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An Untidy Science
Throughout much of the history of psychotherapy, clinicians have viewed temperament with a jaundiced eye. Until the 1960s, the best-known theorist on the topic was still Galen, the second-century Greek physician who famously hypothesized that four bodily fluids—or "humors"—determined our lifelong dispositions. Based on the dissection of animals rather than direct observation of the human body, Galen asserted that blood activated the human spirit, black bile depressed it, yellow bile incited it toward anger, and phlegm rendered it sluggish. Galen concluded that an excess of any of these fluids created, respectively, a sanguine, melancholic, choleric, or phlegmatic temperament.
Even though Galen's theory was discredited in the 1600s by the standard-bearers of the scientific revolution, it remained the most celebrated theory of temperament in the U.S. for centuries afterward, and still informs the widely utilized Myers-Briggs personality inventory. Nonetheless, for some therapists, the notion of "humors" sloshing about our innards to produce our fundamental stance toward life has tinged the whole concept of temperament with a kind of woo-woo, quixotic quality.
Carl Jung injected a more serious note into the discourse with his nuanced theory of introversion and extroversion, qualities he described as both innate and coexistent in each individual, though unevenly developed. But this intriguing new perspective, introduced in the 1920s, had scant chance to take root. By the end of World War II, a nation horrified by Hitler's atrocities—justified on the grounds of inherited characteristics—began to turn increasingly to environmental explanations for human behavior. The burgeoning family therapy movement was a natural fit for this emerging belief system, as were new, nurture-centered approaches to education, criminal justice rehabilitation, and other social programs. In the words of Temple University psychologist Jay Efran, a new era of "radical environmentalism" had been launched.
Not until the 1970s did the therapy field begin to take seriously the concept of innate predispositions. The wake-up call was sounded by New York psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, whose extensive studies of young children yielded nine distinct dimensions of childhood temperament—the tendency to approach or withdraw, adaptability to change and novelty, intensity of emotional expression, prevailing mood, distractibility level, frustration tolerance, sensory sensitivity, regularity of biological functions, and physical activity level. Analyzing these dimensions, Chess and Thomas grouped their young study subjects into one of three larger categories now familiar to most therapists: "easy," "difficult," and "slow to warm up." The researchers took pains to emphasize that each category encompassed perfectly normal variations in disposition, not continua of disorder. By unhooking biological proclivities from any notions of pathology or inferiority, Chess and Thomas took the first, critical steps toward legitimatizing the concept of temperament.