Temperament is an ancient psychological concept which considers a persons natural dispositions. In the words of St Thomas temperament, “is the mixture of elements” of a persons body. The soul in turn experiences emotions in greater or less degree on account of the body.


One way to look at the classical understanding of temperament is as the intersection of two variables: 1) the degree of a persons reactivity to a situation and 2) the degree of retaining a particular reaction. Another way of saying this is 1) how strongly do you react to something and 2) how long do you entertain a particular emotion. This difference seen most clearly with the strong emotions of fear, anger, and sorrow. It is a common place that some people are angry for hours, days, and weeks after the event that made them mad, others get over it in a matter of minutes.

Classically four temperaments were identified: the Choleric, Melancholic, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic. Each of these referred to the bodily humour which was thought to predominate for a particular personality. Though we have refined the classical theory of bodily humours the same kind of influence they were said to exert on the person are now ascribed to the DNA and Chromosomes. Just as we have refined the biological description of the bodies composition so too contemporary psychologists have refined Temperament theory, but first the classical temperaments.

The two variables discerned in classical temperament theory is the degree, strong or weak, and duration, long or short, of a persons emotional reaction. The Choleric was said to react strongly and for a short time. The Melancholic weakly, to any individual event but for a long time,  therefore the melancholic tends to accumulate a deep reservoir of emotion. The Sanguine was said to react strongly but for a short time, often moving on quickly. The Phlegmatic reacts weakly and for a short period of time, making them amazingly stable people.

In contrast to the qualitative observations of the ancients two teams of contemporary psychologists, more than any others have labored to offer us quantitative insights into our understanding of temperament: the team of Thomas & Chess in the 1950’s, and Jerome Kagan’s team at Harvard for the past thirty years. Each of these teams conducted longitudinal studies, where the researchers checked in on infants, children, and teenagers over the course of several decades. The focus of each of these studies was on the correlation of specific infant behaviors and future academic and classroom success. Kagan’s work in particular has lead to a clear identification of specific chromosomal pairs with high and low reactivity, as well as a variety of other behaviors. Indeed Jerome Kagan has gone on to publish some of the most accessible and interesting books about psychology on the market, including The Human Spark.

How I use Temperament Theory

Temperament theory gives both the therapist and the client a baseline for emotional reactivity. Indeed it offers insight not only into the clients feelings and behaviors but also into those of them the client interacts with daily. It is easy to get lost in Temperament Theory, as evidenced by the fascination many have with their Briggs-Myers Personality type, which measures some of the variables associated with ones temperament. What is important to keep in mind is that ones temperament is a foundation upon which good habits are built, rather than an excuse for not engaging in the conscious construction of virtues.