Temperament: Definition, Types, And Disorders

Updated February 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In this post, we will look at temperament in the psychological context. What is it? What are the different types of temperament, and how can they relate to different problems we may face?

What Is Temperament?

Are You Worried About Your Temperament Or Someone Else’s?

“Temperament” refers to a set of traits that organize a your approach to the world around you. It's an aspect of personality concerned with emotional dispositions and reactions. Temperament is used to describe the prevailing or typical mood in a person. According to Ancient Greeks, there are four temperaments: choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic temperament.

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

The Original Four Temperaments

For a long time, it was thought people had four different temperaments that could describe them. Philosophers, including Hippocrates, have postulated these distinctions over the years. But it has been clear for some time that four temperaments just aren't accurate enough to describe the nuance and complexities in human personalities fully. People can't be accurately divided into just four types of temperament.

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 is also born with natural traits and dispositions. Today, psychologists look at multiple aspects of temperament. These are:


This measures how active someone is. When it comes to children, some may be constantly running around and always seem active. Meanwhile, other children might be more relaxed than others.


This is how consistent someone is with biological functions. We all might know people who go to bed and get up around the same time every day. However, we also know people who are perhaps inconsistent with how much they sleep and when they go to bed. Regularity can apply to appetite and other habits as well.

Approach Versus Withdrawal

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


As you've probably figured out, adaptability is how 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 lost relationship. Some people can easily adapt and can handle change without much distress. Others might take longer to adjust and may have more stress because of it.


Are You Worried About Your Temperament Or Someone Else’s?

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 onto something new.


This is 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 is not that interesting. Being able to shut down the distractions around you can be great for focusing. 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 is 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 those things.


The mood of a person can be biological as well. 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.

The Three Temperament Types

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 do not apply exhaustively to the human race. They only can describe common patterns. Thomas’ and Chess’ temperaments are:


This temperament, which describes about 40 percent of children, indicates a person can be flexible or easygoing. This may be when a child has a positive mood for the most part and can adapt to different experiences. They may have a routine and can generally stay calm during pressure.


This temperament, which applies to roughly 10 percent of children, can describe when a kid is active, feisty, or difficult to handle. This is when a child tends to view life negatively and can react as such. A difficult child may cry a lot, 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.


The slow temperament, which can affect about 15 percent 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 have low activity levels.

As mentioned before, not every child will fit into these categories neatly. Many of them may have all of the above. It should also be noted that temperament is not necessarily permanent. Even if your genes have favored one trait, you can always adjust your temperament and be able to adapt. One might, however, need professional help or training to accomplish this.

Temperament And Personality Disorders

You might have noticed that there can be a bit of similarity between 'personality' and ‘temperament.' But there are some slight differences. Temperament describes traits that shape how a person approaches the world. Personality exists within the person and is separate from temperament. It can help to think of temperament as the canvas and personality as the artwork that goes onto the canvas. It stands to reason that temperament can play a part in the development of personality and other disorders.


There are a few ways to categorize temperament, but ultimately we all have our own unique experiences, moods and ways of experiencing the world. 

There are cases in which people can develop mental illness involving their temperament. Or if someone you know develops a mental illness, you might notice their temperament shift.

If issues regarding temperament occur—either your own or that of others—you might want to consider online counseling. Over the past several years, research has shown that online therapy delivers the same results as in-person treatment.

If you are concerned with how your temperament has developed, don’t worry. Temperament can be changed, despite its deep roots. You can alter and shape your behaviors with help. If you're concerned about your temperament and its impact on your life, speaking with a licensed counselor can help you to learn important coping skills. A therapist can help you navigate patterns of situations in your life. They can help you realize how your temperament might shape how you think. You can sign up for online counseling by visiting BetterHelp to get connected with a therapist today. Read what others have to say about their experience with BetterHelp counselors below.

Counselor Review

“Tamara Nixon is the first therapist that I feel really took interest in me, on a deeper level. Other therapists I went to were focused mainly on my problems, but not at all on my personal interests and hobbies and I feel this is really important in them understanding my personality and my likes/dislikes. Also I appreciate that she is proactive and she sends me things to read and worksheets to work on. I really feel safe with telling her about my issues.”

“Joy noticed aspects of my personality right away, and suggested a task-based plan that had clear goals for each step. She helped me isolate topics and stay focused when things were stressful and jumbled up in my mind. Her handle on the BetterHelp website is incredible--she has worksheets and goal marks and is very communicative via the chat. She made me feel heard from even my daily journals. Her attentive care was firm and self-assured, which helped me feel like I am in control of my life again.”

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