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The Temperamental ThreadReview - The Temperamental Thread
How Genes, Culture, Time and Luck make Us Who We Are
by Jerome Kagan
Dana Press, 2010
Review by Tibor Solymosi
Dec 14th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 50)

Jerome Kagan's The Temperamental Thread is a timely and provocative book. Kagan offers a careful examination of the latest research on temperament while setting it in a historical, cultural, and autobiographical context. Temperament is the in-born dispositional traits of a person that largely but not exclusively shape a person. It has been accounted for in various ways by various psychological and scientific schools. Kagan is impressively sensitive to the history of debate over the nature of temperament, especially since Freud's ideas gained a stronghold over the past century. Nevertheless, Kagan resists jargon where possible and never falls into a bald ideology -- though he is not averse to making poignant criticism. In critiquing the Freudian orthodoxy, Kagan draws on many studies across psychology, sociology, and neuroscience. His presentation of these findings, especially with the more esoteric terminology of neuroscience, is not only judicious but quite approachable for the layperson as well.

Chapter one introduces the main problem of the book through a historical review of professional psychological perspectives over the past half century on what determines a person's temperament. This review is framed through Kagan's own autobiographical development regarding the same question. At mid-century, Freud's influence was immense. Psychoanalysists held that a person's personality was determined primarily if not exclusively from the myriad experiences of childhood, often those having to do with parents or authorities -- and often the less-than-ideal behavior of those adults. When genetics emerged in full force after the discovery of DNA, the question of temperament was reconsidered in some circles as having a genetic basis. A number of studies in which Kagan himself was involved highlight some general traits across populations that strongly support a genetic basis for personal temperament. But this move from the nurturing of experience to the fixed nature of genetic biology is too simple an account, Kagan argues. Rather temperament has a basis in biology but is shaped or sculpted through experience. It is through this intersection, Kagan continues, that we can appreciate a relatively small set of different temperaments, despite the astronomically-large possibility of different temperaments given the factors involved from one's genome to one's personal history.

Chapter two examines how various temperaments react to unexpected events. Here the reader gets his/her first exposure to Kagan's general strategy of starting with the biological and neurological bases of temperament and moving through the plausible ways socio-cultural factors and activities can further influence temperamental development throughout an individual's life. Chapter three continues the examination of the intersection of the cultural with the biological, particularly as it informs the development of temperament from the initial biological tendencies that are then changed through social interactions and life experiences. Among the most significant social factors, Kagan argues, is the influence parents can have on their children's temperaments. This parental influence is largely a matter of parenting style, that is, how each parent treats a child in general to particular cases, such as teaching a lesson. But parenting style alone is insufficient to understand how an individual's temperament develops out of its initial biological dispositions. Kagan provides brief, plausible, and what many may find provocative, examples of further factors, including the naming of a person, family pedigree and social status, the impact of gender, ethnicity, community size, sibling order and rivalry, and one's particular historical and cultural context.

Chapters four and five investigate the gender/sex and ethnic factors involved in temperament in greater detail. While some may find Kagan's use of geographic or cultural stereotypes disconcerting, it deserves emphasis that part of Kagan's argument is that whatever traits are traditionally attributed to certain groups of people (or genders, for that matter) are not determined strictly by biology or by culture. Rather, it is their intersection that produces the wide cultural diversity we find emerging out of similar but importantly varied biological backgrounds. These differences are provocatively discussed in Kagan's comparison between Asian and European philosophies, the ways of life they produce, and the genotypic and phenotypic differences to which they at least correlate. This is well-illustrated in Kagan's observation that Asian-Americans who experience undesirable levels of anxiety require fewer drug-therapeutic intervention (i.e. less drugs) than their Euro-American counterparts.

Of all the chapters, chapter six is the most intriguing. Kagan addresses the growing obsession of standard psychiatry and psychology to find psychopathology across the board. The most prevalent is the significant increase in the diagnosis of attention-deficit, hyperactivity disorders. While Kagan does not deny much of the results of the scientific research behind our understanding of the mind/brain -- in fact he utilizes it to undermine the standard diagnostic orthodoxy -- he targets many of the preconceptions and prejudices of his colleagues and the medical profession and culture at large. Through this criticism and the thoughtful concluding chapter, Kagan illustrates the need for a new vocabulary for addressing temperament, from how to conceive of it and how to intervene with it to resolve social and individual problems. Through this illustration, he advances some suggestions on what this new vocabulary could be. However, he wisely exercises caution, for fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Temperamental Thread is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in how personality and temperament are shaped by both nature and nurture (though, to be sure, it is clear by the end of the book that such a dichotomy is no longer appropriate). While approachable from a layperson's perspective, Kagan's book is also full of fascinating and provocative research that even the professional should find intriguing if not enjoyable.


© 2010  Tibor Solymosi


Tibor Solymosi is a PhD candidate in the philosophy department at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His research focuses on the intersection of science, technology, and our self-conception. Email:



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