as a canvas for the external forces in our lives, our genetic selves are not in any way as placid and passive as a canvas. Our genetic selves are, in truth, quite powerful and are capable of causing their own positive or negative impact on our environment.
There are countless times when a landscape (our genetic selves) simply refuses to be manipulated by the external forces around it. A perfect example of a landscape with this capacity is the desert. The desert, uncooperative and unyielding, is never going to allow itself to be easily manipulated into anything other than itself. Efforts to grow something that’s not native to the desert are typically doomed to failure. Trying to manage the desert’s intense heat is always a nightmare while the endless sand that’s an intrinsic part of every desert is one most impossible features to control as it will continually find its way into our food, mouths, beds, and shoes.
Though it’s constantly done, it’s a monumental mistake to minimize the power and persistence of our DNA as it’s just as stubborn and unrelenting as the environmental forces around us! Simply observe a parent or teacher trying to make a hyperactive child sit still or try and watch someone who’s terrified of crowds and loud noises being forced to sit through a circus or a rock concert. Our individual temperaments can’t help but impact our reality because they’re a part of our genetic make-up and, as such, an integral part of who we are.
There’s still an ongoing debate as to how much we’re impacted by DNA as compared to environmental influences. Yet, as science continues to unfold just how intricate and influential our DNA is on who we are as individuals, genetics is finally getting the respect it deserves. As hard as it is to believe (much less accept), there are many studies that demonstrate that, when it comes to how our children grow into adults, what we do as parents has much less of an impact than we’d been led to believe. One of the most dramatic of these studies is the Minnesota Twin Family Study that was discussed in the last chapter. The Minnesota Twin Family Study demonstrated unquestionably that the temperament, attitude and interests of identical twins raised apart were no different than those of identical twins raised together. Despite the fact that these identical twins had completely different parents and homes, that FAILED to keep the twins from having the same temperament, attitude and interests as the identical twins who were raised by the same parents and in the same home. In other words, temperament, attitude and interests (which comprise a majority of our personality) are dictated by DNA and not environment.
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.” The first response that many of us would have would be an astounding, “Are you kidding me?! How could that even remotely be true?!” Not only is such a statement nearly impossible to swallow but it goes against everything that we as parents hold dear: that we have the capacity 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 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 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 for us to appreciate the impact that DNA has on our lives because it’s not something that we can see or experience. Environmental influence, on the other hand, includes everything we’ve ever experienced in our lives and those moments Though the debate as to which influences us the most, nature or nurture, will probably continue on for decades, this book is a reminder that our DNA has much more of an influence on our temperament, attitude and interests than we’ve ever imagined in the past.
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 some of children and families that have received help from St Jude. But, I’ll never forget the television specials St. Jude used to air forty years ago that really highlighted how different temperaments and attitudes impacted the way in which certain children handled their diagnosis and treatment. To this day, I can still vividly remember the story of one particular child named Holly. Holly was an incredibly strong and resilient child. As the story of her life played out on the TV, I alternated between feelings of awe and devastation as I watched Holly endure the ravages of her illness and its treatment. It wasn’t until the very end of the show that we were informed that, despite the incredible battle that Holly had fought, she hadn’t been able to survive her cancer.
The children of St. Jude’s are beyond brave in their struggle to survive. 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 simply not possible for those of us who have never seen what goes on to be able to wrap our minds around the Hell these children endure.
Impacting a child’s ability to endure this heartbreaking struggle to survive is the child’s temperament. This is especially true if a child happens to have a sensitive and fragile temperament. Having a sensitive and fragile temperament makes it so much more difficult for a child with cancer to cope when the child must deal with so many unfamiliar people, the constant poking and prodding, the months away from home and the exhausting consequences of feeling sick all the time. A child with an extremely sensitive temperament will suffer to a much greater degree than a child who isn’t as sensitive. The misery that a child with a sensitive temperament experiences is not only hard on the child but it’s excruciating for the people who must care for them, including most importantly the child’s parents and family members who are often powerless to comfort them. Temperament colors every 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 oppressive.
Fragility of temperament is also something that’s seen in dogs. There are certain breeds of dog that will cower and tremble at the most ordinary of circumstances. A dog with an overly sensitive temperament (a difficult or slow-to-warm-up temperament) will often panic whenever they’re left alone (even in the comfort of their own home), chewing and shredding anything they can in a desperate attempt to escape their aloneness. Other situations that can push a sensitive dog over the edge are lightning and thunder, unfamiliar people or places, even the sound of a vacuum cleaner, blender or doorbell.
In contrast to these fragile and sensitive dogs, those dogs that possess an “easy” temperament tend to take life in stride no matter how loud, wild or crazy the environment becomes. These dogs simply roll over and yawn whenever a child decides to crawl all over them, affixing rubber bands and barrettes to the dog’s fur or stylishly outfitting the dog with various articles of clothing. A dog with a sensitive temperament wouldn’t be able to tolerate this kind of treatment and would either run and hide or growl and snap.
Since temperament influences our experience, circumstances that might devastate one individual (dog or human) could be handled with ease by another. Temperament is as unchanging and inescapable as the desert is dry and the rainforest is wet. That’s why it’s pointless to blame ourselves for the nature of our temperament. It’d be no different than blaming ourselves for the color of our eyes or blaming a Chihuahua for not being a Golden Retriever. We are who we are as a result of our DNA.
What’s absolutely critical to remember is that there are blessings inside of every temperament. All of us have a tendency to be critical about certain aspects of ourselves that we absolutely hate. These traits have grabbed our disdain and they refuse to let go. Yet, if we could only look at the traits we hate about ourselves through different eyes, we’d see that there are actually positive aspects to those traits. For example, people who despise the fact that they are shy completely overlook the fact that being shy allows them to be incredibly good listeners. For people who worry that they’re too outgoing and too vocal are rarely aware of the fact that their gregariousness puts other people at ease, especially people who are shy and less forthcoming. What’s considered to be positive or negative is entirely relative, completely a matter of one’s point of view.
The path to peace lies in being able to accept who we are as genetic beings. Each of us is born with our own special temperament, attitude and interests. As there’s nothing that any of us can do to change who we are, we might as work at seeing ourselves in a different light, a more positive light. The path to peace is in being able to own and acknowledge the traits we like about ourselves and, just as importantly, look for what’s positive in what we don’t like about ourselves. Just as we forgive our dogs all their shortcomings, we should do the same for ourselves and others. We deserve as much compassion and forgiveness as our dogs do!
In the next chapter, we’ll discuss how variation is normal and is to be expected in in life (which includes ourselves and others.) We’ll discover how this variation is demonstrated in a very enlightening concept called a bell-shaped curve. We’ll also see how the process of genetic recombination guarantees that each of us (excluding identical twins) is fantastically unique. Woof!