Temperament: Definition, Types, And Disorders

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Temperament generally refers to a person’s typical mood and how they approach the world. In the past, there were normally four major temperament types, including sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic, and choleric. Today, however, there are often thought to be many more types of temperaments. Characteristics often considered when looking at temperament can include activity, regularity, approach versus withdrawal, adaptability, persistence, intensity, distractibility, sensory threshold, and mood. Temperament can be thought of as the canvas on which the artwork of personality is painted. It may contribute to the development of various personality disorders. For professional help regarding concerns with temperament, you might consider trying online therapy with a licensed therapist.

What is temperament?

Concerned about your temperament?

Temperament” generally refers to a set of traits that have to do with your approach to the world around you. Temperament is an aspect of personality often concerned with emotional dispositions and reactions. It can be used to describe a person’s typical mood. According to the ancient Greeks, there may be four temperaments: choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic.

Some believe temperament is present from birth and may be indivisible from who you are. Others believe it is completely learned and can be shaped. Regardless of its source, temperament can influence and shape how a person lives and grows.

The original four temperaments

For a long time, it was thought that people generally fell into four different temperament categories. Philosophers, including Hippocrates, often postulated these distinctions over the years. However, in modern times, it’s typically believed that four temperaments may not be enough to describe the nuance and complexity present in human personality. 

Temperament traits today

A person's temperament can influence how they behave, especially in childhood. How a child is raised can certainly influence their behaviors, but everyone can also be born with natural traits and dispositions. Today, psychologists look at multiple aspects of temperament. These often include:


This normally measures how active someone is. When it comes to children, some constantly run around and seem to always be active. Meanwhile, other children can be more relaxed.


Regularity generally refers to how consistent someone is with biological functions. We may all know people who go to bed and get up around the same time every day. However, we may also know people who can be inconsistent with their schedules. Regularity can apply to appetite and other habits as well.

Approach versus withdrawal

Some people tend to be naturally talkative with strangers. Meanwhile, others may tend to be shy or avoid new people altogether. Aside from people, this temperament can also apply to other concepts, like traveling or trying new things. Some people may love trying new things, while others may prefer sticking to what they know.


Adaptability normally refers to how well someone can transition from something they know to something that is foreign to them. For example, an adaptable person may have less difficulty moving to a new place or adjusting to a breakup. Some people can easily adapt and handle change without much distress. Others may take longer to adjust and can potentially experience more stress because of it.


Concerned about your temperament?

Some people may be naturally persistent when it comes to pursuing their goals. No matter how many obstacles come their way or how many times they fail, they may decide to keep trying. Meanwhile, others may give up sooner. This second group of people might lose interest and move on to something new.


Intensity is generally how someone reacts to a situation. When faced with a positive or negative stimulus, does the person react calmly or aggressively? Some may react to big news or changes with barely a shrug. For others, the smallest variation in their day could produce a huge reaction.


Some people might be easily distracted. Other people may be able to maintain focus even if the activity at hand is not very interesting. Being able to shut down the distractions around you can be great for focus, but at the same time, you may need to make sure that you aren't letting the world pass you by.

Sensory threshold

The sensory threshold can be defined as the sensitivity one has to a stimulus. Some people, particularly children, may become bothered by loud noises, lights, textures in food, and other small details. Others, meanwhile, may not be bothered by any of these things.


A person’s mood can also be biological. Someone may frequently be in a sour mood or be happy and easy to please. The level of positivity one has can also be determined by biology to some extent. Someone may always look on the bright side of life, while others may look at things through a more pessimistic lens.

Temperament types according to Chess and Thomas

The psychologists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas created another theory on temperament. They believed the traits listed above could be combined to create three temperaments. With that said, these three categories may not apply exhaustively to the human race. They may only describe common patterns. Thomas’s and Chess’s temperaments generally include:

Easy or flexible

This temperament, which describes about 40% of children, can indicate that a person is flexible or easygoing. Children with an easy temperament may frequently have a positive mood and can usually adapt to different experiences. They may have a regular routine and can generally stay calm under pressure.

Active or feisty

This temperament, which applies to roughly 10% of children, can describe a child who is active or feisty. Children with a difficult temperament tend to view life negatively and can react accordingly. A difficult child may cry frequently, be inconsistent in their routine, or have a hard time adjusting to a new experience. When they are angered or upset, they may have a hard time calming down.

Slow to warm or cautious

The slow temperament, which can affect about 15% of children, may involve the child feeling as though they must be cautious when it comes to new experiences. They can take a bit of time to adjust. The child can be negative, but not entirely. They are usually calm in mood and tend to have low activity levels.

As mentioned before, not every child may fit into these categories neatly. Many of them may have aspects of all of the above. It should also be noted that temperament is not necessarily permanent. Even if your genes have favored one trait, you may be able to adjust your temperament and adapt. Professional help may be needed to accomplish this in some cases.

Temperament and personality disorders

You may have noticed that there can be similarities between personality and temperament. However, there can be some slight differences. Temperament usually describes traits that shape how a person approaches the world. Meanwhile, personality generally exists within the person and can be separate from temperament. It can help to think of temperament as the canvas and personality as the artwork that goes onto the canvas. Temperament can play a part in the development of personality and other disorders. A few examples of personality disorders can include borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

Getting professional help for issues with temperament

If you’re experiencing challenges related to your temperament, a licensed mental health professional can be a valuable resource. They may be able to offer insight and suggest various strategies for working through any issues you may be living with. While visiting a therapist in-person may be an option, you may also consider working with a mental health professional virtually through an online therapy platform. This is often more convenient, accessible, and affordable than traveling to a therapist’s office.

This study evaluated the efficacy of online therapy in comparison to the efficacy of traditional in-office therapy. It found that the effectiveness of each type of therapy was largely the same. This is often more convenient and affordable than traveling to a therapist's office.

Counselor reviews

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A person’s temperament can be thought of as the way they approach the world and their typical mood. Characteristics such as mood, sensory threshold, distractibility, and adaptability all factor into understanding a person's temperament.

Although temperament and personality are normally viewed as two separate concepts, it’s possible for a person’s temperament to affect their personality and potentially contribute to various personality disorders. If you’re experiencing challenges related to temperament, online therapy can be helpful.

Grow your understanding of your temperament
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