Summary Influence of Context Upon Temperament

Taken together, the evidence from these three lines of research clearly converges in the conclusion that at least some aspects of temperament are sensitive to contextual influences. This pattern of findings does not contradict conclusions about the essential biological nature of temperament, but does underline the fact that an understanding of individual variability in the development of temperament will require focusing on both the biology and the context of the child. This may be particularly true for those aspects of temperament that are likely to prove problematic for parents, such as negative emotionality or inhibition. Whether this reflects a greater sensitivity of these domains to contextual influences, or a greater effort by parents to change aspects of infant temperament that they regard as problematical, remains an unanswered question.

Given that environment can act to influence the characteristics and course of individual temperament, a fundamental question is the level at which environmental influences on temperament operate. Bates (1989) has proposed a conceptual scheme wherein temperament can be viewed as operating simultaneously on three levels: the behavioral, the neural, and the constitutional (e.g., genetics, hormones). While it would be easy to assume that environmental influences on temperament operate only on the behavioral level, such a conclusion is not necessarily warranted (Calkins & Fox, 1994).

Environmental factors have been shown to influence central nervous system development at the human level (Nelson & Bloom, 1997). Both human and infrahuman research have also extensively documented the impact of stress exposure to the operation of temperament-related neural-hormonal systems linked to individual differences in reactivity (Gunnar, 2000). In addition, environmental influences also can act to turn on or turn offspecific regulator genes that determine which structural genetic influences actually are operating (Plomin et al., 1997). This evidence suggests that it may be premature to conclude that environmental influences on temperament operate only at the behavioral level.

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