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Then, as he started to roll the 19th tape, he sat up straighter in his chair, watching as a baby girl reacted to the mere sight of the mobiles by arching her back, scrunching up her face in acute distress, and bawling her tiny lungs out. A few videos later, Kagan watched another infant lie completely relaxed and apparently content during the entire battery of sensory stimuli—not a peep, not a leg pump, not even a shadow of a frown.
Kagan knew he was onto something. These two babies exhibited behavior far outside the continuum of inhibited/uninhibited; they belonged in categories of their own. By the time he'd finished screening the 100 tapes, he'd seen a number of other babies who behaved like the two who'd first caught his attention. After expanding the study to more than 400 4-month-olds and getting similar results, he categorized the easily upset babies as "high-reactive" and the serene ones as "low-reactive."
Kagan and his team retested the children at ages 14 months, 21 months, 4 years, and 7 years, each time exposing them to unfamiliar or unexpected stimuli and observing their responses. At age 4, nearly half of the originally high-reactive infants remained notably timid, spending much of a play session huddling close to their mothers, while only 10 percent of the originally low-reactive infants hung back. When the kids returned at age 7, most of those who'd started life as high-reactives continued to be shyer than the low-reactives. They were also more prone to anxiety, worried about everything from monsters in the night to the possibility that a parent might die.
What do we make of these findings? They certainly suggest the staying power of infant temperament, at least through age 7. But they seem to equally demonstrate the sculpting power of a child's environment. After all, the fact that roughly half of the high-reactive group remained timid suggests that the other half had made some progress along the road to sociability. Kagan, who is now 79 and emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard, readily acknowledges the role of the environment—family, peers, culture, chance events—in shaping and stretching early temperament. "From the first, my granddaughter was very shy," he says, by way of example. "But one day, when she was six, I took her for a walk and she said, suddenly, ÔGrandpa, I'm going to walk ahead of you, so when I see people, I can't act shy.' Children know we live in a culture that doesn't reward timidity. Shy kids, especially, are always trying to move forward."